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No Sign of Horror in the Heavens

By (December 1, 2008) One Comment

The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse’s Impressions of the First World War

By Mary Borden
Hesperus Press, 2008 (originally published in 1929)

I have lived here ever since I can remember. It had no beginning, it will have no end. War, the Alpha and the Omega, world without end – I don’t mind it. I am used to it. I fit into it. It provides me with everything that I need, an occupation, a shelter, companions, a jug and a basin.

–Mary Borden


First published in 1929, The Forbidden Zone is one of the better-known unread memoirs of World War One, frequently discussed in studies of the literature and culture of the war, at least since its 1980s rediscovery by feminist critics. Until recently, however, it was out of print and pretty well unavailable to a general readership. Now the small British Hesperus Press has put out a new paperback edition in its ‘Modern Voices’ series, which rediscovers minor works by well-known writers and brings to light other overlooked and obscure pieces of literature. Even among these often experimental texts, The Forbidden Zone remains an unsettling collection of stories and fragments that record the experiences of a Chicago-born millionaire’s daughter who became an unlikely nurse in WWI France.

Mary Borden had published her first novel under a pseudonym two years before the war broke out, and was living in London, mixing with the city’s artistic avant garde, having an affair with the Vorticist painter and provocateur Wyndham Lewis, and generally enjoying the attentions of a creative world that relied heavily on the patronage of American Ladies Bountiful. But instead of going home in 1914, 28-year-old Borden, who had no medical experience, offered to fund a hospital for French soldiers, then went out to the war zone to run it with the help of a few elderly orderlies who didn’t speak her language. Not surprisingly, then, the dominant emotion of The Forbidden Zone, written more than ten years after the events it describes, is paralyzing shock.

Like most British memoirists of World War I who came from her social rung, Borden lacked any experience of physical hardship, deprivation, or suffering that might have tempered that shock. Although she was older and wordlier than Vera Brittain – author of the only really well known nurse’s memoir, the doorstopper Testament of Youth, and to whom the details of the male anatomy were a complete surprise – the shock of innocence lost is palpable in Borden’s language. Brittain’s long autobiography is formally conventional, while Borden’s is its attenuated echo: stilted, stripped down, offering none of the comfort of chronological structure. The book has no narrative shape comparable to the major war memoirs, and does not follow the familiar journey from innocence to experience to disillusion to numb acceptance. The Forbidden Zone was published the same year as All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, and the hit play Journey’s End, but unlike them it had dropped out of print by 1930, the year that All Quiet was made into an Oscar-winning film and broke the one-million sales barrier. The book offers readers a chance for comparison – to work out what it is that they expect from a war story, and why Borden’s book disappeared so fast.

There was a man stretched on the table. His brain came off in my hands when I lifted the bandage from his head.
When the dresser came back I said: “His brain came off on the bandage.”
“Where have you put it?”
“I put it in the pail under the table.”
“It’s only one half of his brain,” he said, looking into the man’s skull. “The rest is here.”
I left him to finish the dressing and went about my own business. I had much to do.

This is one of the book’s more macabre scenes, an extract from the story ‘Blind,’ but the tone is like this throughout: wooden, denuded, and cold as the hospital huts where the patient wounded are lined up on their stretchers. The nurse – sometimes “I,” sometimes “she” – always speaks in the same mechanical voice and describes herself in mechanical terms; later in this same story, when a moment of human contact upsets her perfect routine, she literally breaks down: “My body rattled and jerked like a machine out of order. I was awake now, and I seemed to be breaking to pieces.”

Mary Borden

Brittain’s Testament of Youth may have stayed in print because it consciously apes Graves’s Goodbye to All That, drawing the same parallels between sheltered, privileged youth exposed to horror. Brittain’s story is hers like Graves’s is his: an autobiography that starts with birth and ends with the death of youth, particularized, personalized, about her life, her loves, her losses. So while Borden narrates these brief moments of breakdown, they don’t belong to her the way Brittain’s traumas belong to her. Mary Borden’s name is on the title page but otherwise there’s nothing to identify her. We don’t know where she comes from, what she’s learned, whom she loves, where she’s going. She is absolutely isolated – not only does the nurse have no regiment to support her, no big-shouldered comrades to carry you to safety, but this nurse shares her work only with “the old ones,” silent and private orderlies, who don’t speak her language. When she breaks down at the end of “Blind,” as a machine fails, the men are disturbed and sympathetic, but can only offer small, physical comforts:

Then one of them timidly stuck a grizzled head round the corner of the screen. He held his tin cup in his hands. It was full of hot coffee. He held it out, offering it to me. He didn’t know of anything else that he could do for me.

