Thursday, 26 June 2014

On Reading War Literature

I'm an open book. It's not hard to figure out my likes and dislikes in life, so it follows that my bookish likes and dislikes are similarly transparent. One of my colleagues the other day commented on the fact that I was reading another novel about WW1 and I realised that you can sum up my literary obsessions into the following categories:

  • War 
  • Suffragettes
  • Ancient Greece
We had a little giggle about my obsessive personality and how [over] enthusiastic I can be about these subjects, but when I'd recovered I decided it was time to have a little ponder on the reasons why these particular topics hold such interest for me. Here is the result of my pondering on war literature.

Being fascinated by war literature isn't something I noticed until I reached the end of my second year at uni and was thinking about my dissertation topic. Looking back I'd always swayed towards novels which dealt with war and the associated issues but it wasn't until this point that I began making conscious decisions to read war writing. It was at about this point that the First World War started making little noticeable ripples in my life and I began to sit up and take note.

Out of the above categories Ancient Greece sticks out a bit although, technically, it is still war (it is the Trojan War which fascinates me primarily, with Oedipus/Antigone coming a close second). But the first two categories - war (of the 1914 variety) and the suffrage movement - are inevitably linked. I think this is another reason why this topic began to really resonate with me as you can rarely have one without the other. The suffrage movement is silently waiting in the wings of many a war novel and the war is a not so silent player in many a suffrage novel. Obviously the timing explains this inescapable link, but so too do many of the key themes, attitudes and anxieties which often form the basis of novels which focus on either.

I realise I'm skirting the main question here which is why I read war literature. I know many war novels, mainly those written in the years following (1930 was a big year for autobiographical novels), are quite contentious. They're not easy to read and are often startlingly visceral. I still have certain scenes etched onto my memory from All Quiet on the Western Front and I've not read that for pushing on three years. But I think this is necessary. What is war literature if not a coping mechanism and a way to bear witness to the horrors of war?

I think one of the key attractions, if you can call it that, of war literature for me personally is what it can reveal and teach about the complexities of the human experience. From the nurses in Mary Borden's sketches to the German soldier's in All Quiet on the Western Front; from the ambulance drivers in Not So Quiet to the deserter in Her Privates We; and from the pacifists in Non-Combatants and Others to the staunch patriots denigrated in Goodbye to All That. From this myriad of backgrounds, roles and experiences we can get that little bit closer to knowing our selves.

There is a divide between war literature and novels which use war as a narrative technique. By which I mean the novels/short stories/poems written as a direct response to war, those which were published during, shortly after or even more than ten years after the fact, versus the contemporary historical novels. The tone is different, the emotional impact is different and often the focus is different. And yet, I am equally as interested in both categories. Contemporary novels fill in the gaps left by those writing a direct response. Birdsong gives us the tunnellers perspective, My Dear I Wanted to Tell you examines facial injuries and reconstruction, and the Regeneration Trilogy explores neurasthenia and a shell shock hospital. Though perhaps not quite so raw or full of grief, these novels are still important for what they can teach us about the other side of war, the non-Western Front, the silenced side. 

The First World War has become an obsession for me. I read about it constantly in fiction and almost all the non-fiction books I've read this year have been, in one way or another, about WW1. Occasionally I think that perhaps I ought to cut back, that maybe they're having a negative impact on my mood (these aren't jolly books), but then I'm always drawn back to whatever it is that the war offers me, and I'm ok with that. Each new read teaches me that little bit more about the history and the humanity of war. I am infinitely curious about the human condition and the human predisposition for waging war and, no matter how many war novels I read, I very much doubt that I'll ever form an understanding about why we do what we do and how what we do affects us, our family and the world. Again, I'm ok with that and I'm not stopping now.



  1. I was a HUGE reader of Military History in my late teens and early 20's. I was mostly into the technology in those days but had more than a passing interest in both the tactical and strategic side of things. That passion has re-emerged in the last year or two but in a much more rounded way. I'm still interested in the tech side of things but am much more interested in the human side of things these days.

    I do have a lot of non-fiction and a growing list of fictional war stories in my TBR pile. It'll be interesting to compare notes and get book ideas from you.

  2. I love reading about war and ancient Greece too! I think part of the reason why is because it gives me a chance to experience something through the storytelling that I would never normally be able to see.


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