Imagine a time and place when the dominant popular belief supposed that truth, beauty, justice, and progress not only existed but seemed within permanent grasp. National leaders deserved confidence until proven otherwise. Science, which had discovered how to cure centuries-old scourges, held unbridled promise. Technology had invented everything from electronic communications to engine-driven land transport to the zipper and the safety razor, and would continue to improve daily life and make drudgery a thing of the past. International cooperation in all these efforts, as well as in finance, commerce, the arts, and philosophy, would bring about unheard-of amity.
This was Western Europe in 1914, and the war beginning that year would crush this optimism forever. The transformation shook every conceivable facet of life and, I believe, altered twentieth-century history like no other event.
Wilfred Owen, one of my favorite poets, was killed a week before the armistice. This photograph illustrated a posthumous collection of his poems in 1920 (courtesy https://archive.org/details/poemsowenwil00owenrich, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)
Today, in honor of Armistice Day (this Wednesday), I’ll devote this week’s column to my favorite fiction about the war, most of which I’ve reviewed or soon will. All feel authentic to me in their re-creation of mood and attitudes, language and thought, historical accuracy, and, as strong fiction must, offer protagonists with flaws, villains with virtues or at least depth, and subtle exposition of themes and background information. My choices are character-driven, though not all would qualify as literary. For fans of All Quiet on the Western Front and its kind, fear not; I’ll devote a separate section to fiction contemporary to the war.
The first book reviewed on this blog, The Lie, has all I look for and more. The late Helen Dunmore paints an exquisite story of a veteran returning to Cornwall in 1920, worried (with reason) he’ll be homeless, a metaphor for his struggle to find a place in the world and one within himself. Beautiful and painful, and though it’s not for the faint of heart, we’re talking about emotional suffering, not blood or violence.
Regeneration, by Pat Barker, the first of a trilogy, is the gold standard for many, a compelling tale of a real-life British Army psychiatrist, who treats Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. (While under treatment, Owen drafts the poem that inspired the title of this column.) But literature’s not the point here: Nearly all the doctor’s patients (and superiors) assume that “shell shock” can only mean weakness — and therein hangs a tale.
A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry, tells the story of a young Irish soldier betrayed by circumstance and his own trusting nature. Known for his angelic singing voice, he lifts his melodies over no man’s land, so that music haunts the narrative. The Easter Rebellion and the burden of Irish history also play a key role in this compelling, memorable novel.
The Heroes’ Welcome, by Louisa Young, takes two intertwined survivors’ stories and follows them past the war’s end. One’s damaged emotionally and can’t love his wife, who becomes disturbed in her own way; the other vet’s had drastic facial reconstructive surgery, yet finds greater happiness than he — or anyone — expected for him. A brave book that confronts human failings head-on.
The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott, involves the search for a missing soldier, presumed dead by all save his wife and his brother, who has loved his sister-in-law for years. An elegant premise deftly developed, and unusual among First World War novels, in which a woman is neither nurse nor bandage-roller nor keeps the home fires burning.
Recently reviewed here, The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate, delivers a classic rendering— a 1913 hunting party on an Oxfordshire estate, a metaphor for the slaughter to come. All’s on display, with remarkable economy and punch: characters, attitudes, the world of caste, deference, and ways that would soon cease to exist.
Andrea Molesini’s characters, larger than life yet plausible, show force, ingenuity, weakness, strength, and mordant wit, reacting to the Austrian occupation of their home north of Venice in 1917. That’s Not All Bastards Are from Vienna, storytelling at its finest, about how to live when death rides high, and with a vigor seldom seen during wartime.
P. S. Duffy effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, and the tension and release of battle among the Canadian Expeditionary Force in The Cartographer of No Man’s Land (to be reviewed here soon). Her home-front storyline, back in Nova Scotia, seems less powerful, but parallel journeys of a father and son link the two convincingly.
The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, tells a singular story about a successful medical student who’s thrust into a military hospital, where he’s immediately over his head. He has to relearn everything, from a nurse, which runs contrary to the system that instructed (and restrained) him. Despite a strenuous section of back story and an ending I find dubious, Mason knows how to write character, and his prose will stay with you.