This brief moment of humanity is particularly poignant in its hint at a world of civility and empathy that has been all but destroyed. It is hard to know whether this tenacious humanity is hopeful or futile – the story ends there, and the relationship of this nurse to her later incarnations is barely sketched. Is this one character, or many? Has she learned, grown, changed? Readers anxious for the intervention of an authorial voice to help us judge, or tell us who to blame, will be disappointed: the strength and the difficulty of the book lies in its resistance to moralizing, and on its unflinching depiction of all sides of the story. The naïve young nurse in ‘The Beach,’ sitting with her permanently wounded sweetheart on the sand, might elsewhere be the target of a writer’s scorn, but here neither she nor her sadistic lover are judged for their hopeless situation. ‘He was rotting and he was tied to her perfection. …His one luxury now was jealousy of her perfection, and his one delight would be to give in to the temptation to make her suffer.’ His victim suffers by his side from a different crisis of identity: ‘I must love him, now more than ever, but where is he?’

Originally the book had three sections – The North, The Somme, and Poems – but in the Hesperus reprint, for reasons unmentioned, the poems are excised. The remaining two sections build from sketches to stories, snapshots to moving pictures, but if there’s any learning curve it’s the writer’s, as she gains confidence through each place, sustaining a story over more than two or three pages, saying something about what she sees rather than just, in a horrified reflex, seeing. Nevertheless, her purpose remains primarily to observe, and her stance reflects the influence of the literary experiments of the pre-war period – in particular, the poetry of Pound and the Imagists, with their commitment to creating a hard, distinct surface image and rejecting narrative or didacticism. Borden’s observations are made in a blend of Old Testament cadence and infantile simplicity; she watches like a child and a god: “There is a captive balloon in the sky, just over there. It looks like an oyster floating in the sky. They say that a man lives in the balloon.” Or: “There was no sign of horror in the heavens or upon the earth.”

In her preface Borden asserts the limitations of her perspective as a principle of literary organization, as well as a condition of life as a nurse. She will occasionally evoke ordinary life – outside, before, or after war – but only in the most glancing, ironic way, and only to highlight the gap between that world and this. It’s not the world of war, but the world just beyond it:

I have called the collection of fragments “The Forbidden Zone” because the strip of land immediately behind the zone of fire where I was stationed went by that name in the French Army. We were moved up and down inside it; our hospital unit was shifted from Flanders to the Somme, then to Champagne, and then back again to Belgium, but we never left “La Zone Interdite.”

The relationship between the Forbidden Zone and the war zone is one of complicity: healing is temporary, and men are patched up in order to go back into danger. An anguished awareness of this structure threads the stories together and generates the detachment that characterizes Borden’s narrative. The nurse is a cog in the war machine, not a ministering angel. In the guiltiest tale, “Conspiracy,” the nurse describes in a deadened, passive voice the true nature of her task and its dark twisting of domesticity. She patches, cleans, and mends bodies and sends them back where they came from:

Nurses carrying an injured soldier to the operating room

Just as you send your clothes to the laundry and mend them when they come back, so we send our men to the trenches and mend them when they come back again. You send your socks and your shirts again and again to the laundry, and you sew up the tears and clip the raveled edges again and again just as many times as they will stand it. And then you throw them away. And we send our men to the war again and again, just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground.

Elsewhere, in the hospital tale “Blind,” the nurse presides over a gleaming parody of a kitchen, replete with boiling pans of syringes; domestic spaces and domestic arts are reflected in a distorting mirror.

Clearly this parodic femininity is meant to stand in for the pleasures and comforts of womanhood that are missing from the zone interdite: “There are no men here, so why should I be a woman? There are heads and knees and mangled testicles.” The blunt denial of sexuality closes down any chance of a redeeming relationship, with its potential for escape – unlike Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms, Borden finds no cleanly wounded lover to smuggle her to even temporary safety. The lingering association of nursing with sexual healing is here displaced on to an abstraction, Pain: “She is insatiable, greedy, vilely amorous, lustful, obscene – she lusts for the broken bodies we have here … plying her traffic in the hut next to me.” Pain comes between Life (“the sick animal”) and Death (“the angel of Peace”); she creeps into bed with the mangled men. Borden harps on her excessive lust excessively, but this isn’t a book of moderation, either in tone or content. It’s perhaps a necessary reminder that war is not a story but a series of ugly pictures: vivid, memorable, but meaningless. War writers usually work to impose a narrative on disconnected violent events that can make readers feel hopeful, or morally indignant, or politically motivated – anything but numb. The power of this book is its lack of such a moral: approach with caution (but approach).

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.