The latest addition to my website is Amanda Michalopoulou‘s Η γυναίκα του Θεού (God’s Wife). This is, indeed, the story of a fairly ordinary young woman (aged seventeen) who marries God, the conventional Christian God, who apparently gets lonely. He insists it is a platonic relationship but, apart from that, they live as man and wife, sharing a bed and living together. Like many men, he is not an easy husband, controlling, often absent and liking bad jokes. However, though there is humour in it, it is also a serious work about the nature of God and human interaction with Him, his inability to fully understand humans and how we (those who believe in God) might imagine Him.
The latest addition to my website is Ersi Sotiropoulos‘ Τι μενει απο τη νυχτα (What’s Left of the Night). The novel tells of three days in June 1897 spent by Greek poet C(onstantine) P Cavafy and his older brother, John. The family has fallen on hard times, so money is tight. Cavafy himself struggles with his art – how he should write – as well as comparisons with other writers, primarily French poets. The two brothers wander round Paris, often accompanied by a fellow Greek, Nikos Mardaras, unpaid secretary to the successful (and absent) Greek poet, Jean Moréas. John likes Mardaras while Constantine cannot stand him. As well as seeing his artistic struggles, we see his sexual struggles (he is very much attracted to a male Russian ballet dancer staying at their hotel), his issues with his mother and his inability to fit in. Sotiropoulos gives us an excellent portrait of the artist and his life.
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.
The latest addition to my website is Andreas Embirikos‘ Ἄργώ ἤ Πλούς Αεροστάτου (Argo or Aerostat Flight). Embirikos was a Greek poet who also wrote some prose, including this story. It is set in early twentieth century Colombia and has no Greek characters in the story. Don Pedro is a rich Colombian, born in Spain, a widower and father of a teenager, Carlotta. To Don Pedro’s horror, Carlotta is interested in their neighbour, Pablo Gonzalez. As she has accepted a bunch of flowers from Pablo, he forbids her from coming to see the launch of the balloon, Argo, the next day. Don Pedro who, by his own admission, is a womaniser, something he deems acceptable for men but not for (respectable) women, such as his late wife or daughter. At the balloon launch – he is with his married mistress – the three balloonists are revealed to be an English lord, a Russian count and a French explorer. At the last minute, the Russian count, who has been eyeing a young Colombian woman, leaps out of the basket, cuts the rope and embraces the young woman. Don Pedro decides to rush back home to tell Carlotta that the balloon is to fly over their property and she can see it. However, Carlotta is having passionate sex with Pablo and the balloonists can see what Don Pedro is about to see for himself. It is a strange but interesting tale of passion, hypocrisy and ballooning though sadly not easy to obtain.
The latest addition to my website is George Seferis‘ Έξι νύχτες στην Ακρόπολη (Six Nights on the Acropolis). Seferis won the Nobel Prize for his poetry. This was his only completed novel and it is easy to see why he owed his success to his poetry rather than to his novel-writing. It imitates the French novel of the 1920s – Gide and Valéry are big influences. It is about Stratis (clearly based on Seferis himself) a poet, whose family was driven from Asia Minor in the Greo-Turkish War, who has spent some time in France and now is back in Greece, struggling to become a poet and to get on with his life. He gets involved in a love triangle with a woman known as Salome (real name Billio) and her young protégée and would-be lover, Lala. He has met them through a group of intellectuals, who decide to meet for six months on the Acropolis whenever there is a full month, i.e. once a lunar month. These meetings seem casual and desultory with a certain amount of discussion about art but not much else. Stratis sort of finds himself, at least to a certain degree, but the whole thing does not really work unless you enjoy a somewhat watered-down version of a 1920s French novel.
The latest addition to my website is Stratis Tsirkas‘ Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες (Drifting Cities. This is a trilogy of novels, often compared to The Alexandria Quartet. Like that book, it takes place during World War II, though each book is set in a different city – Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria, respectively. The story is centred around the struggle of the expatriate Greeks to set up a new government, with a view to forming a government after the Germans are driven out of Greece. Unfortunately, there are numerous factions, from the Communists to the Fascists/Monarchist, and everything in-between, all vying for support and power. Our hero is Manos, a left-wing humanist (but not Communist), who works with his group who often feels that the British are as much as the enemy as the Germans, as Churchill definitely wants the right-wingers in power. The first book, set in Jerusalem, revolves around the boarding house of Anna Feldman, a Cologne Jew who is one of the many exiles, who have left their country because of the political situation. Manos is one of the many residents in the boarding house and we follow their often complex political and complex love life. The second book has Manos injured in the desert soon after the Battle of El Alamein and (falsely) accused of murder as the British try to track him down. In the third book, we meet his extended family, as his mother originated from Alexandria, and British treachery gets worse and the situation comes to something of a climax with the Greeks. If you can work your way around the complex Greek politics, it is a fine book, perhaps not as fine as The Alexandria Quartet but still well worth reading.
Sadly, I have relatively few Greek writers on my site though I do have a few novels written by Greeks in my library and on my list. One of these is Menis Koumandareas. Only his short book Koula is available in English, though a few of his books have been translated into French. Sadly, he was found murdered yesterday, his body found by his nephew. He was eighty-three and lived alone. As well as being a very well-received writer, he also translated English and German works into Greek.
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