Thoughts on World War I Literature

Historical fiction—no matter how well written—must always fall short of fiction written by people who actually experienced what they're writing about. Or maybe I only think that because I've read such excellent literature written by survivors of World War I that the historical fiction just pales in comparison. Earlier this year, I read the republished novel Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier, and last night I started reading P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land

The contemporary fiction about World War I is nihilistic, brutal, and unforgiving. It shines a harsh light on the absurdities of the tactics, the jingoism, death, and conditions. The historical fiction doesn't capture the same feeling. Some of the novels are overly poetic and try to assign a higher meaning to events veterans would say don't mean anything at all. I wonder if my feelings about this come from the fact that there's a wealth of literature from World War I combatants. I don't have the same feelings about Civil War or World War II literature. Is World War I so different from other wars? Is it just because there were so many writers who were in the trenches? Is it because the veterans' literature is cathartic and the historical fiction is purely literature?

A poppy was made for every British casualty in World War I and placed at the Tower of London for the centennial.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Thank you for your insights and for raising such interesting and important issues. I agree with you that WW I memoirs like those of Vera Brittain, Robert Graves, the Canadian journalist Will R. Bird, and the rest give us the language and the experience as rendered by participants in it and a wealth of moving and astonishing literature. Both memoir and fiction seek to interpret, not just recount events. But fiction has a larger purpose—serious literature, whether set in contemporary times or the past, seeks not just to describe events, but to ascribe meaning to them. We go about our everyday lives, as did soldiers in the trenches, but in fiction, those events are pulled out, examined in fresh ways, tied into larger themes. You ask if WW I is so different from other wars. I believe the consensus is that it was. There are over 24,000 scholarly publications on it—far more than for most wars. It has been described as the first great calamity of the 20th century and the one from which all other 20th century calamities came. Art and poetry took a radical turn after the war (a dystopian world view) and it saw the rise of social unrest, major changes in the status of women and class, and laid the foundation for WW II—just to name a few of its lasting effects. One reason for the intensity of response at the time and today was the nature of the war itself— the juxtaposition of outdated tactics (massed assaults) and modern weapons (machine guns, gas, artillery with destructive power never before imagined). The result was slaughter on a scale impossible to comprehend, and the dawning of awareness that man had the power to destroy civilization. The 60,000 casualties on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme July 1, 1916, for example, match the number of deaths from 10 years of fighting in Viet Nam. One other thing you touch on is the nature of “WW I literature/fiction.” While it accurately reflects the wealth of post-WW I literature, we continue to use it to describe any book set during the war, whether or not that was the author’s intention. For example, my novel was always going to be about an event disrupted the bond between a father and son. Originally, the precipitating event was going to be on a schooner in the Grand Banks. I chose a time period of 1919 because fishing was still conducted by sailing vessels then. Given the time frame, however, I also began to research the war so as to understand the world context of the characters. The more I researched the war, however, the more I began to see my characters in it. Thus, as you write, some choices are organic, not planned, and setting a book during WW I for me, was one of them. I don’t mind that it is called WW I fiction, but I do believe that the term is sometimes overgeneralized and can limit understanding of a books’ larger themes. In my book they include the need for connection to oneself as well as to others in surviving upheaval. WW I is the lens through which those events, relationships, struggles unfolded. Again, my thanks for your stimulating thoughts on the war and war fiction. My best regards, P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land.


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