I hadn't heard of John Dos Passos until I started reading about expatriate writers in 1920s Paris. Like Ernest Hemingway, Dos Passos served as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. Whereas Hemingway’s experiences during the war helped develop his macho persona, Dos Passos’ exposure to the brutality of war politicised him. In the late 1920s he went to Russia to study socialism and in 1935 was involved with the US Communist Party-sponsored First Americans Writers Congress.
However, Dos Passos became disenchanted with communism during the Spanish Civil War after Soviet agents killed his friend and translator José Robles Pazos. At that time, Dos Passos was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway supporting the Republican cause, which Robles Pazos also supported. Dos Passos and Hemingway had been close friends, but when Hemingway condoned the killing of Robles Pazos as “necessary in time of war”, it led to a permanent rift in their relationship. The incident also commenced Dos Passos’ gradual move towards political conservatism.
This was Dos Passos’ first novel, published in 1920. Clearly based on Dos Passos’ wartime experiences, it follows two young American volunteer ambulance drivers in the battlefields of France. It lacks a linear narrative and instead consists of a number of loosely connected sketches describing different aspects of the experience of war, from the horror of the trenches to the quiet beauty of the countryside to the desperate dissipation of soldiers on leave in Paris. It includes a discussion of philosophy, politics, religion and provides insight into the thoughts and attitudes of a generation forever changed by war.
Dos Passos’ prose moved me to tears on a number of occasions and affected me more deeply than did [b:A Farewell to Arms|10799|A Farewell to Arms|Ernest Hemingway|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1313714836s/10799.jpg|4652599], Hemingway's novel based on his wartime experiences on the Italian front. The audiobook edition I listened to was very well narrated by Jeff Woodman, who did an excellent job with the various accents required by the narrative. While this short novel may be a minor work in the history of 20th century literature, it’s nevertheless effective in conveying the horror of war. It’s also a must-read for anyone with an interest in the literature of the Lost Generation.