The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
For the Rest of Our Lives
It was Dan Davin who in For the Rest of Our Lives, 1947, made the first real attempt to get the 2 N.Z.E.F. on to paper. The scope of this book is the war in the Middle East from the desert offensive of November 1941 to the fall of Tunis. Davin in a foreword announces that the characters are imaginary, while the historical events are to be taken as "a frame, a background, conditioning the fictitious". There is no plot, only the chronological march of events, accidentally determined as these things are in war. Thus there can be no causal relationship between what people think and feel, and what happens. Such unity as the novel has is a tonal one, its impression of disjointedness, of waste, of futility; in addition some unity comes from its focus on three chief characters, Tom, Tony, Frank, who may be taken to reveal between them various facets of war experience.
Frank, an officer convalescent from the Greek campaign, is seen mostly in Cairo, where booze, books, and bodies occupy him, especially the first and the last. Tom, a political rebel, with Otago University and the Spanish War in his background, is out in the desert, defeating foe in battle and friend in Communist argument. He reads books, avoids bodies. Tony enjoys life, war included, without afterthought or foresight. Around these mix in and out sundry females, sundry males, and some half-and-halfers. It makes a nasty picture.
There is a lot of background, painstakingly detailed, often with a strident satirical note. Davin seems to have been in a thoroughly savage mood, but without the critical discipline which turns anger and pity into literature.
The book, of course, was attacked, more perhaps for its frankness of speech than for its picture of war. In 1947 there were not many war page 80 novels about, and few breaches had been made in the sentimental curtain of reticence hung over the private soldier's memories. "Was soldiers' talk as coarse as here appears? It was, lady, and more so," wrote Sir Howard Kippenberger in his review in the New Zealand Listener for 12 September 1947. "If you want realism, you must put up with realism; it isn't nice," Sir Howard continued, adding that his own preference was for a degree of reticence. He was aware that the book would have a mixed reception. "You will be pleased or shocked, delighted or disgusted, but in any case deeply impressed." In his opinion, the theme of Cairo life is thin and unreal, and most Kiwis who "had said their goodbyes and borne the wrench years before and far away" were not more than casually concerned with "desks and flats and bedrooms in Cairo". While admitting the truth of the picture of "that rabbit warren G.H.Q. Middle East", Kippenberger felt that it is only when Davin moves to the battlefield that "he touches greatness". Out in the desert, the reportage is brilliant, "there is not a false note". There is high praise for the documentary value of the novel. Readers may wish to compare it with Davin's Crete , 1953.