The Sirens Wake by Lord Dunsany (1946)
The third and final volume of Dunsany's autobiography (following Patches of Sunlight and While the Sirens Slept -- neither of which I have read) tells us much and little about the man, for Dunsany is a hard person to pin down. The 18th Baron of Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878-1957) was a minor Anglo-Irish novelist, poet, and playwright who had major success with his plays and is now perhaps best known for his fantasy short stories while his plays have drifted off into obscurity.
Culled from hunt journals, a few letters, his wife's dairies, and his records of his writing, the majority of this book is drawn from his memories, some of which can be tricky. In one chapter Dunsany quotes from letters to his friends about certain events; in the next, he rehashes the same events as he remembered them. The is some overlap between the chapters and (to be expected) some variance. Autobiographies can be tricky and can evade the truth and Dunsany unapologetically confronts these discrepancies headon.
The Sirens Wake assumes the form of a long one-sided conversation, as if the author were narrating events extemporaneously. Asides are inserted willy-nilly into paragraphs. Dunsany often mentions something that reminds him of a story told him by someone and will then frustratingly refuse to tell the story. People are mentioned and names dropped but little is said about them. Dunsany glosses over his meetings with kings, princes, and princesses of various countries without giving substance or context. We learn very little -- and usually nothing -- about people he was close to. A friend of Yeats and of Kipling, Dunsany does not disclose any details of these friendships. Indeed, even Dunsany's wife remains a remote figure although he ackowledges at her extreme importance.
The book itself is also deceptive: thirty-six chapters in 128 pages, but the 128 pages are cramped with small type -- a modern publisher could easily fill twice as many pages with the same words.
And what of the the story? The "sirens" in the title refer to air raid sirens and the autobiography covers the late Thirties and early Forties when a great evil threatened England and the world. The early chapters begin with Dunsany's favorite pasttime: shooting for snipe and other game. He briefly records where and with whom he goes shooting and then details the kill of the day's hunt. (Dunsany states that hunting and shooting should be for a purpose -- that game killed should be used for food, although how he manages to eat dozens to hundreds of birds killed in various shoots is beyond me. He adds that, while one does not eat the target of a fox hunt, the hunt is justified through the chickens that otherwise might have been destroyed by the fox. He also mentions having the heads of certain trophies mounted.) Later chapters indicate that the German threat has (at least for the time being) put an end to these beloved shooting parties.
Dunsany joined the Home Guard briefly but was soon summoned to London where Lord Lloyd asked him to go to Greece to assume a cultural post there. Lloyd allowed that Dunsany might bring a secretary with him and Dunsany wisely chose his wife to fill that position.
A direct sail to Greece was out of the question; indeed, any ocean voyage at that time was dangerous. The ship they were on zig-zagged southward as it tried to find a safe port, ending up in South Africa. From there Dunsany and his wife travelled northward, eventually ending up in Egypt, then Turkey, and finally to Greece -- the entire England to Greece trip took eighty-seven days. Dunsany's mission was evidently not an urgent one. His numerous stays and activities are duly recorded and he used the opportunity to give various readings and lectures.
The Greece Dunsany arrived in was a country in peril, threatened both by Germans and Italian. The Hellenic sirens wakened during his visit. Soon the British (along with others) had to evacuate. Dunsany was told he could leave with the British legation but chose instead to leave earlier on a Polish freighter headed to Cairo with some 400 other refugees from over a dozen countries. The freighter, armed with three machine guns, was part of an escorted convoy and came under attack several times. Dunsany frequently states that the time spent on that freighter was the most rewarding week of his life. Cramped and crowded, sleeping on luggage or straw, with few rations, the comraderie on that ship and the bravery of the exiles made a lasting impression on him.
Once in Cairo, Dunsany travelled south again to Capetown and from there made another dangerous sea voyage back to England.
So what is so special about this compulsively readable and seemingly flawed book? Dunsany's love of nature and the landscape resounds in his decriptions of Africa, Turkey, Greece, Ireland, and England. (Dunsany's Africa is a white man's Africa; natives -- except for a few vague references to Zulu beaters on a hunt -- are not in his purview.) His asides and opinions show how sharp his mind is. His unflagging hope for the future, his genuine sadness for those caught up in the machinery of war, his chin-up attitude (so stereotypically British) toward hardship, his willingness to acknowledge that the future will be sharply different from the past, and his melancholy awareness that there will always be a time for the sirens to wake are some of the positives of the book.
This is not an autobiography to reveal the man behind the words. We see nothing of Dunsany's odd character. (He, for instance, carryied his own supply of coarse salt with him wherever he went, liberally using it at every meal.) But we do have hints. The book is sprinkled with poems he wrote at the time to mark certain events, as well as one full article and some article extracts. The haphazard manner in which the book is presented is deliberate and gives us a subtle and powerful (albeit glancing) view of World War II and its effect.
And what do we learn about Dunsany hinself? He had a passion for shooting, chess, and poetry. The man who gave us so many stories about Mr. Joseph Jorkens, about the Gods of Peguna, and about the clever observations of dogs who once were men, the man who showed the horror behind two bottles of relish, and the man who explored the fairy realms at the Edge of the World and Beyond the Fields We Know, remains a man who can tell us nothing while revealing everything.
Finally, it would be interesting to read Dunsany's A Journey (which I have not yet read), a book-length poem which covers the same autobiographical territory that The Sirens Wake does. I'm willing to bet that book has other insights and wonders about the subject.