Lice, or La Main Coupée

Now, I don’t usually do this, in fact I don’t think I have ever done so before, but I am going to recommend a read for you.  Until last week, this little book had resided for decades, unread, in a dark recess of the library – possibly because I really am fickle enough to not wish to read a book with a cover depicting a helmeted soldier when the contents all take place before helmets were introduced (and don’t get me started on films that make the same error), or maybe because Lice is a stupid name for a book, or maybe because it is a translation, I really don’t know.  The author, later to become a naturalised French citizen and already an influential writer in the European Modernist movement, was born in Switzerland of a Swiss father and a Scottish mother, joined up in France on the outbreak of war and, being a foreigner, spent the first year of the war as an acting corporal in the French Foreign Legion until the Germans shot his arm off.  The book is essentially a series of anecdotes about a bunch of mainly young, foreign, misfits who hate the Germans almost as much as they hate the military authorities, but who are determined to amuse themselves as much as possible before their luck runs out.  Which all sounds a bit like a template for every war film ever since, but there’s nothing clichéd in these pages.  Tales of nighttime punting in the Somme marshes behind German lines (eventually leading to the intervention of the French Navy), or booby-trapped gramophones, fixed to play the Marseillaise over and over and left in the German trenches, or the mystery of the bloody hand in the trench that came from nowhere – hence the original French title of ‘La Main Coupée’ – all add up to not only a gripping read, but an insight into warfare unlike any I have read before.  Give it a go.

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11 Responses to Lice, or La Main Coupée

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Sounds fascinating!

  2. Margaret Draycott says:

    Definitely different. What prompted you to read it now? Is it still in print, now that doesn’t mean I’m going to buy it , I to have books languishing on shelves waiting to be read but I’m sure nowhere near the size of your library, do I really need one more book maybe.

    • Magicfingers says:

      You can get hold of copies but whether it is still in print in English I know not. You should look up Blaise Cendrars (not his real name). He’s a fascinating bloke. The Nazis didn’t like him much.
      (Between you and me, and keep this to yourself, but I had tried the book twice in the past forty years and never got past ten pages – I have no idea why, because I was transfixed this time. Third time lucky it seems, because how many books do I try even twice if I can’t get on with them the first time? Very few.)

      • Magicfingers says:

        Incidentally, my current book is about a bloke who, among other things, won an Olympic gold medal and buried Rupert Brooke……

  3. Margaret Draycott says:

    Perhaps you have matured to the level required to read and appreciate that book well maybe not appreciate but understand it’s content more with the level of knowledge you have gained over the years.

    And it’s about whom? or is it a secret you do like to tease or is it that you want us to research it….then over to you Nick.

  4. Magicfingers says:

    And I’ve found a great Blaise Cendrars quote from the Guardian back in 2007:
    “Blaise Cendrars – or the “son of Homer” as John Dos Passos called him – is himself a strange kind of fiction: born in La Chaux-de-Fonds of a Scottish mother and Swiss father, he claimed that he left home aged 15 to work in Russia during the revolution of 1905. He was a bee-keeper, a film maker, a chef, a picture-house pianist, a watchmaker, and a traveller with drunken gypsies. He spent the First World War fighting with the French foreign legion, where he lost his arm in combat, became an art critic, befriended Picasso, sailed the seven seas, shovelled coal in China, amassed and lost huge fortunes and had his own gossip column in a Hollywood newspaper. Nobody knows how much of this is actually true. Though he certainly lost an arm in the First World War, it is possible Blaise Cendrars was pulling more than one or two legs.” The story goes that he also drove a car that was customized by Georges Braque, and if you know Braque’s work, well, I would love to have seen what that looked like coming round a corner!

  5. Margaret Draycott says:

    Sounds like a Walter Mitty type, shovelled coal with one arm? Don’t know Georges Braque not as educated as you have I got to look him up also.
    Ok maybe not literally matured.
    And the book is ?

  6. Margaret Draycott says:

    Looked them both up now so Braque painted his car so yes definitely eye catching but driving with one arm ?
    So Cendrars did get around but not quite as much as was suggested. Anyway it’s late night M

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