British novel evokes the Battle of Anzio through feelings of fighting men

Vessel of Sadness, by William Woodruff. New York: Harper and Row. 190 pp. $15.95. ``Vessel of Sadness'' comes from Great Britain trailing clouds of glory. I wonder why.

As the dust jacket makes clear, such non-pushovers as the critics of The London Times and the Guardian, and A.L. Rowse were deeply moved by this novel and found it ``poetic.'' Excellent. I would love to share their enthusiasm. I can't.

I found no poetry, no insights in this closeup of the horrifying Battle of Anzio seen through the eyes of different fighting men.

William Woodruff seemed to be telling us what we already know only too well: ``War is hell.''

Compare this passage from C.S. Lewis's partial autobiography, ``Surprised by Joy'' (published in 1955 by Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich). Only a few pages concern the war, and even then Lewis holds us deliberately at arm's length. But though I have omitted a couple of his more devastating phrases he touches the imagination far more deeply and far less cruelly than ``Vessel of Sadness'' ever does.

``But for the rest, the war - the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high explosive] ... the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet - all this shows rarely and faintly in memory.... It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard - so far from me that it `whined' like a journalist's or a peacetime poet's bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, `This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.'''

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