The latest addition to my website is Hans von Trotha‘s Pollaks Arm (Pollak’s Arm). Ludwig Pollak was a very respected Jewish Austro-Czech classical archeologist and dealer, who spent much of his adult life in Rome and is best-known for finding the missing arm of the famous sculpture Laocoön and His Sons. This book recounts the last few hours before he was arrested by the SS with his family in September 1943 and sent to Auschwitz where they were all murdered. A German called only K, who was working in the Vatican, was sent to pick him up. He failed. Pollak talked for a long time, telling his full and very fascinating story (the bulk of the novel), feeling that he has to tell the story so that he will be remembered. He also felt that he was carrying the burden of his people. We learn of his successes and the problems he had and of K’s devastation at not being able to help him.
The latest addition to my website is Sarah Hall‘s Burntcoat. Our heroine is Edith Harknesss. We follow her life from when she was ten and her mother, a successful novelist, had an aneurysm but survived though much changed. Edith decides to become an artist, focussing on monumental works using shou sugi ban, a Japanese charred timber technique and has considerable success. However a pandemic strikes – seemingly worse than covid just as she is starting the love affair of her life with a Turkish chef and the pair hide out in her huge converted warehouse called Burntcoat. The pandemic leaves Edith with the equivalent of long covid, though this form seems it be generally fatal, as she works on her final monumental work. It is another superb work from Sarah Hall and confirms her as one of Britain’s leading novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Eit nytt namn – Septologien VI-VII (A New Name : Septology VI-VII). This is the conclusion of his brilliant trilogy about three days in the life of an artist/two artists, Alse. I say two artists as there are two Alses but they seem likely to be doppelgängers of one another. In this novel Alse 1 (as I call him but Fosse does not) essentially abandons painting and moves towards the final phase of his life. What has always mattered to him more than anything is Ales, his long since dead wife, and he will see her on a symbolic boat journey, as he moves towards a state of grace. His doppelgänger, however, will spend the entire book in a coma, almost certainly caused by excessive drinking. We do jump back – Alse 1’s meeting with Ales and his artistic career and Alse 2’s marital problems – but the focus of the book is the move towards the end. This trilogy has been haled as one of the great works of the twenty-first century and I can only concur.
The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Eg er ein annan – Septologien III-V ( I is Another : Septology III-V). This is the second in his trilogy, with the first book introducing us to Asle 1 and Asle 2, both Norwegian painters, and ending with Asle 2 seriously ill in hospital after Asle 1 found him collapsed in the snow. This book continues with Asle 1’s musings but is mostly about Asle 2 and his childhood. It soon becomes apparent that the two men are almost certainly the same person, perhaps two alternative versions of their life story. However, both meet in the book and become friends and we see his/their early struggles. We also follow Asle 2 at the present time and his views on painting and religion and how the two converge. Fosse once again gives us a wonderful example of slow prose a deep exploration of the psyche and the soul of a man – two men? – and his art, his religion and his life.
The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Det Andre Namnet – Septologien I-II (The Other Name – Septology I-II). This contains the first two novels in what Fosse calls a septology, though they will be published as a trilogy in English. The novel is narrated by a man I shall call Asle 1. He is a painter, a widower, childless reformed alcoholic, religious and devoted to his work. He is friends with another painter also called Asle, whom I shall call Asle2. Asle 2 is twice divorced with three children he does not see, not religious, a serious alcoholic and a man who struggles with his painting. Asle 1,coming into Bjørgvin, clearly based on Bergen, from the small fishing village where he lives, finds Asle 2 collapsed in the snow and rescues him. What makes this book is Asle 2’s thoughts on his art, his religious views and their influence on both his life and art, his relationship with his rough-and-ready neighbour, Åsleik and his thoughts about his late wife, Ales. There are no fireworks but the book is a wonderful read.
The latest addition to my website is Tomás González‘s La luz difícil (Difficult Light). It is narrated by David, a Colombian painter. While he and his family, were living in New York, his son, Jacobo had a terrible car accident, leaving him in permanent and agonising pain. Jacobo decides that he cannot go on living and, with the support of his family, he plans to die. Much of the book is David, now aged 78, widowed, going blind and back in Colombia, writing about Jacobo and the events leading to his planned death, including a car journey from New York to Portland, Oregon. However, we also see the world through David’s painterly eye and it is the combination of the Jacobo plot and David’s view of the world that makes this a masterful novel.
The latest addition to my website is Clara Usón‘s Corazón de napalm [Heart of Napalm]. There are two stories going in. The first concerns Fede, an overweight thirteen year old boy, whose parents spend their life partying and doing drugs. When it all goes wrong, the parents split up and Fede and his father move to Santander, where his father has a new wife. Fede and his stepmother hate each other and Fede decides to run away to find his mother. It does not work out well. Meanwhile, Marta is painting for the famous artist, Maristany. He has a tremor so he has the ideas and she carries them out. The clients are none the wiser. However, she is fired by Maristany’s new wife, Solange. Sometime later she meets Juan, a judge specialising in juvenile crime. They start an affair, which has its ups and downs, while she struggles to make a living, till Solange phones her after Maristany’s death, to carry on her work. Though various things go wrong in both stories, the two do converge and in a surprising way. It is a very clever book with interesting ideas on art and juvenile crime but sadly not available in English.
During our recent travels in Ireland, we visited Birr Castle, a beautiful castle in wonderful grounds and well worth the visit. The castle is owned and still partially occupied by Lord and Lady Rosse. The Earl of Rosse is the brother of the Earl of Snowdon who was, for eighteen years married to Princess Margaret. In the bookshop, I found a copy of a book called Room for Books – Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse. Alison Rosse is the Countess of Rosse. It is, as it says, a selection of paintings of various Irish libraries, both private and public, beautifully done. The paintings reminded me of the painting of Coole Park Library done by Yeats. which I had just seen, shown in my post of yesterday (scroll down).
I am no art critic but I did find these paintings well done, somewhat but certainly not too much impressionistic and all giving the flavour of the library in question, all of which have their similarities – high shelves with books in them – but all of which have their own distinct appearance. Each painting is accompanied by a useful description/history written by William Laffan, an Irish art historian. My only regret is that I have not visited any of them and, as many of them are private, probably never will; however this is definitely an excellent way of seeing and appreciating fine libraries you will probably never see. The one shown above, by the way, is the library at Birr Castle.
The best way to get the book is to visit Birr Castle. If that is not possible, it is available online from the publishers, the Irish Georgian Society and from Offaly History for the very reasonable price of €10.00.
The latest addition to my website is Sabahattin Ali‘s Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat). Our narrator, who has lost his job, gets a job where he has to work with a German translator called Raif. Raif is treated badly at work and badly at home (by his in-laws) and is often ill. When Raif seems to be dying the narrator is given a notebook which contains Raif’s story. He had gone to Germany as a young man and drifted around, till he went to a modern art exhibition. He did not like the art till be saw the final painting, a self-portrait by a woman called Maria Puder, which he christens Madonna in a Fur Coat. He is determined to find her and eventually does. The rest of the book is about their up-and-down relationship and, given what we know from the early part of the book, it is not going to end well. Ali tells an excellent love story as well as the story of a man whose life was defined by one meeting and has been failure both before and since.
My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles
My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.
Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.
The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:
Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
Return to Order
Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
Imagining Post-War Society: The New City
While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.
It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)
I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.
One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.
Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.
Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.
Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.
The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.
There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.
Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.
I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.
Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.
There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.
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