Novels of the Great War: "The enormous room" by E. E. Cummings

1922. Two masterpieces not only of English modernism, but also of the world literature of the XX century were released: Ulysses, by James Joyce and The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Both works provide a sort of diagnosis of the astonishment and disillusion of a generation which survived the Great War, not its long-lasting effects. But 1922 is the year of publication of a third novel, which equals the two above mentioned works in importance and maybe completes the choir with a ruthless accusation of the true essence of WWI. We are talking about The enormous room, by E. E. Cummings.

Even if he is best known as a poet, Cummings is also the author of this “hybrid novel”, both autobiographical and fictional. The book is in fact based on his personal experience on the Western front, where he served as an ambulance driver in France. Questioned about a friend of him - William Slater Brown, in the book simply “B”, whose pacifistic attitude aroused suspicions - Cummings supported him. Both were therefore arrested in summer 1917 and sent to La Ferté-Macé, where they arrived few days after the commission that had to review also their case had left. Cummings and his friend were stuck till the next meeting of the commission in November. Meanwhile, they lived in an "enormous room" with other detainees, in foreseeable dreadful conditions. Cummings, thanks to the intervention of his father, was finally released and came back home in January 1918. 

The interesting in this novel is not mainly the plot, nor the autobiographical or fictional content. The enormous Room is more a sort of diary, a telling of the day-to-day lives, and above all a description of different people in the camp. Cummings' skill in connecting physical aspect and personality, in revealing the one through the other, makes this novel a manual of portraiture, as testified by the accurate description of the Delectable Mountains, four characters that Cummings and B encountered in the French detention camp.
His portraiture skill is however placed on the background of the WWI. The novel is thus a sort of eye directed towards the Great War from a very special point of view: not that of the soldier at the front, not that of the civil society at home, rather that of the “suspected traitor” behind its home front. It describes somehow the administrative idiocy which affects people’s life, restricts personal freedom and reduces human beings to objects (no matter if useful objects to fight at the front or useless – even dangerous – objects to keep in prison); it reveals how the relation with the governments has changed in the first decades of the 20th century under the pressure of the growing nationalisms. It also discloses the climate of suspicion which pervaded Europe during WWI (let’s think about the desertion or riot episodes and, on the other hand, the pervasive propaganda and censorship machine to control information and behaviors).

Cummings tells us what get wrong in human life during the first world war, even far away of the trenches and the battles. He tells us how WWI seeped through all - spiritual and material - layers of human life, undermining also the sense of appartenence at the same "nation", of fight for the same "ideal". Yet, the novel never neglects its picaresque style in portraiting the different characters, nor its mood of adventure, leading so the reader to walk with the author, smiling despite all with him, in the "beautiful darkness" of The enormous room.