We’ve passed through the centennial years for World War I but I keep re-reading novels and memoirs about that time period. Many years ago I read the classic work by Paul Fussell The Great War and Modern Memory, about how the war was interpreted through literature. It’s one of the themes I keep returning to in my reading. Here are some of my favorites.
Pat Barker is unsurpassed at recreating the wartime experience in fiction. In her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road), she writes about the psychological wounds suffered by returning soldiers, first known as shell-shock. They were frightened and embarrassed by their sometimes bizarre symptoms, and felt guilty about leaving the battlefield. Others wondered if insanity was the only sane response to such a brutal war. Their psychiatrists struggled to find ways to treat this hitherto unrecognized form of mental trauma, trying a range of treatments. Barker uses historical characters such as poet Siegfried Sassoon and psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers to illustrate the anguish of the men and their physicians who suffered through this period. Her fictional characters, such as the tormented soldier Billy Prior, are complex and hard to forget. There are no easy answers here; Barker catalogs the grim and relentless progress of the war and its effect on the participants. Her writing is extraordinary. Ghost Road, the third in the series, received the Booker Prize in 1995.
Barker also wrote about young artists caught up in the war’s beginning, worried about the changes the war will bring to their lives and careers. In her novel Life Class, art students from London’s prestigious Slade Art School live in the shadow of the impending war. Working-class Paul Tarrant is caught up in love affairs and uncertain that he has real talent; Elinor Brooke wants no part of the war and champions art as an antidote; Kit Neville is determined to use his war experiences to further his artistic career. Historical figures, such as Augustus John and Lady Ottoline Morrell, add color and depth to the setting. When Tarrant volunteers for the Belgian Red Cross, ferrying the wounded off the battlefield at Ypres, Barker takes us into the maelstrom and into the heart of an artist encountering tragedy. Life Class is the first book of a trilogy that follows these artists as the war affects and refines their life and art.
Memoirs and novels of the war capture the experience of participants and those who stayed behind. Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, long a classic in England, is a riveting account of one young woman’s war experience, what she calls “the smashing up of my own youth by the War.” In 1914, at the end of her first year at Oxford, she was engaged to a soldier. Compelled to assist the war effort, she volunteered as a nurse and served at hospitals in Malta and in France, where she experienced firsthand the devastation of the trench warfare at the Western Front. She lost her fiancé, her brother and her innocence as well. Brittain’s account of how the war affected an entire generation is heartfelt and absorbing. An excellent movie was made from this memoir, but reading the book is a much more intense experience.
Doris Lessing’s unusual, moving novel-and-memoir, Alfred & Emily, is a re-imagining of the lives of her parents as if World War I never happened. In fact, their lives were irrevocably scarred by the war—her father lost a leg and coped with the restrictions of a primitive artificial prosthetic and the emotional scars of trench warfare. Her mother was a nurse in London’s famous Royal Free Hospital, tending to the wounded and shell-shocked soldiers, their cries of “oh, Nurse, the pain” permeating her dreams for the rest of her life. In the first, fictional part, Lessing obliterates the war from English history, and using what she knows of her parents’ families, friends, and early histories, imagines the paths their lives might have taken. In the second part, she tells the real story of their adult lives on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, allowing the reader to see the raw material that inspired her fictional portraits and the way World War I was never far from the surface of their lives. It’s a child’s “what-if” literary game played by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Sadly, for an entire generation and their children, the war’s effects were all too real.
Anne Perry’s mystery, No Graves as Yet, the first in a series, opens on the idyllic playing fields at Cambridge University, on June 28, 1914, the day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Bosnia Herzegovina. Chaplain and faculty member Joseph Reavley is watching his students playing cricket when his brother Matthew arrives with the devastating news that their parents have been killed in a car accident. Matthew reveals that their father, a former Member of Parliament, was carrying documentary evidence of a conspiracy “to ruin England and everything that we stand for.” As the diplomatic tensions in Europe ripple out from Serbia to Germany and Russia, the two brothers race to uncover the conspiracy. In the ensuing weeks, a student is murdered and arguments about the likelihood of war divide students and faculty into opposing camps. Perry nicely balances Cambridge life, with its ageless, comfortable rituals and routines for the privileged classes against the threatened war and conspiracy that would turn that world upside down.