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The enormous room Paperback – August 1, 2010
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About the Author
<DIV>Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894, the son of a Unitarian minister. Educated at Harvard, in 1917 he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and began to write poetry and paint. In June of that year he went to France as a Red Cross volunteer with the ambulance corps and was soon arrested and imprisoned, though not charged with a crime, in a French concentration camp. That experience inspired his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, which was published in 1922. The next year Tulips and Chimneys, the first of his many volumes of poetry, appeared. It is for his typographically creative poetry that he is best known, but Cummings also painted and wrote expressionist verse drama and prose. Until the 1930s, he preferred the lowercase e.e. cummings. He lived in Paris for a few years after World War I, then returned to New York. He died in 1962 in North Conway, New Hampshire.
Samuel Hynes is Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of several major works of literary criticism, including The Auden Generation, Edwardian Occasions, and The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Hynes's wartime experiences as a Marine Corps pilot were the basis for his highly praised memoir, Flights of Passage. The Soldiers' Tale, his book about soldiers' narratives of the two world wars and Vietnam, won a Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. </div> --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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I have seen this book described as an autobiographical novel, but I don't want to use that term because I think it would be misleading. I'm sure that some to perhaps much of this is based only very loosely on real people and real incidents, but I believe that the story cummings tells in this book is nonetheless true. That is, I believe that it is quite true to his real-life experiences. Even if he embellished characters and events a lot at times, I am quite sure that the overall impression one gets from reading the book presents a true-to-life depiction of that place and time and what he experienced.
Part of what made me enjoy this book so much is the sheer artistry of it. I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek, of course, because cummings was in fact an artist, and the original edition this work included many of his sketches. This Kindle edition did not include those, but I saw some of them online, and enjoyed them very much. One day I hope to be able to obtain a print version that does contain the drawings. But the artistry I'm referring to here is the artistry of his writing. He plays such wonderful games with language here, as he would later in his works of poetry. But this book is all the more enjoyable because he wrote it in two languages, French as well as English. I have a more than passing acquaintance with French, but I still had to have my _ Cassell's French Dictionary _ at my side as I read this book. But it was more than worth it. It was indeed a joy.
By coincidence, I read this book just after reading Simone Weil's _ The Need For Roots _, which coincidently has a forward by one of the other great poets of the day, T. S. Eliot. Had I not read what she had to say about the low status of the police in French society, I would not have been able to fully appreciate cummings' many comments about that. I'm guessing that when modern Americans read his comments about gendarmes being so unpopular that seeing two of them escort a prisoner might inspire town folk to think about mounting a rescue, they would suspect that cummings was exaggerating a bit. Having read Weil, I was prepared to take him at face value.
I probably read this book differently from most people because I too have spent time in prison. I knew exactly what he meant when he wrote:
A hideous crash nipped the last word. I had supposed the whole prison to
have been utterly destroyed by earthquake, but it was only my door closing.
I certainly didn't spend time in a prison like his, but I believe his story.
I have been a fan of e. e. cummings' poetry since high school, but I had never heard of this, his first book, until just recently; I came across a reference to it, I think, on a religious blog. I couldn't wait to read it, and I was not disappointed when I did. This is definitely a great work, and I can't believe I never came across it before now. I think this book is one of the indispensable books about World War I, right up there with _ The Guns of August _ and _ All Quiet on the Western Front _. I would give this book six stars if I could.
Parts of the story do bog down a little, but I think it is very interesting throughout. Others have pointed out that there isn't much plot. That is because he is simply telling you what happened to him and the people he met. He can't tell us what happened day by day or really in much of a linear manner at all because he is working from memory alone. And I recommend you keep your smart phone or computer nearby to use google translate if you don't know French, because there is quite a lot of it. If you don't have access to a translator you can usually still glean the meaning out of much of it.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. It is pretty funny, very interesting, and incredibly touching. My heart will forever soften towards him for his sympathetic portrayals of The Wanderer, Jean, Surplice, the Zulu and all his other comrades in la misère.