Will Eaves: Murmur

The latest addition to my website is Will EavesMurmur. This is a fictionalised account of Alan Turing, focussing on the period after he had been receiving diethylstilbestrol to reduce his libido, after his arrest for homosexual offences in 1952. Eaves superbly shows the intellectual life and thoughts of Turing as well as his personal life and, in particular the effect on both his body and mind of the chemical castration he was receiving. The book is both a condemnation of the horrific treatment of homosexuality as though it were a disease – a view, sadly, that still exists in some parts of the world – as well as a tribute to a brilliant mind who sadly died far too young.

Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me. As the title implies, this is about robots. Set in an alternative 1982 where Thatcher has lost the Falklands War and Alan Turing did not kill himself but invented the Internet, it tells the story of Charlie Friend who, with an inheritance, bought one of a batch of twenty-five robots, called, imaginatively, Adam. (The females, which sold out at once, are called Eve). We follow Charlie’s relationship with Adam, not as simple as he thought it was going to be, and with Miranda, the woman who lives upstairs. Throw in Miranda’s past (revealed to Charlie by Adam) and ab abused child whom Miranda would like to adopt and we have a complicated plot. However, the main issue is, are robots sentient beings, should we treat them as such and can they learn what we have learned – the good, the bad and the ugly – and adapt accordingly? This is McEwan’s best book for a whole and well worth reading both for the story and the issues it raises.

John Lanchester: The Wall

The latest addition to my website is John Lanchester‘s The Wall. This is a post-apocalyptic novel about a country which has a wall entirely round its coastline (some 10,000 km) to keep out refugees. The country is presumably based on Britain. There has been an event called The Change, which has involved major flooding all over the world due to rising sea levels, presumably because of the melting of the polar ice caps. In the first part of the book, we follow a man called Kavanagh. The country requires everyone – men and women – to serve for two years as Defenders, keeping out any refugees trying to breach the wall. If any refugees do get through, the Defenders on that part of the wall are put into a boat, towed out to sea and abandoned to their fate. We follow the adventures of Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders, before turning to the story of some refugees in the second part of the book. This book was presumably written in the light of the proposed Trump wall and the refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere and tells an effective story, but how much would a 10,000 km wall cost?

Edward Upward: No Home But the Struggle

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s No Home But the Struggle. This is the final book in Upward’s Spiral Ascent trilogy. He and his wife have now left the Communist Party, feeling that it has betrayed its ideals and have also become aware of the crimes of Stalin and the faults of the Soviet Union. Alan is retired from teaching, living in a house he inherited from his family, by the sea. The couple are now involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) but this takes up a relatively small part of the book. Much of it is spent reminiscing about his childhood and young adulthood, though he continues to struggle with his poetry and whether it is relevant to his political views. The book is perhaps less interesting than the previous two because there are no political controversies. Overall, I enjoyed the trilogy but, I suspect, it will not be remembered for long.

Edward Upward: The Rotten Elements

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s The Rotten Elements, the second in his Spiral Ascent Trilogy, about communism in Britain in the middle of the last century. This one follows several years after the first one and starts some time after World War II. Alan and Elsie Sebrill are married with two children and committed members of the Communist Party. However, they feel that the British party is moving away from true Leninist doctrine – the need for a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and not compromising with social democrat parties (i.e. the governing Labour Party in Britain) – and they raise this quite vocally. Not surprisingly, they are met with considerable opposition and things do not go well for them in the Party. The book does get into what might seem to us areas of arcane doctrinal differences but it still remains a worthwhile novel and is an interesting read.

Edward Upward: In the Thirties

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s In the Thirties, the first book in his The Spiral Ascent trilogy, his best-known work. We follow the story of Alan Sebrill, in the 1930s. Sebrill, like Upward on whom he is clearly based, is a committed Communist. At the beginning of the book, he is determined to write poetry but struggles with it, feeling that it is perhaps not committed enough. After something of an epiphany, he realises he must commit himself more to the political struggle. He returns to London, where he gets a job as a teacher (a job he does not particularly relish) and joins the Communist Party. We follow the struggles of the Party, both with the problems of the Depression and, in the latter part of the book, the rise of Fascism, including the activities of the Fascists in England. Their views (almost uncritical support of the Soviet Union and Stalin) seem very naive. However, following Alan’s political (and romantic) development make the book an enjoyable read.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England. This is his best novel since his superb political satire What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). It continues the stories of Benjamin Trotter, his family and friends, from The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, while giving us another brilliant political satire, this time aimed at recent events (2010 onwards), with particular reference to Brexit. Coe skilfully mixes in the political environment, his political satire and the story of several characters from those earlier novels. He does not hide his views – Fuck Brexit! as Benjamin Trotter says – but does show the other side to a certain degree and shows how the generation gap, the class gap and the Brexit gap are alive and well in no longer moderate England.

Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The latest addition to my website is Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls. This is a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, based primarily on The Iliad. It is narrated mainly by Briseis, wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, an ally of Troy conquered by the Greeks before they conquer Troy. Briseis is captured and made the concubine of Achilles and we see the events of the Trojan War through her eyes, instead of through the eyes of the (probably male) Homer. She and the other women suffer, as they are used for (usually rough) sex but also as nurses, servants, comforters, washers of the dead and other tasks deemed appropriate for female slaves. Meanwhile, Briseis becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon. We know how it all ends, with many men dead, but it is the women who suffer – rape, death, abuse, enslavement – without being involved in the war excepts as bystanders and/or victims, while the men joyously kill one another. Barker tells her tale well, with the implication being that men may not have improved much in the intervening three thousand years since the Trojan War.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

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.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

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 are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

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.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

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.

J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip. This is the third, final and by far the longest of Farrell’s Empire trilogy. As the title tells us, it is set in Singapore and we follow events, from a British perspective, leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1942. We particularly follow the Blackett family. Walter Blackett is head of a large trading company which ruthlessly exploits the native population and the markets and Farrell attacks that, their hypocrisy, the way Walter pimps his daughter, trying to get her to marry a suitable man, and their greed. We also follow in considerable detail the events leading up to the Japanese invasion, with the civilian population confident that the Japanese will be repulsed and the military showing spectacular incompetence, as well as being woefully unprepared and not having the appropriate military equipment and support to defend against the Japanese. The novel is both funny but also deadly serious as Farrell mocks and attacks the final throes of British colonialism.