BARBUSSE, Henri. Le Feu. Paris: Ernest Flammarion, Tirage Spécial pour “Les XX”, [1916.]
8vo., with both original wrappers and the special “XX” issue marbled wrappers boxed in the original slipcase; pp. [viii], 378, [vi]; fine.
First edition, number 5 of just XX special copies printed on papier vélin de cuve des Usine d’Arches in large paper format and signed by Barbusse for the bibliophiles of Les XX.
Barbusse was a French novelist and a member of the French Communist Party. At the relatively late age of 41 he enlisted in the French Army, and was posted on the Wesetrn Front during World War I. He was to serve for 17 months, before being moved into a clerical position due to pulmonary damage, exhaustion and dysentery.
Le Feu (Under Fire) was his fifth book, and was based upon his harrowing experiences in the trenches, an ordeal which later led to him becoming a pacifist, his writing later showing a greater and greater hatred of militarism, of which he became a staunch opponent. Much of it was written while he was a serving soldier, and he claimed to have taken notes while in the trenches. The book was highly criticised at the time for its harsh naturalism, realistic descriptions of death and squalid trench conditions, but won the Prix Goncourt, the highest and most prestigious of French Literary awards, in 1916. The title shares its name with its best-known chapter, which expounds in gritty and brutal realism an assault from the allied trench across no-man’s land.
After being injured and reassigned from the front, the book was finalised and published while he was working at the War Office in 1916. With much of the ‘war book boom’ taking place only in the 1920s, Barbusse is sometimes credited as being one of the World War I novels to be published. As such, it is a remarkable piece of historical literature, and later exerted a powerful influence on a number of poets and writers, including Seigfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden along with many other post-war authors whose trench memoirs and war-based works of fiction were fuelled by a similar spirit of anger about the appalling nature of the conflict, and disillusion with its consequences. It was translated into English in 1917.
Les XX was founded in 1897 to encourage the production of fine editions of works specially chosen to offer “an appeal of curiosity, novelty, originality, and intellectual value”. Entirely unconcerned with commercial considerations, they published only a single copy for each member. As such, this is a genuinely rare edition of this work.