On a whim after finishing May Sarton’s The Small Room, I decided to read e. e. cummings’s The Enormous Room (my copy is an old Modern Library edition not the Penguin edition linked here). I thought it was a novel but the book begins with letters from Edward Cummings to President Wilson and others asking for help in locating his son in France. Edward had received a telegram saying that his son was lost at sea but soon after it was rescinded. So this isn’t a novel then. But everywhere I have seen it listed it is listed as novel. So it is perhaps a hybrid, an autobiographical novel and a fictional memoir. Or something.
Cummings served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I along with his friend known in the book only as “B” but whose name is William Slater Brown. In August 1917, B was arrested by the French for some letters he wrote. Cummings was questioned and supported B and so he was arrested too. In the book we never know what was in the letters that prompted arrest. Cummings makes it seem like he has no idea and just ends up being arrested by accident and because he made some snarky remarks to the police while being questioned. In reality, they were arrested because B’s letters contained anti-war sentiments and cummings agreed with him.
The two are sent to La Ferté-Macé, a detention camp where those who haven’t officially been convicted of anything are sent pending review by a commission. The commission only shows up every three months and cummings and B are brought to La Ferté a few days after the commission had already been there. So they are stuck there for three months.
They live in an enormous room with about 30 or so other detainees. The Americans are lucky enough to have portable beds/cots among their belongings and so become part of the lucky few who don’t have to sleep on a straw mattress on the freezing and filthy floor. Conditions in the enormous room are dreadful. There are several buckets along one wall for urinating in and by the end of the day they are all overflowing. There is a sort of closet with a bucket for defecating in and that too by the end of the day is overflowing. The room is insufficiently heated by a small stove. The prisoners are taken out for air every morning and afternoon. The food is enough to make you wretch. There is good food but that is all confiscated for the meals of the guards. Once a week the men are treated to a bath, said bath amounting to a bucket of cold water poured over their heads.
There are women at the camp too. They are separated into their own room. Their meals and outdoor time is strictly segregated from the men’s time. But of course there is plenty of clandestine fraternizing that goes on.
The Enormous Room has not plot. It is simply the telling of the day-to-day and the sketching of some very interesting characters. Oh, and lots of making fun of the French government. Here, for example, is his description of Monsieur le Gestionnaire who:
looked as if he was trying very hard, with the aid of his beribboned glasses and librarian’s jacket (not to mention a very ponderous gold watch-chain and locket that were supported by his copious equator), to appear possessed of the solemnity necessarily emanating from his lofty and responsible office. This solemnity, however, met its Waterloo in his frank and stupid eyes, not to say his trilogy of cheerful chins–so much so that I felt like crying ‘Wie gehts!’ and cracking him on his huge back. Such an animal! A contented animal, a bulbous animal; the only living hippopotamus in captivity, fresh from the Nile.
He contemplated me with a natural, under the circumstances, curiosity. He even naively contemplated me. As if I were hay. My hay-coloured head perhaps pleased him, as a hippopotamus. He would perhaps eat me. He grunted, exposing tobacco-yellow tusks, and his tiny eyes twittered.
Among the many inmates in the enormous room we get stories and sketches of the Count, the Fighting Sheeney and the Trick Raincoat, Mexique, the Zulu, One-Eyed David, Rockyfeller, the Machine-Fixer, Judas, and Jean le Nègre among others.
At the end of November the commission returns. B is questioned. Cummings is questioned. A few days later B is sent to prison and Cummings is told he will be given a supervised release as a “suspect.” But just before he leaves, all the letters his father had been sending finally did their work and cummings was released unconditionally. He arrived in New York City on January 1, 1918.
The writing in The Enormous Room is often quite poetic and cummings has a rather wry sense of humor. Somehow he makes his detention sound like one big lark. Beneath the humor it is clear that it was not fun at all. My only real problem with the book is that there is quite a lot of untranslated French in it. Spanish or German and I would have been able to puzzle through most of it, but French, nope. Short easy sentences I could manage and might even look up a word or two. But long passages I just skipped over. Since there is no plot I didn’t feel like I missed anything in that regard, but I do feel like I missed out and might have liked the book more if I could read French. Overall though the book is an interesting glimpse into a part of WWI I’ve not come across before. And of course, it is a fascinating slice of the life of e.e. cummings.