Archive for the 'First World War' Category

First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.

Carol Ann Duffy: Collected Poems

November 6, 2020

     A while back, I treated myself to a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems. Of course, it’s not complete, because she’s still very much alive and writing, and one of my posts on one of her poems is the most read post on this blog, for some reason which no-one has yet elucidated.

My interest in Duffy is two-fold, aside from the fact that she’s a brilliant poet. One is that we were contemporaries as students of English Literature at the University of Liverpool in the 1970s; she did joint honours with Philosophy I think, I with French and so our paths never crossed. And she was my favourite poet for teaching at GCSE, I think because the selection of her poetry connected well with my students: I really enjoyed teaching her poems. Annually we’d take an entire GCSE cohort off to Leeds Town Hall for GCSE Poetry Day, a well-run commercial venture at which Duffy was always one of the featured live poets. You never knew what sort of a performance you’d get – if she had an off-day, it was pretty perfunctory though well-delivered; if she was on form, it was excellent, highly political, and the students raved about her.

And in this collection, I’m discovering a completely different side to Duffy. Obviously the poems for the GCSE Anthology were carefully selected for suitability, though there were a couple of edgy ones, Anne Hathaway, for instance, where you could (carefully) lead bright students who were becoming aware of their own sexuality to use their imaginations…

Duffy is both a brilliant versifier and a very political poet. That feels very trite; you’ll need to explore for yourself to appreciate what I mean here. Much of her poetry is autobiographical in some way: we see her wrestling with Catholicism, and she is very bitter about the toxic effect of religion on people’s lives. She can be harsh, cruel, even vicious in some of her portraits of individuals and character types she has met. She creates vivid memories of her childhood days, and there are powerful memories of her mother, which become very poignant and elegiacal after her mother’s death.

The one particular collection in this huge volume which isn’t so personal is The World’s Wife, where she deliberately gives a voice to the often silent or unheard partners of famous men in history and literature; it is good to experience this more imaginative or creative aspect to her work; I particularly like Anne Hathaway which I mentioned above, and also Eurydice’s counterpoint to the story of Orpheus.

It’s clear that Duffy is also a wide reader of poetry and at times I found myself detecting influences of other poets, or deliberate imitations of them, Donne, Shakespeare and Hopkins to mention a few. I referred above to her poem The Wound in Time, which was her response as poet laureate to the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War; she is clearly as moved by her knowledge of that conflict as I have been and there are a couple of other really powerful poems on the subject – Last Post, and Christmas Truce.

I’m not pretending to do justice to a lifetime’s work in this piece, but to sketch my personal response. I turned the pages, letting my eyes wander, and slowed down and enjoyed the poems which they lit on. For me, at this particular reading, the shorter poems have worked better than the longer ones, and at times I found some of the love lyrics rather repetitive, although she writes sensual and erotic verse better than any other poet I’m familiar with…

It has been so refreshing and eye-opening to explore the full range of her work.

The Virago Book of Women and the Great War

October 31, 2020

     This anthology was compiled and published over twenty years ago, and it is a worthy but flawed collection, I feel; worth having, but the curating and editing could have been better done. I wasn’t impressed reading in the introduction that the bulk of the literature of the Great War was written by British writers – a sweeping statement which is easy to challenge. And decimal currency was introduced in 1971, not 1972…

Having griped a little, I will admit that this is a pretty catholic selection, from some French and German sources but largely from British women writers. The main interest lies in the individual pictures of life and work in those times, and the way that many excerpts counter the general, broad sweep of ‘official’ history: not everyone partied and rejoiced at the outbreak of war, not everyone was eager to volunteer and join up. We also see British women involved, mainly in medical and caring roles, in all sorts of places I hadn’t expected: Serbia, Russia, Austria and other countries.

The editor ranges very widely in her choice of sources, but even to this experienced and hardened student and reader of Great War literature, there’s rather too much information, as the current saying puts it. And yet, I can accept that such an anthology needed compiling before all sorts of material disappeared. There is a clear focus on women’s very real role and contribution to the war effort, men’s reluctant realisation and acceptance that this was both the case and very necessary to the achievement of Britain’s war aims. Women established themselves widely in the workforce and strove for equal pay and conditions with men; clearly the desire for suffrage and other rights was also in the forefront of the efforts of many, and this is evidenced in great detail from contemporary accounts and material.

And yet, there’s a bit too much here; the best is the personal accounts of front-line experiences.

