- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: May-30-2002
The novel begins with a prologue in which the author reports that, while repairing an old chateau he had purchased in the north of France, he discovered a manuscript ("La Tendresse") hidden in one of the chateau's chimneys. Dr. Alain Hamilton, the manuscript's author, had hidden it there, as the German army approached the chateau in 1940. "La Tendresse" was a collection of writings that described Hamilton's early life, especially his experience as a battlefield surgeon in the British army during the First World War. The 80 short chapters that follow, Strauss explains, are an edited and annotated version of Dr. Hamilton's story.
We first meet Alain Hamilton as an adolescent, during an episode of sexual awakening with a girl his own age. Later, we see him as a medical student in Vienna and then as a young married surgeon in London, who has a tender affair with a married nurse. But most of the story takes place at a British Army field hospital, where Dr. Hamilton encounters the senselessness, devastation, and absolute terror of war.
His colleague in this tragedy is Elizabeth, a nurse whose brother and fiancé have died in the fighting. Alain and Elizabeth develop an exquisitely tender, yet unconsummated, intimacy, which ends tragically. After the war, Alain searches healing and consolation, eventually finding a measure of peace in the chateau where he and Elizabeth had once worked together.
Black Ace Books
Two dramatically different themes--tenderness and war--duke it out in this novel. The reality of war is unrelenting. Humanity descends into the deepest levels of hell. Beauty, morality, and meaning all wither in the onslaught of war; in this case, the grueling, meaningless years of the Western Front in the War to End All Wars. From this perspective, all that survives is technique (Dr. Hamilton's skill as a surgeon) and commitment (his dogged persistence in doing his job, despite the failures and hopelessness).
The second theme is love or, more specifically, tenderness. Dr. Hamilton experiences the love and support of several women as his life progresses. At the front, even though separated from his wife and his former lovers, his ability to love saves him from destruction. The intimate relationship with his colleague Elizabeth ("la tendresse") is the deepest he has ever experienced, even though it is never physically consummated. This tender relationship carries them both through the horrors of war.
When he loses Elizabeth, Hamilton has lost everything, because all the abstract words like love and hope and courage that he believed in before the war have become meaningless. (This is reminiscent of the famous line in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms where he writes that, after the war, the only words that meant anything to the survivors were the names of places and things.) Hamilton manages to survive the trauma by embracing his memories of Elizabeth and, in the end, loses his life as a result of acts of heroism in another war.