Mystery fans need look no further than The White Feather Killer, by R. N. Morris (soon to be reviewed here as well). Morris excels at characterization, historical atmosphere—London hysteria at the war’s outbreak—and whodunit. Some readers may find his tortured souls off-putting, and the near-universal willingness to abuse others creates a bleak mood. But the rewards here beyond a superb mystery are many, not least an unvarnished portrayal of police work in 1914, and a similar depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds.
In The Redeemed, Tim Pears returns to England’s West Country for his last volume of a trilogy, to relate how the war affects his two protagonists, a lord’s daughter and a former servant on her father’s estate. The discursive narrative doesn’t hold together as well as its predecessor, but Pears’s prose creates a physical world as few authors can, and the class and social attitudes leap off the page with authenticity. The romance wins too.
Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject unfamiliar to me, and perhaps to most readers. As a trench novel, it’s terrific, showing how, over time, incessant killing destroys good men from within. Unfortunately, the backstory, narrated by the protagonist’s aunt, often feels shoehorned in.
Clare Clark portrays minor Hampshire aristocracy who keep the twentieth century at bay in We That Are Left. It’s rare that a book full of disagreeable characters can be riveting, especially at 450 pages, and Clark’s people feel entirely, satisfyingly grounded in the time, which tells you all you need to know about Britain’s social conflicts. A needless prologue and an implausible, even Dickensian, ending mar the total effect, but the book is still worth reading.
The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s narrative about two Australian sisters who become nurses, captures the violence and fear in an unflinching, unpredictable way, while keeping their sibling rivalry front and center. If it weren’t for the author’s habit of telling rather than showing, and the provincial attitude that all British officers are stupid incompetents, while Aussies just do things better, I’d recommend the novel more highly.
August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of the war’s disastrous beginning for Russia, provides the sweep you’d expect and issues that you know will eventually consume the empire from within. It’s been years since I read the novel, but it’s stayed with me, including a negative, how pat the author’s conclusions feel, especially the historical ones. Nevertheless, the Russian perspective seldom reaches print in translation, so it’s worth your time.
Now, onto the contemporaries. Beyond All Quiet (1929), and also from the German point of view, consider Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan), whose keen psychological insight shapes six First World War novels, one of which I read decades ago, Education Before Verdun (1936). And if you haven’t tackled the 900-page Magic Mountain (1927), Thomas Mann’s masterpiece about Europeans seeking treatment at a sanitarium, a metaphor for a society bent on destroying itself, dip into it.
Q: What do these three authors have in common, aside from their nationality? A: The Nazis burned their books.
As for Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932) shows the decline and fall of an Austrian family just before the war, and the stultifying existence they led. The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23) is Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished satire about a middle-aged simpleton eager to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the scrapes he gets into.
Moving over to the Allies, I recommend Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear (1930), my only French entry. With an unsparing eye and steady hand, the author tears the heroic mantle off the army, re-creating the war as an exercise in survival, getting by, and suffering, whose depths and absurdity the home front never hears about.
On the British side, for a similar clear-eyed, even savage, portrayal, try Death of a Hero (1929), Richard Aldington’s scathing attack on the Victorian belief system on which he blames the war. In bitter, often darkly funny fashion, he ascribes the conflict to sexual attitudes—an arresting analysis. Less overtly biting, yet as honest and straightforward an account of the trenches as you’ll ever find, The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), by Fredric Manning, captures the spirit, feelings, and language of the common soldier. Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), H. G. Wells’s novel about a civilian who copes with the demanded sacrifices, provides a window on the time and sets out the author’s religious philosophy.
Many American authors known chiefly for other themes or subjects wrote about the war, including Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, with largely forgettable results. When I was seventeen, A Farewell to Arms (1929), knocked me over, but I doubt Ernest Hemingway’s popular romance would stir me today, given what I’ve learned since about women, Hemingway, and the war (in no particular order). His one-time friend, John Dos Passos, gives Three Soldiers (1919) an early version of the electric passion found in his celebrated trilogy, U.S.A., and a similar theme, alienation.
That’s my current take on First World War fiction. But there are new entries all the time, and I’m always on the lookout.