Posts Tagged ‘literature of the First World War’

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

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Stefan Brijs: Post for Mrs Bromley

October 10, 2018

51E9jdRvQIL._AC_US218_This is an astonishing new novel set during the First World War, but sadly not yet available in English, though there is a sample here. At first, I wondered when I read ‘translated from the Dutch’ on the cover, but then I actually realised Brijs is a Flemish writer, and all fell into place, Flanders, the Western Front and everything: a writer from the area, fascinated by what happened there a century ago. And the final sections are set in Poperinghe and feature Talbot House, which I visited earlier this year…

It’s interesting because it’s a novel about Britain at the very start of the war, and its early days, a time of confusion and bewilderment as well as growing patriotism and propaganda, a time before the horrors with which we are all familiar became widely known. This is an aspect I haven’t met in other fiction, to the same degree. The first part is set in the working-class areas of the East End of London, and to me Brijs seems to create a very detailed and convincing picture of life there, with very credible characters and settings. It centres on two ‘milk brothers’ (i.e. one was wet-nursed by the mother of the other): their backgrounds and aspirations are very different, however, and they grow apart, one a true and patriotic proletarian who wants to join up at the outset, thought too young and undernourished and therefore having to resort to subterfuge, the other – John – more questioning, academic, and by his own eventual admission, more cowardly. His father is a bookaholic postman, and it’s through his experiences delivering official letters and messages that the awful truth about the war gradually emerges; he feels increasingly like an angel of death, and begins to conceal rather than deliver official mail.

John chooses to go to university to study literature rather than join up, and makes a very good friend who is finishing a degree in German, and who questions everything he hears about the war.

As the story develops we encounter a powerful portrayal of how the tentacles of support for the war spread, gradually affecting more and more people; we see the hero’s attitudes and emotions changing as he reflects and questions his own stance and behaviour, in response to other people as well as to events. Particularly well described is the terror of the early Zeppelin raids on London and how these crystallised anti-German feeling; equally we see the effect of atrocity propaganda. Ultimately, as a result of events as well as reflection on his apparent cowardice, our hero signs up, and eventually ends up at the front, in the Somme region towards the end of 1916, in quest of the truth about his childhood ‘brother’, who he knows is dead.

His experiences as orderly to a lieutenant who has clearly been badly mentally affected by his experiences is very sensitively and thoughtfully developed, and I was reminded at various times of the characters in Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. John is loyal to his officer, both sensitive to and horrified by his affliction. We are not spared the suddenness and meaninglessness of death at the front. Brijs manages to bring to life men who are utterly trapped by their circumstances, their sense of duty, mentally deranged by their experiences in so many different ways, small and large. At times I wasn’t totally convinced by the levels of deceit John resorts to in his quest for truth, but realised that in the enormity of the chaos surrounding him, anything was possible: all are suffering in a true hell that spares no-one. Without giving anything away, I can truthfully say that I found the denouement very powerful indeed.

So here was a novel about Britain and the British Army during the Great War, written in Flemish, translated into French and German so far, but not English: what’s going on?

August favourites #11: Comic novels

August 11, 2018

51VdgF+uEDL._AC_US218_516u8jzrppL._AC_US218_There are two novels which I’ll name equally here; having re-read them a number of times, both still have me laughing out loud, uncontrollably at times – though those who know me will acknowledge that isn’t actually that hard to achieve – Jaroslav Hasek’s amazing comic novel The Good Soldier Svejk, set in the Great War on the Eastern Front, with a congenital idiot as its hero, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, again featuring a buffoon, who brings chaos in his wake wherever he goes and whatever he attempts. It’s also very sad that Toole took his own life, having failed to find a publisher for his manuscript, which then went on to become a cult classic.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

David Jones: In Parenthesis

September 1, 2016

There was a documentary about Jones and his poem on television a few weeks ago: I was very surprised, as a teacher who’d taught First World War literature for many years, not to have heard of the poet or the work. The programme was fascinating, and now I’ve read the book.

It’s poetry in the way James Joyce’s prose is poetical, lyrical in its use of the language’s sounds and images. More prose than poetry, then, and running to nearly a couple of hundred pages, it’s not as immediately accessible as Owen or Sassoon, perhaps. We follow the speaker – an ordinary soldier – from call-up through basic training, his complicated journey to the Western Front, near Ypres first and then to the Somme, where he sees his mates killed, and he is wounded.

The writing is impressionistic. Often the soldiers are backgrounded an atmosphere takes centre-stage, very effectively. Often his verse reminds me of Whitman, with echoes of those long, gradually developing accretive sentences. Sometimes he reads like Hopkins in his use of adjectives and nonce-words. There is erudition in his epic similes, and his myriad religious references, though the constant recalling of Arthurian and Celtic mythology did pall after a while, as did having to refer to the notes Jones provided to help his readers through his text.

I was impressed by the poem; it moved me greatly, even though it was hard work. An uncanny beauty somehow conceals the horrors of the offensive, and you only gradually realise the carnage taking place around the narrator, and by the time you have realised, you are in the very middle of it, with him, sharing his perspective. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, because there is at the same time a perspective and a curious distancing effect too. I shall have to come back to this soon.

On the Great War

February 13, 2014

I know I will be revisiting some of the literature of the First World War over the coming months and years. With the arguments about the rights and wrongs, the blame, whether to celebrate or commemorate already under way, in the usual unseemly fashion here in Britain anyway, I decide to put some thoughts on paper.

We remember (supposedly) the war(s) and war dead every year on 11 November. It has increasingly become a matter of routine: do we actually reflect on what it means? To me, the centenary means an opportunity to slow down, and to think properly about what actually happened, and how it has affected our word today. For me, it’s about commemoration, and respect for the dead.

The blame game – who started it, whose fault was it? – is irrelevant, really: the war happened, all those people died. That cannot be undone. Politicians’ job now is to ensure such things never happen again.

We will have the opportunity to remember the actual horror that war is – the deaths, the injuries, the maimings, the mourning: there will be plenty of detail about all that. We need to realise that such things happen in all wars, everywhere, whether our country is involved or not, whether we think a war is ‘just’ (?) or not.

The traces of the Great War remain with us: the places, the cemeteries (I was left at a loss for words so many times on my visit to the Somme battlefields last autumn), the art and the writing. I’m going to write about my reactions to writers from the countries that were involved.

More importantly, the consequences of the Great war are still with us. Eric Hobsbawm‘s massive history contains a volume entitled Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. It’s a fascinating take on the period, which has always made sense to me: everything flowed from that war – communism and its associated excesses, fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the millions of deaths associated with them. As half-Polish, I remember that Poland re-emerged as an independent nation as a result of the war. And the crazy boundaries in the Middle East, drawn by French and British diplomats and bureaucrats continue to wreck the lives of so many people.

I’ve always felt that war solves nothing. That’s not intended as a glib statement, and it’s sometimes hard to defend, but, as a self-labelled ‘intelligent species’ it’s one that I hope many people will be reflecting on over the next four years.

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