Georges Duhamel: Civilisation

September 7, 2020

I encountered Duhamel the novelist when studying French at A Level: Confession de Minuit I remember vaguely as a short tale of a strange misanthropic fellow who gradually fell out with everyone and everything, and became a recluse… I’m sure I paraphrase badly from a memory nearly half a century old. I had not know until relatively recently of Duhamel’s service as an ambulance and first aid orderly in the First World War, and his accounts of his experiences.

The title is clearly ironic, as he reflects on where the marvels of our Western civilisation, of which we are so proud, have finally brought us: the trenches of the Somme. He was a Frenchman, his country invaded and parts of it occupied; his angle and viewpoint are thus quite different from accounts by British writers and combatants. Nonetheless, he maintains a distance as he observes, describes and occasionally comments. He writes in detail, with a reflective tone, passing judgement from time to time. As a stretcher-bearer he sees all aspects of the death and the mutilation of young and old.

One overwhelming impression is of the mechanisation of warfare, and the sheer masses of everything – men, horses, equipment, munitions – involved, gathered, marshalled and then distributed ready for destruction: a sense of utter derangement and insanity emerges from these descriptions.

He describes deaths at great length, clearly deeply affected by what he saw, including a close friendship which develops, with a man he knows is doomed to die, but who himself does not know. It is quite heart-breaking…

How is this book different from all the others I’ve read or listened to about this conflict? Here, warfare – the fighting itself – is almost a mere detail. These are the philosophical reflections of an educated, intelligent and sensitive man, involved against his will and deeply aware of the insanity and obscenity of it all as he conveys it lucidly to his readers, and we are shocked and disturbed when we pause to reflect on what he has been telling us.

Here is a catalogue of gruesome episodes and encounters, related with great humanity, detailed descriptions of the torments of the wounded and the dying, and in these accounts they are humanised, they are individuals with stories, and no longer the telephone numbers of the vast casualty lists. Duhamel sums up his message in a powerful final and reflective chapter called ‘Civilisation’.

It’s short; it was an eye-opener to this seasoned reader of Great War literature; it’s available free in English from the Internet Archive.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here. You may also like to read this.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March

March 29, 2020

81GdGXjSUiL._AC_UY218_ML3_    A man’s life is changed irrevocably by a single action of a split second: he saves the Emperor’s life in battle and is ennobled as a reward; forever he is separated from his humble peasant past and takes on a new existence. He is raised far above where he naturally belongs, and his strong sense of honour and of what is right and wrong leads him to object to the adulation of his deed in a children’s story-book and to quit the army. He half-reverts to his lower origins, but what probably shocks most is the harsh and loveless upbringing of his son…

There is a delicious, sensuous sense of timelessness to Roth’s novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which co-exists with a painful sense of the inevitable passage of time, ageing and the feeling of loss as the generations pass by. And always lurking in the background is the inevitability of the approaching storm.

The vacuousness, the tedium of military life in the closing years of the century shocks: the men are nonentities – drinkers, gamblers, whoremongers – living in the past, fortunate to be enjoying that century of peace between the Congress of Vienna and Sarajevo, yet Roth manages to create in the reader a sense of nostalgia, affection even, for this empire which was to destroy itself so utterly in a few years’ time.

There is an outline of a story, through the three generations of the von Trotta family, military hero, civil administrator son and wastrel military grandson, living off their name and past glory of one deed. There are a number of powerful tableaux dotted through the novel, where the focus narrows and slows: a riveting chapter narrates an idiotic and utterly pointless duel in powerful slow-motion, with the Great War hovering in the background, and another recounts the lingering death of a faithful family servant. Then there is the introduction of the Polish count, Chojnicki, his estate on the very boundary of the empire with that of the Tsar, and his shockingly clear understanding that everything is about to fall apart… and finally a touching and pathetic portrait of the dotard, senile emperor himself, utterly unable to grasp what is happening and surrounded by men who cannot do anything about it.

Roth’s astonishingly powerful and moving picture of a world on the edge, losing control and going mad, reminded me very strongly of our world now, in a way it hadn’t on previous readings (there have been several). We get the sense that times were much more fixed and secure in the past when everyone knew their place, and at the same time the feeling that change, revolution – of several kinds – is inevitable: huge upheaval is coming, disconcerting the older generations and strangely welcomed by the younger.

The third generation of the family ends up returning full circle: is Roth suggesting a man cannot be taken away from where he really belongs? And the novel inevitably ends with the outbreak of war in 1914. Roth doesn’t need to go any further.

Whenever I’ve read this novel, it’s moved me greatly, and obviously this is why I’ve come back to it again. And I’ve re-evaluated; it is a much greater book than I remember it and much more powerful, certainly Roth’s greatest, and one to follow with The Emperor’s Tomb if you have the time or the inclination. But you really should read it.

