The Soldier, the Terrorist and the Donkey King - The Other Perspective: A First Century Novel

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Did you write in English? At the heart of the project are the soldier-writers whose subsequent literary careers were built in no small part on what they wrote about their war. Then there are those who wrote about the war, during the war—but not afterwards, either because they simply did not continue to write or because they did not survive.

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The dead poets, yes, but also many letter-writing non-writers. There are also many approaches to the letter home—Tell mother nothing? Only the good parts? Only the recognizable parts? This sort of amateur writing, like the literarily bland combat memoir, has its own interest, and each genre has its fine points and excellences. Finally, there are the writers who shared the experiences of the other two groups but did not write at length about it, yet contributed valuable non-war books to our literary patrimony.

So any middling or major British writer who experienced the trenches may pop up here, no matter how much work it might take to find traces of the Western Front in their work. There will be Tolkien. As the project continues, the course of the war—specifically who was fighting in it at any particular time—will also dictate the mix of writers. The first autumn and winter will see most of the central group of writers agonizing about joining up or volunteering and beginning training. Not only because of the change in the outlook of the soldier-writers, but because so many people will be writing for so many different reasons: to record their experiences for posterity; to work to understand themselves or to cope with terror and danger and physical hardship; to try to teach those at home how much the realities of war differed from its traditional literary portrayal and the propagandistic newspaper accounts; or, increasingly, because they saw themselves as writers, who must simply write, and could hardly write about anything else.

There are even a few exceptions to the rule that the writers must have at one point seen combat on the Western Front or nursed its wounds. A few non-combatants with especially close claims of blood to the suffering of the infantry are included here as well: if you wrote with great intensity about the war because your brother or son was killed, you may earn a certain analogous authority to write about the war. But there is another reason, too: however much soldier-writers might work to convince us to buy and read their work, there is very often an implicit sense that those who have not experienced war cannot ever understand it.

Probably not—and certainly not if we insert a sensible adverb. We cannot fully understand war without experiencing it. But we can go some of the way toward understanding if they write well and we read well; if not, this enterprise would have no point and humanity would be a step or two closer to self-destruction. For most of us, then, the inclusion here of the bereaved writers who embraced, as a subject, the thing that took their loved ones, is the propping-open of a postern gate to affiliation with a subject that, fortunately for us, is not really ours.

This means that we are not likely to discuss either of the American volunteer ambulance drivers who got quite close to the war and later flew higher in the literary stratosphere than the combatant writers. Nor, as noted in 3b, above, will you find the very greatest of the English-language Modernists, who tended to be conveniently Irish, American, or female, and responded to the war more as a general catastrophe and artistic challenge than as something catastrophic to specific minds, challenging them to survive without the loss of sanity or the ability to make art.

Nothing much against the movement—Herbert Read and David Jones will represent its interests pretty well, here, even if the flowers-to-mud tone of Georgian-to-post-Georgian war poetry will be the dominant note. We cannot go too far from the trenches.

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A world war affects every writer, some more, some less, and the floodgates could open too wide. It is the common experience of the Western Front that matters, not the quality of the writing as it later came to be assessed. The approach here is, then, a sort of fine-grained and thorough-going New Historicism, which is to say something rather like reading as it should have been. But first, that irony. Yet most of the finest, most literary writers of the First World War worked often in a deeply ironic register, and so will we, to a certain extent.

Here we are under the influence of Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory is a wonderful book; and its story of the war as a huge irony of circumstance ripe for literary transmutation is inescapable here. It is a flawed masterpiece by a great critic with his own bone to pick with war, and must be very much out of fashion by now, rebutted and perhaps reviled by some—but it is the best sort of old, emotional, all-encompassing cultural and literary criticism.

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Almost all of our authors were volunteers conscription would come to Britain in —and with only a bit of generalizing, convenient lumping and edge-smoothing, and sepia-toned idealizing it is possible to seem them all, in , as belated Victorians, boys believing in fair play and the cleanliness of battle, and the rightness of their cause and the decency of their leaders. They willingly walked out of idyllic boyhoods again, a reflection of an over-representation of those from comfortable circumstances and the relative absence of men who joined up because that meant regular food and some money to send home into a miserable stalemate of mud and barbed wire, from the playing fields of Eton into artillery barrages and traversing machine gun fire.

This ironic reading works brilliantly for a number of great that adjective again! Although Fussell went to the archives of the Imperial War Museum and broadened his study well beyond the borders of the well-known memoirs, he was still an unabashed wielder of aesthetic criteria. Which is to merely insist that all books are not created equal. Again, the goal here is some sort of balance between the weight of history or the weight of numbers and the power of art. Time is short, and the bad books are many. We will surely include some maddeningly inarticulate letters, some poetry that can only be cringed or nervously chuckled through—because they show another side of the war and its writing, because they have something good to fasten neatly onto one of the long days of the grudging war—but there will be much more Blunden and Graves and Brittain, because they were better writers, and better writing is better.

