Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Paradox of the Continuing Attraction of Fiction Inspired by World War One

Iconic Image of World War One

Like many of us, this year and last,  I’ve had World War One on my mind. Like many of us, as a child growing up in the after-shade of World War Two, I absorbed the heroic legends of the First World War into my inner story-scape to the extent that I ‘knew’  the truth of that war and this second World War,

As time went on, this possibly illusory inner certainty was hauled into balance by my political and historical studies of the first half of the Twentieth Century - to the extent that my first properly researched published adult novel Riches of the Earth involved both the home front and the battle front in those First World War years.

The fact that my own grandfather was killed in that war gave me a personal link that I share with many writers of my generation. The blood in our veins helped us channel experiences both at home and in France into rivers of fiction.

World War One continues to be an area of fiction that continues to fascinate both

French Soldiers in Eastern France

readers and writers, not least because we still have to work out what we feel about the nature of war that still seems to permeate the air  around us. These days war is not being slogged out blow for blow in mud and blood in nearby France and Belgium. Still, broken bodies and despairing families stare at us from our screens. There in the comfort of our sitting rooms, as well as seeing innocent victim of war, we witness 
graphic images on our TV and computer screens, of soldiers who have fought in our name in the Middle East,  physically and sometimes mentally disabled by devastating war experiences.

As an aside: Pat Barker’s Booker Prizewinning novel Regeneration, as well as being a top-notch novel in literary terms, taught the reading public a great deal about the devastating nature of what was then known a Shell Shock, and what we now label as Post Traumatic Stress  Disorder. We continue to learn.*

For some there can be a self-generated light at the end of the tunnel. One of my
lifetime highlights was the day I spent at the 2012 Paralympics where athletes with disability  – some of them ex-military - proved themselves equal to mainstream athletes in sporting dedication, discipline and supreme ability.

The Reading Groups

So you will see from all this how inspired I felt to agree when Dorothy Mason, Durham City ex-librarian asked, me to lead two discussions at Belmont Library on World War One fiction with two writers’ groups to discuss World War One fiction on October 21st and October 22nd.

My idea is that these discussions will not just be a critical introduction and discussion of one novel. Rather it will be a wider ranging discussion of the approaches of many writers to devastatingly rich inspiration of the events and backgrounds to those years
between 1914-1918

I feel that readers can bring to this discussion their reading of any novel that reflects their feelings about World War One. In the process we will all gain new insights,

The List

To make this happen Dorothy and I got together and made a list of forty possible novels that will be available to readers  at Belmont Library in Durham City. You can see the list HERE if you are curious. Our  list includes English, American and European texts and includes remarkable examples of children’s fiction.

Questions for Discussion.

Our idea is that those coming to the discussion will have read at least one of these novels  so they may add their opinion to the discussion which could circle around certain  questions:

Why is World War One such and ongoing theme for writers?

What do these varied novels have in common?

What do the writers have in common?

How does their writing  differ?

Do you recognise World War One Stereotypes in these novels.

What role do they play in the novel(s) you have read?

Do we focus too easily on the Engish experience of this war?

Other questions will apply of course. If you yourself have suggested questions let me have them here and I will add them into the mix.
If you have any other views on this generic and ever-lively theme, you can comment and share here.

The Books

I have read a number of the novels on the list and look forward to hearing from other readers about novels with which I am not yet acquainted.

At present I am re-reading some or my own preferred titles and fresh reading others. This week my choice is One of Ours by Willa Cather and The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

More about these two novels and writers in my next post.

*NB Avril Joy and I are looking forward in the Spring to running writing workshops in Durham with army veterans under the auspices of the war veteran’s charity Forward Assist.

Happy Reading


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