Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Complex Attraction of World War One Novels.

I have been working my way through novels inspired by World War One for a discussion TOMORROW in Durham’s Belmont Library which I have signalled here on the blog a while ago (Scroll down…) . I hope our discussion will tomorrow surround the almost perpetual dynamics of those events for succeeding generations of readers and writers.  

The list of possible reads is almost impossibly diverse – from Willa Cather to Pat Barker, from Jaroslav Hasek to John Boyne.

Of course Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy sets the marker for modern fiction as a literary illumination of the impact of trench warfare on individuals. Then there is ...
Willa Cather’s 1921 novel One of Ours – which drew misogynistic criticism in its time – was a surprise and a delight.
Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Sweik reminded me how comedy and irony can enhance our understanding of an individual‘s experience of the madness of war.


John Boyne’s very readable Absolutist, like The Lie, (See
below), visits the emotional territory of the friendship between two young men and the now not so forbidden territory of homosexual friendship at that time. It also brings conscientious objection into the fictional mix of this very readable novel. (My Novel Riches of the Earth also reflects on the experience of a conscientious objector as well as the individual experiences in and over the trenches of the Somme)
My Favourite Novel to date is Helen Dunmore’s novel: The Lie

I find The Lie hard to summarise. It is not a typical ‘World War One Novel.’
 In The Lie one person’s highly personal story is  revealed in retrospect: Daniel’s experience of war and its impact on his life is seen through the prism of his experiences in the trenches. A persistent ghost   dissolves the past and the present into one.     
This is a delicate love story between two men of different classes at a time when even officers in the trenches had their ‘soldier servants’ – not yet called ‘batmen’. This relationship survives the war as, in the present; the dead Frederick’s sister becomes Daniel's surrogate for Frederick.
The Lie is a novel of character
-       - of the present Daniel in his post war torment
-        - of Daniel the soldier at annihilating war,   bewildered when his intimate childhood friend becomes his office
-        of the two boys in their self-defining childhood, lodging with us the differences between them and their impact of each on the other
-        of Daniel’s deluded present when he encounters death and ritualises burial, fatefully breaking social taboos in the post-war world.

The Lie is a novel of a haunting

The layers of Daniel’s heartbreak and tra gedy beat under the subtle storytelling made manifest in the story by Frederick’s ghost. The Lie at the centre of his story which is in one way the saving of Daniel is also his undoing.

Th Lie is a novel of place

-      -  of the stinking despairing territory of the trenches and no-man’s land

 -  of the life-enhancing green routines of a Cornwall village – a boy’s paradise and then the location of haunted post- war terror.

The Writing

In novel after novel Helen Dunmore demonstrates her subtle ability to chart the threatening psychological universe of the personality under stress. Perhaps the sustaining inspiration of World War One seems perpetually to function as a demonstration of the brutal end of innocence right across the European landscape.

I hope you find time to read or re-read some of these novels. Their relevance resounds today when we reflect on the nightmare experiences of both soldiers and civilians in the succession of Middle East conflicts  Might we recognise that  as another world war of the Twenty First Century kind?

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