The irony and the elitism are not identical, but neither are they loosely connected. War is bad, lies are bad, lies about war are very bad, and combat does nothing so reliably as damage young men, often beyond repair. Owen and Sassoon—the pity and the rage—are not the only story here, but their sort of voices will be the dominant ones.

There are a few good oral history collections of the war, and some great histories written from them—but this project is about writing. So it will feature those whose parents could afford the education that prepared them to write, those whose cultural identity valued not just literacy but letters, and, to a lesser extent, those who wrote well enough to make a career of it or retained privilege enough to write all the time anyway.

These writing fellows have not been neglected. The Western Front has been overexposed, commercialized, and its best writers are familiar enough, at least in the UK. This project, by contrast, is blithely unresponsive to responsibility, a solitudinous rambling. As such, there is little need to apologize for a certain fondness for its material, a thing that eludes full explanation or critical discipline. And why not, if one loves books? As we have learned, no English-speaking nation had ever before sent such a large proportion of such literate young men out to war. Nor will any again.

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Of all those lettered young creative types, very few indeed aspired to be auteurs of the popular song, cinematograph, or televised drama. They were going to be writers.

Never such commitment to the written word again. Ergo, never again such awful riches for the connoisseur of war writing. Almost done. The simple, best reason for doing so is that this broadens our perspective: reading writers as they transmute memory to narrative fiction instead of into verse or the presumably non-fictionalized letters and memoirs we will see more frequently will provide more insight into the writing of the Great War and the relationship between words and days.

A difficulty here is the scarcity of dates in fiction. A diary writer conventionally provides the date of writing, as do many memoirists; in the novels we will often be struggling to connect bare months or even seasonal references to events from the known biography of the writer or the military history of his unit. The novels, therefore, will generally only complement entries fixed to dates that have been otherwise gleaned from non-fictional writing or the historical record. It is worth noting too that this is no real breach of convention. They suffered a good deal of attrition, in fact, at the hands of Great War writers.

If the former is a novel and the latter a memoir than they could be chatting amiably over a garden fence generically speaking; the fox hunter and the otter-imaginer were not otherwise of a literary kindred which we may as well kick down in order to sit to tea together. But these are nearly empty formalities, in most cases. So with novels—and, at this cultural moment, with our episodic video entertainments—we are on hair-trigger alert, primed for flight from spoilers, ready to begin shrieking hysterically and spin around with switch-blade at the ready if we sense the presence of a garrulous and more-advanced binger threatening to huff and puff at the mists of our personally undiscovered country.

History is not supposed to work that way largely because history is serious. To take pleasure in what is essentially manufactured suspense would thus be odd and indulgent. For why choose to allow emotional interference with our logical probing after historical truth?

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To refer to events that lie in the future of our lockstep century would, then, be an unfair advantage over the writer we are reading—well, my good fellow, let us see if you still write like that after your experience at the battle of Loos! But, as we begin, the plan is to avoid reference to specific events that have not yet come to pass. And there is the spoiler to end all spoilers. Many war poetry anthologies come with a list of contributors, a large minority of whom are adorned with an asterisk, a blurry little star of valor.

It seems a little foolish: youthful, misguided, explained better by reference to evolutionary biology than a careful consideration of human happiness and the potential value of life. But we are digressing. It is natural to be interested in knowing whether the journal entry, letter to mother, or draft poem that was written a century back is from the pen of a young man who will die within a year or two, or one who will grow old as a writer and reviser of those thoughts. So Google him. Again, I will try to steer a middle course. But neither will I be coyly hiding facts that must be obvious from the way in which we approach the writing.


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This would seem to damage the literary goals of this project and at the same time turn the calendrical conceit into something more like a blindfold game then a long experiment involving time and historical or narrative awareness. Much can be figured out, of course: the tone and tense of memoirs sets survivors apart, and, try as I might, it will probably be impossible to separate the day-by-day lived life of a famous poet-casualty from the emplotment of his life story as a sort of literary martyrdom.

I think, in the end, that death is part of the draw…. A Century Back— Writing the Great War, Day by Day Each post either excerpts something that was written or discusses something that happened a century ago to the day. Yet, as we bring more and more memoirists into the project as the war stretches on I expect to find many writers crossing paths with each other or passing close by in the night, hunching under the same bombardments, inhabiting the same trenches, writing of the view from different flanks of the same assault… This defense of concentration has declined into a sales pitch—The best war books ever, and more bang for your buck!

Literature—critical justifications I will be important to remember—for reader, and writer as well—that the project is All About Writing, and only circumstantially about military history but what circumstances! Here are four ways to respond: 1 With the blithe, shrugging dismissiveness of a kid far cooler than the literary friend is, e. But Thomas Hardy is in, on which more later. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. So I have inserted these lines, taken from this article at The Millions, ahead of the long table-setting and throat-clearing i. Yes: I am quoting myself in order to more concisely explain myself.

It is doubtful that more than perhaps a handful of men were actually there on both days. This is a war blog!

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