Joseph Roth: The Emperor’s Tomb

January 24, 2020

81eTWKHEvvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Time and again literature reminds us of the end of an era which took place in the Western world in 1914, with the coming of the Great War: nothing was ever to be the same again. Joseph Roth is one of the writers who, for me, has captured the essence of this most effectively and powerfully, perhaps because the earthquake that swept away the Austro-Hungarian Empire was so cataclysmic. He succeeds in creating both a sense of ending and also one of nostalgia in the reader for what has been lost, a time of relative innocence compared with what came next, and what was clearly eventually to lead to even worse…

The Emperor’s Tomb (the title refers to the vault in Vienna where the Habsburg monarchs are buried) is written from the point of view of a member of a poor branch of a titled family. We see the effect of the coming of war against Russia and what it does to the hero, his family and a small group of friends. The narrator throws in his army lot with a poorer cousin who is an itinerant chestnut-seller, and a Jewish cab-driver, who he realises are more real, of more significance to him than his so-called city friends.

We see the chaos of the early days of war: he marries a woman because he should, not because he loves her, and their wedding night is ruined because of the death of a family servant. There is the sudden awareness of the incredible fragility and ephemeral nature of existence, which forces the hero to consider what really matters to him, what is really of value. At the front there is the chaos of battle and retreat and suddenly being taken prisoner with his friends; all three of them end up in Siberia, so escaping the horrors of war, but not its consequences or aftermath.

There is an almost hallucinatory quality to the hero’s return home at the end of 1918, to a world of uncertainty, poverty and spivs with vacuous get-rich-quick schemes. It is all very disorienting, as he realises that he is part of a generation which ought to have died, but didn’t, a generation for whom there is no longer a place… The ending, with its foreshadowing of the advent of Nazism, is devastatingly powerful. I was shocked to be reminded just how good this short novel I last read many years ago was.

Jozef Wittlin: The Salt of the Earth

January 18, 2020

71dXN6lPj0L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Yet another novel about the First World War that I didn’t know about, by a Polish author who wrote it in the mid-1930s. It was the first part of a trilogy the other two books of which were lost during the Second World War; only a fragment of the second book survives and is printed at the end of this novel.

Wittlin is as effective as Joseph Roth at conveying the send of the end of an era; there is a similar feeling to that evoked by Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Hindsight tells us the Austro-Hungarian empire and monarchy will not survive the coming years’ mayhem, and the overall atmosphere of the novel is dreamlike, trance-like, almost hypnotic as the immense wheels of war gradually grind into motion and begin to transform everyone’s world. It’s unnerving, because the overwhelming sense is of a world in mass movement, where individuals are completely swamped, overwhelmed by what is happening: it is completely beyond their comprehension.

There is a deliberate, calculated naivete in the narrative style, which reinforces the silliness, the stupidity of the war itself, and also the participants’ incomprehension of it all.

In and among the mass, individuals emerge: the hero is Piotr, an illiterate Hutsul peasant, not very bright. We grow to like this simpleton in just the same way as we grow to love Jaroslav Hašek’s idiot hero Švejk, and yet the two could not be more different in the presentation, with Švejk’s effectiveness coming through the comedy of the chaos which he sows everywhere he goes, and Piotr’s coming from his innocence and genuine love of life, his simplicity and earthiness. Other characters are the Jewish doctor with the inferiority complex at the draft board, and later on the regimental Sergeant Major who lives his life for drilling new recruits. Both of these might also have made very good comic characters in the hands of a Hašek; here instead Wittlin poignantly brings out their humanity, and we feel pity for them.

The unnaturalness of war in the way it uproots people from their lives comes across very effectively in the lengthy train journey from the end of nowhere, the very edge of the empire, to the training camp deep inside Hungary; a babel of different languages adds to the chaotic effect, and there is also the irony that the regiment Piotr is to join is in fact owned by the king of Serbia, who is now, of course, the enemy of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

Out of the mass emerge individuals, then, to help us identify with how war affect people; a good man is uprooted and dragged away from his people and home; another does a job – training men to die for the Emperor – that is consummate in its absurdity and yet everyone recognises how good he is at it. The first novel ends with the formal swearing of the loyalty oath as the new intake is put into uniform and readied for initial training. It is autumn 1914…

The short remnant that is all that survives of the rest of the trilogy is very powerful, focusing on the death of another recruit who emerges as an individual from the mass, as whose death is not caused by warfare, but by cruel regimental punishment…

I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel; it was very different from all the others I’ve read about that period, and in its own way just as powerful as any of them. It’s a great pity we do not have the rest of Wittlin’s work.

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

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