Book Review

F.S.P. by Arthur Gwynn-Browne To be honest I had never heard of Arthur Gwynn-Browne before I was handed a copy of F.S.P. (Seren) for review and now that I have read the book I feel better for reading this man and rejoice in the fact this moving WWII account is back in print. After all, fifty years is a rather long time and this reprint is well overdue.

Arthur joined the (F)ield (S)ecurity (P)ersonnel, “a non-combatant counter-sabotage unit, made up of fluent French speakers” (Pg xvii) in 1939, aged 35 years of age. Rather old but still young enough for war. Their role was to “mingle with civilians, assess morale, collect information on activities potentially helpful to the enemy and test the security of their own army’s installations” (Pg xvii). Gwynn-Browne spent six months in France with this odd ensemble/unit where he witnessed the true horrors of Dunkirk before finally being rescued aboard a vessel upon which he returned to an extremely paranoid, threatened homeland.

It’s Arthur Gwynn-Brown’s idiosyncratic voice that first hits when reading this book. His voice is almost child-like and naïve – a simplicity of diction and prose rare to such subjects. Such a colloquial and friendly prose-style is intentional of course and it is in deeper reading that one begins to absorb the full impact of Gwynn-Browns intentions. His device/voice is outstanding and utterly real and it is in this very eccentricity that F.S.P. maintains its disconsolate primacy. In this particular case alone and, let’s face it where others have failed, device/voice works and does not obfuscate the narrative thus permitting the true foreboding undercurrent of this fascinating account to gradually seep under one’s skin where it remains, niggling and constantly reminding; demanding one’s attention always. Gwynn-Browne’s voice is an omniscient feeling and a ghastly state of mind. With this in mind F.S.P. is Gwynn-Browne’s psyche unravelled for all who wish to peek inside, it is the conduit which connects all who shared with him the true horrors of war. And who can ignore, for instance, such heart-felt immediacy? It’s rather hard:

“I will not be killed, I will not be killed I have things to do I will not be killed like this I will not be killed like this…” (Pg 125).

Writing as simple and as disparate as this surely can not be ignored – and it isn’t. F.S.P. is quite spellbinding in this respect. Differing from most war memoirs in the sense that it deals with an intrinsic jarring of Gwynn-Browne’s own psyche and not that of the war as a whole. The prose-style is immediate and swift, at times rather muddled and disjointed, but never, never confusing. It is created to convey Gwynn-Browne’s own sense of defeat in the onset of his present i.e. the war and all that it has thrown at him. Just as WWI Poet Wilfred Owen uses war to express the guttural horror and suffering that resides in all of humanity Gwynn-Browne uses war and our dealings with it to help shape and develop his writing process and technique. This is voice and narrative altered to convey feeling and not image, a feeling embedded within a “continuous present” of dire wretchedness and its complications. If you compare F.S.P. to other novels published in its day there isn’t much else quite like it – but this does not mean Gwynn-Browne was without inspiration even though he showed no literary aspirations before the onset of the war. As noted in the substantial introduction Gwynn-Browne’s writing is heavily influenced by the lofty philosophies of Gertrude Stein. When Gwynn-Browne speaks of this “continuous present” not only is he speaking of the ongoing reality of the war but also of Gertrude Stein’s modernist manifesto; that of feeling rather than image. The “continuous present” in Gwynn-Browne’s F.S.P. is the relentless terror that drips from every page, a perpetual foreboding that grips and jolts the reader upright, an unremitting phantom of Gwynn-Browne’s own making – his own feelings there, as if they are being felt that very second. This is a quite spectacular feat of writing and has to be commended. Is this the only Avant-Garde war memoir published in this country? Possibly it is, it certainly feels like it.

The sheer futility of Gwynn-Browne’s mission throughout this important book is greatly conveyed, along with its idiosyncratic intensities. Human beings en masse are quite sheep-like, we do react to the present as one while we, individually, question the very actions and reasoning we blindly follow without a murmur – the same actions and reasoning that governs us all. Gwynn-Brown adroitly pushes this paradox as he walks, lips sealed, into his greatest horror knowing the answer is quite simple all the while: that he should just walk away. This is the same “horror” Kurtz speaks of in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the same “Horror” that permeates every page Louis Ferdinand Celine ever wrote. It is the unique “horror” we all share – made all the more absurd by us being fully conscious of it. Like us all Gwynn-Browne too is aware and drills this fact home and F.S.P. is a testament to this intrinsic stupidity.

So, F.S.P. is a timely reprint and I can’t understand how this marvellous book has been lost for over 50 years. To simply ignore the meaning of this book and treat it as a rather odd individual folly is to do it no justice what-so-ever. F.S.P. is a document and Arthur Gwynn-Browne has managed to paint the psychological horror of WWII like it happened only this morning – and if that’s the case then I recommend you purchase this book this afternoon without delay.
-- Reviewed by Lee Rourke on 04/09/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1854113739
ISBN-13: 9781854113733
Publisher: Seren Books
Publication Date: 07/11/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 168

Readers Comments

  1. Stephanie Wallace Chavanne says... Wednesday 13 October 2010

    This book, although neigh impossible to find (not even one copy in my University library although it's a required text!), is one of the most astonishing and moving books I have ever read in reference to the war. Like The Boy In Striped PJs, there are moments of gut wrenching suspense and anguish as you read, knowing full well the details of what will happen next, almost unbeknownst to Arthur himself. If you have any interest in World War Two, either from a societal, warfare or psychological viewpoint, there is no better book I could recommend to familiarise yourself with the 'realities of war'. Truly manificient and not one for the faint hearted.

  2. Berry Baker says... Monday 03 March 2014

    This is a very fine book indeed, and whilst I fully concur with a previous reviewer regarding the book's readability and merit, I do think the humour in this account has been overlooked. Particularly the early pages are very funny indeed, and even after the horrors of the evacuation of Dunkirk I never felt that his spirit was broken. In fact he made strenuous efforts to be reassigned to a combat role in the RAF.

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