John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a slim, tightly wound novel of love and disaster in World War One, narrated in a claustrophobic first person by Tristan Sadler, a young soldier who returns to England after the war with a secret that is too horrifying to share and too heavy to bear alone. The story unfolds through flashbacks to Tristan’s war training and trench life, during which he falls in love with a fellow recruit, Will Bancroft, the “absolutist” of the title. A soldier turned conscientious objector who refuses to do anything to further the war effort, Will is eventually executed by a firing squad, leaving Tristan to fight on for a morally bankrupt cause. After the war, Tristan meets up with Will’s sister, Marian, to rake over the questions of love and guilt, right and wrong, and the struggle to preserve them against the onslaught of the trenches.
I spoke with Boyne about the challenges of creating a fresh story out of well-worn history, and finding a voice to describe the unimaginable.
The Millions: I’d like to start by asking about Tristan’s voice. How did you find that balance, a voice that sounds contemporary but also authentic to the time period? Did you go back to letters, diaries, and memoirs of World War One?
John Boyne: I like to go back to novels that were written at the time my novel is set. I’ll fall into the idiom of the time, and find phrases that have fallen into disuse, and if I immerse myself in those, I find a voice starting to appear. I knew that because Tristan was going to be narrating his story from old age, and because he was going to be a novelist, he would have to speak in quite an elegant style—very proper and English. That was a challenge too, because it was about paring down the language, nothing superfluous. It’s a shorter book than any of my other adult novels.
For the trench scenes, I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I read a lot of letters not only from the front but also from the families the soldiers were writing to. I was trying to find the themes running through those letters, and the ways that a voice would change. There’s only a short space of time between the scenes where Tristan is a young man before the war, the scenes where he’s in the trenches, and immediately afterwards, in 1919—but emotionally he was going to have changed in so many ways, that he would have to sound different, but the same. Same person, but experience is going to have to have come in on him.
TM: It’s so revealing to look at letters from families and not just from soldiers. Perhaps it upsets Paul Fussell’s claim that communication is always one way: his idea that the soldiers can’t communicate and stop trying, and that the people at home can’t understand, and also stop trying. The character of Will’s sister Marian, for instance, is a complicated and traumatized figure in her own right.
JB: In any novel I’ve ever read about the First World War, you never seem to read about what’s happening back home, the effect of the war on the family. In the previous novel I wrote for adults, The House of Special Purpose, which is the next one coming out here, I started with the idea that I hadn’t previously written a really strong female character, and I wanted to rectify that. When I wrote this I wanted to go further—I wanted a female character who was stronger than either of the two boys. She would be articulate, she would be a woman out of her own time, a woman who was capable of so much, but not allowed to do anything.
I really invested in her as a character, probably more than any other character I’ve ever written, including Tristan, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. In those long chapters in the cafés, when she meets and talks to Tristan, I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him, and I knew it would change as the day went along: there would be moments where she would be suspicious, moments where she would be warm and funny, moments where she would be aggressive. I wanted that conversation to just go where it went, but for her to be always one step ahead of Tristan, putting him in his place a lot. She talks along the way about things like the fact that she doesn’t have the vote—she’s a victim of these politics along with everybody else, but she’s not allowed to vote out the politicians who start the wars. I named her after Marian Maudsley, from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite novels, and a great character. I wanted her to leap off the page.
TM: She’s so active, even in those static scenes in the café. You have this wonderful detail of the ubiquity of cigarettes—how important they are to how people manage their emotions during a conversation.
JB: I felt she would be someone who wanted to help the soldiers coming back to the front, but at the time would be so conflicted about the fact that they killed her brother. I mean, emotionally, what does that do to a person? That’s the key to novel writing for me: putting characters into situations where you don’t know how they’re going to respond, and letting the story take you where it takes you, to show you that. I thought that was an interesting conundrum for her: great anger, great pain, but still helping.
TM: Not just for her character, but for Tristan as well, there’s an enormous sense of frustration about what they can possibly do with these situations that are not in their control, and they don’t emerge heroically. Rage, for instance, becomes the emotion that drives Tristan. Even in fiction about war, I imagine rage is a difficult emotion to work with, as a novelist—it doesn’t really have a forward motion.
JB: Those climactic scenes were very difficult to write. It’s hard, in the printed word, to achieve that sense that you have in real life, where something just snaps—to create a moment where the reader will honestly feel that a character’s gone too far.
TM: Like the challenge of writing about the violence of the war—you reach these limits. One of the things you did so well in the trench scenes was to convey how the soldiers have to keep going, the next day, and the next day, even though every day seems to be a limit case of what can be endured.
