Posted by: zhiv | December 31, 2010

Literature of World War I

A Reading List:

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)
Eric Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), The Ghost Road (1995)
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929)
Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933)
Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Man, Sherston’s Progress
and some poetry
and maybe more.

I had hoped that, getting a break at the end of the year that included a week lying around on a beach, I would be able to stage some sort of late reading rally and possibly get this blog moving again. There was also a happy combination of things with a fresh and interesting topic, Literature of World War I, all sorts of books and writers that I didn’t really know. I can safely say that it all went quite well on a wonderful, relaxing trip, and the reading part was very good. I was glad to get back to my old beach vacation mode of powering through books, and was even a bit surprised that I was able to focus so well and do nothing at the same time. A big part of it is having good, interesting books.

So I wanted to start off with a more general introduction to my lack of knowledge about the literature of World War I, going in, before writing up the books that I read on the trip. I covered some of this in the two previous posts, on Rebecca West and Remarque. The funny thing is that I had a random conversation a few weeks ago with an old graduate school crony, some one who I seem to catch up with every four years or so, and he happens to have written a very successful and well-received book on a related element of the topic (I’ll get to his book somewhere down the road here). It meant little to me at the time. But we had an interesting conversation about war novels, how he, and the same is true for me, managed to be an English major and graduate student and go through all of the years of course work, without a single war novel ever being assigned for a class. Perhaps things are changing, and my daughter’s upcoming LitWWI course is an example. Things must be different 30 years later, and I note that the copy of what is perhaps the key critical text in the syllabus, Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory,” is a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition” for 2000. This means that back in the day the general, advanced academic understanding of the topic was just taking shape. Still, it would have been easy enough to put together a war novel course, as the Literature of the Second War (it seems that some LitWWI people call WWII “the second war”) was established pretty firmly, and there were good Vietnam books rambling around, which would have been strengthened by context. So LitWWI might be seen as a subtopic of the larger War Literature category, which is broad enough. I have a vague idea that the son of a friend of mine did a Literature of War course as a senior in high school, and I wonder what they read.

I mentioned Woolf, Strachey and Forster in one of the previous posts. I wouldn’t mind reading some material on Woolf and WWI, and that might be a good reason to dip into Hermione Lee, as a place to start. Just now, trying to continue and organize these introductory thoughts, I was looking at a George Mallory biography on my shelf, “The Wildest Dream,” by Peter and Leni Gillman. Mallory makes a significant appearance in the Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That that I read last week. And I was curious to get an idea of Mallory’s war experience. But I was distracted, going through it quickly, by Mallory’s connection to the Stracheys and Geoffrey Young and Duncan Grant and it provided a look at relationships and the lead up to the war and pacifism in the Bloomsbury Group. But it was a good bridge between how I might have seen the topic earlier and the new, emerging view.

My earlier approach would have included Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I know that Ford Madox Ford figures in this era, and I’ve always managed to steer clear of his work. But I have not only a copy of the The Good Soldier, which I might be prompted to read now, but “Parade’s End,” the title of a trilogy of war books, is also on the syllabus–I’ll skip that, until further notice. In my original thinking, I would have said that Mrs. Dalloway and A Farewell to Arms are significant LitWWI material, but they seem more tangential now. I wasn’t thinking of All Quiet, and didn’t know the Rebecca West book. Oddly enough I once had a copy of the Graves’ autobiography; I’m not sure why. I also have a random copy of Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, again, who knows why, but now I’m looking forward to reading it as a follow up to Remarque. And I even looked at David Jones’ In Parenthesis just a few weeks ago, when I was going to join the NYRB read. Neither of these books is on the syllabus, but they’re strong books in the category, from what I can tell. We had a copy of Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, which is on the syllabus. I’m not especially eager to read it now, with a lot of stuff in front of it, but we’ll see. And I had a copy of The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize. It’s the final book in Pat Barker’s Regneration trilogy. Barker’s Regeneration, the first volume, was my next move after finishing All Quiet on the Western Front. Barker’s trilogy will be the subject of my next post. Robert Graves will come after that, and I’m currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, just in case you’re looking forward.

As this intro has evolved in the midst of returning home from a good reading vacation, I moved on from reading about George Mallory to Hermione Lee’s “War” chapter in her biography of Woolf. I’m always impressed and more than that by Lee’s work and amazing book. Need to finish the chapter and go through the notes, but it does a superb job of putting the response of Woolf and her work and her circle into the context of WWI. I’ll close for now with that.

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