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This deeply affecting novel was first published anonymously in 1929 with a print run of just 600. Describing the Battle of the Somme from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier, it gained instant notoriety for its blunt language and graphic depiction of war. An expurgated version entitled Her Privates We was released a year later, and it was only in 1977 that The Middle Parts of Fortune was republished in the powerful original form used for this Folio edition.
Frederic Manning, an Australian who served on the Somme and in Flanders, said of his book: ‘the events described in it actually happened; the characters are fictitious’. Opening with a brutal offensive, it focuses on a group of soldiers as they wait, away from the front line, for the second, devastating battle with which the book ends. Their experience is distilled through the reflections of Private Bourne. Educated but unambitious, fond of his comrades but viewing himself as something of an outsider, Bourne is frank in his observations and free of illusions about the nature of war. It is this honest quality that led Ernest Hemingway to say of the novel, 'I read it over once each year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them.' Introducer David Malouf, the acclaimed Australian author, notes that, while Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen saw the war in terms of politics and ‘criminal folly’, Manning's view was existential. For Bourne, war is 'the ultimate problem of all human life stated barely', and it is in this light that the novel explores the paradoxes of the soldiers' condition. They are without patriotic zeal, yet show great loyalty to one another. They fill gaps between battles with the expletive-ridden pursuit of food, drink and sex, but can be sensitive and tender. They are resentful and angry – 'mere derelicts', Bourne reflects – but still possess a brutish dignity. In showing what Bourne calls 'the desolation and hopelessness of that lunatic world', The Middle Parts of Fortune also points to an innate human integrity that can survive the privations and horrors of battle. Eri Griffin has created a series of ink illustrations that evoke the contrasting sleeplessness, idleness and frenzied action of life at the front.