JB: I deliberately made those into very short scenes, which could almost have been taken out of the book, juggled in different directions, and put back in. I wanted to create a sense of disorder and confusion, no linear structure to it all. When you write about the First World War, you’ve read so many books that you have to be careful not to simply replicate what you’ve read before. It’s one of the things this book has in common with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which deals with the Holocaust: when you’re approaching a subject as big as this, that’s been written about so many times, you’ve got to find some fresh way to tell it. So I knew when I started that I was going to spend more time in a café in Norwich than I was in a trench in Northern France.
TM: So you get rid of the idea that the events of the war are part of an arc, a conflict-to-resolution story. The war blows that up.
JB: I felt there shouldn’t be a beginning, middle and end, but that Tristan should be at the heart of the action all the time. Even when Tristan and Will’s story ends, when their wartime story ends, it’s not the end of the war—that continues off the page.
TM: Right, and his survival is just a matter of chance. You create that sense of chance, of randomness, as the characters we get to know in the training scenes are gradually picked off. We feel the shock every time someone we’ve met dies.
JB: I had to keep a chart of who was still alive and who wasn’t.
TM: I wanted to ask about the role of homosexuality in the book. Of course it’s important in the literature of World War One for writers who were gay, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I was also thinking about Pat Barker, and her character Billy Prior, in the Regeneration trilogy, who was a gleefully boundary-crossing character in both class and sexual terms. Yet Tristan doesn’t have that kind of freedom. So what does thinking about sexuality in this context allow you to do with a character that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
JB: It occurred to me I hadn’t really read anything about gay soldiers in the trenches—there must have been gay soldiers there, and surrounded by so much horror, relationships must have struck up. But that wasn’t something I had read, so it was a new way into a familiar story. What interested me was the idea of two boys where one has already started to come to terms with who he is, and the other hasn’t, so it would be an ambiguous relationship between them. Tristan gets angry with Will for rejecting him, but Will can’t understand this, because as far as Will’s concerned it doesn’t matter. In France, Tristan is all about this obsessive love, and Will is about the politics, and he finds this conversation that he’s forced to endure every so often to be an embarrassment, and to be almost trivial compared to what it is that’s going on there. I wanted there to be moments where you think that Will would open up, and let Tristan in, and moments where he would shut down. It was important to me that at the end you wouldn’t really know who this boy was.
TM: The term Will keeps coming back to is “comfort.” That’s all the relationship is for him, a purely temporary alleviation—it’s not love, it’s comfort.
JB: And Tristan can’t accept it. But that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? In most relationships, one person is much more into it than the other—in my experience, anyway—until you find someone who’s at the same place as you. Tristan’s just in love.
TM: To come back to the Shot at Dawn politics—as you know, after a long campaign in the UK we finally have a memorial to the men who were killed in this way. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what happened to these men. The term “absolutist,” which gives you your title—that was a technical term used at the time?
JB: It’s not a very common term, but I came across it one day when I was researching conscientious objectors and immediately thought, “there’s my title.” I knew that a lot of conscientious objectors would do some work on farms, or in field hospitals, or—as I talk about in the book—a lot of them were made to be stretcher-bearers. But there was this small group of people, absolutists, who wouldn’t do anything. It was important that Will would be a soldier and would be fighting when he becomes an absolutist. I didn’t want any charge, any confusion, that he was a coward, that he just wasn’t willing to fight—he had to be out there fighting, and seeing that the moral absolutes for which the war was being fought were being corrupted. If they can murder a German boy in cold blood, it’s a different kind of killing, to him, than the shooting in war.
It’s interesting because Tristan is the person in the book who cares about truth, and wants to express himself and his love, and he feels that Will is being dishonest in not doing that. But when it comes to a political situation, when a captured German boy gets murdered by group of British soldiers, Tristan doesn’t see that that’s a problem. It’s the same thing turned around: in the romance, Tristan is one place and Will is in the other, but in the morality and the politics they’re also in different places. Will’s morality has become much more finely tuned. He can’t just go shooting people without some kind of emotional response. Tristan is also completely honest when he says, I don’t get it, it’s just another—what does it matter?
TM: That line that seems so faint to Tristan is absolute to Will.
JB: So they’re both absolutists—Will in a literal sense, and Tristan in terms of his love affair. It’s all or nothing to him.
Cheryl Strayed’s collection of “Dear Sugar” columns is out this week (read our review). Also out are Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala, The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, True Believers by Kurt Andersen, and The Absolutist by John Boyne. The new edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with all the extra endings is out, as is (just in time for the Olympics) an oral history of the original Dream Team. Donald Ray Pollack’s The Devil All the Time is out in paperback.