'We write to taste life twice:in the moment and in retrospect.' Anaïs Nin
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
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
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
For some there can be a self-generated light at the end of the tunnel. One of my
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
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
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,
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:
is World War One such and ongoing theme for writers?
do these varied novels have in common?
do the writers have in common?
does their writing differ?
you recognise World War One Stereotypes in these novels.
role do they play in the novel(s) you have read? Do we focus too easily on the Engish experience of this war?
questions will apply of course. If you yourself have suggested questions let me have them here and I will add them into the mix.
you have any other views on this generic and ever-lively theme, you can comment and
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.
present I am re-reading some or my own preferred titles and fresh reading
others. This week my choice is One of Oursby Willa Cather and The Lieby Helen Dunmore.
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.