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Book Review: The Unsubstantial Air

By (October 8, 2014) No Comment

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World Warunsubstantial air cover

by Samuel Hynes
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014

Samuel Hynes never lets his reader forget that he, just like the young men he describes, flew fighter planes in a world war. To be a fighter pilot was the closest thing to chivalry permitted by those grim and mechanical wars:

Once the cavalry charge with pennons flying had proved suicidal against machine guns, and cavalrymen had been dismounted and turned into infantry, aviation was the only kind of combat left in which one man, mounted on a machine now instead of a horse, could fight a personal war. If the big words of war – “glory,” and “honor,” and “chivalry,” and “romance” – applied anywhere in this vast conflict, it would be in the air.

This analogy governs the book. It excited the minds of the men Hynes describes and it clearly excites his own. From his empathy and the conceits he shares with his subjects flows every virtue and defect the book exhibits.

In Flights of Passage, Hynes has already published recollections of his own war, WWII, and in the present volume he turns to his prototypes in WWI. Arranging their letters into an annotated collage, he tries to bring the reader as vividly and immediately as possible into the experience of traveling from American to Europe to hunt down “Bosches” in the air above France. The book is “not military history,” Hynes states early on, but rather “a story of […] experience.” Despite that, occasionally Hynes steps back and provides sociological or technological context for the experiences of his pilots, as when he analyzes their largely upper-class and Ivy-league origin, or presents a brief history of bombing. By and large, however, he sticks close to the own words of his subjects. Perhaps too close.

Sometimes in the intensity of his identification with the young men he is describing, Hynes will fall into gratuitous reminiscence:

That’s what big wars do: they bring together young men who would never meet in ordinary civilian life, dump them together in barracks and tents, and in foxholes and airplanes, set them marching to the same drum, fighting in the same war. It was like that in my war, too; until I went to flight school, I had never met anyone who went to Yale, or came from Texas, or pitched in the International League, or drove an MG. Or a girl who drank Southern Comfort. I met them all before I was done.

Charming as such interpositions may be, they begin to seem like an old man interrupting his exposition to indulge his memory. That sense is only magnified by a strange tendency suddenly to slip into the second person for a sentence or two: “if the weather was good, your engine might not be.” This quirk combined with ubiquitous reminiscences about a different war can add up, at their worst, to give the impression that the author is talking to himself. Solipsism is an unattractive quality in the historian.

But on the other hand, Hynes’ sensuous memories of flying can result in magnificent evocations like this:

On gray days you climb first past trailing wisps, like hems torn from the cloud above you, into the overcast; you call it “solid” when you talk with other pilots – “a solid overcast today” – but it’s not. It’s a luminous wetness, a shining dimness with nothing inside it. And then you come out on top, into impossible brightness, and climb on in perfect light, and look around.

A hint to the considerations that might have led Hynes to write his book in this unusual, experiential manner, comes partway through the text. He is describing the report of a dogfight written by someone who did not witness it first hand:

His account is essentially the same as Campbell’s [who was there], but less individual, less excited, more a conventional war story, written in a style you might expect in the pages of a popular weekly: planes roar, guns bark, bullets scream. Any good journalist could have written it.

There is no condemnation in this description, but a strong preference for the individual, excited, and unconventional. That is precisely what Hynes himself has given us. Odd forms of address and reminiscent asides could not be subtracted without damaging some of his individuality, excitement, and unconventionality.

The final result of this absorbing, if flawed, book is an experience like sitting at the knee of an excellent story-teller who is rich with incident and authentic in detail, if occasionally hampered by a garrulous senescence. To feel what flying in WWI was like, there could hardly be a better guide.