The latest addition to my website is Sándor Márai‘s A zendülők (The Rebels). The book is set in May 1918. Four young men have just finished school and are waiting to join the army. They formed a gang at school which, initially, was just an anti-teacher and anti-parent gang but has become more sinister. They steal on a fairly large scale, primarily from their parents. Indeed, they steal so much, they have to rent a place to store it. When an itinerant actor becomes close to them and they realise that the fathers of two of them returning from the war, will discover the thefts, things take a turn for the worse. Márai tells a superb story of relationships, superficially smooth, but with hidden issues, partially class-based, and how rebellion is not always straightforward.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night). The novel is set in the Polish town of Nowa Ruda, south-west Poland (Tokarczuk lives in a nearby village). It used to be in Germany but became Polish after the war. It is on the Czech border. The female narrator tells stories of herself, her neighbours, the other inhabitants and people who visit the town, including the German occupiers in the war. We go back to the local saint Wilgefortis aka Kümmernis, who had a woman’s body but the face of Christ (with beard) and the two world wars and up to around 1980. Most of the inhabitants are somewhat eccentric. However, we are not spared the horrors of wars and multiple deaths. All the stories are highly imaginative and original, with mystery and otherworldliness hanging over them. It is another first-class work from Tokarczuk.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times). This is the second of Tokarczuk’s novels published in English. It tells the story of a quasi-mythological village in Poland called Primeval. The village has fairly precise geographical coordinates but does not exist in real life. We follow the Niebieski family and their relatives from 1914 to approximately 1980. In some cases we get realistic accounts, e.g. of the two world wars and their effect on the village, and in other cases, Tokarczuk uses fantasy or magic realism to show other aspects of the village, in the way that Gabriel García Márquez does in Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). The whole story mirrors the suffering that Poland has experienced during the period, from the two world wars to Communism and its corruptions. It is a superb introduction to Tokarczuk’s work.
A few years go I read W V Tilsley‘s Other Ranks. This is an account of a soldier in Word War I. It was originally published in 1931 and never republished. It was very hard (if not almost impossible) to find a copy. As a result of my review, I was contacted by a lady who was related to Tilsley by marriage. She was determined to get the book published and worked very hard to do so. I am happy to report that it has now been republished and you can get it direct from the publisher, Unicorn Publishing. Their website says of them Unicorn Publishing Group LLP is a leading independent publisher with three distinct imprints: Unicorn, specialising in the visual arts and cultural history; Uniform, specialising in military history; and Universe, specialising in historical fiction. I would highly recommend this book, particularly if you are interested in accounts of war, World War I or simply good writing. Hopefully the book will now become better known.
The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s La verdad sobre el caso Savolta (The Truth about the Savolta Case). This novel, Mendoza’s first, is set in Barcelona between 1917 and 1920. The eponymous Savolta is the name of a family and the Barcelona armaments factory they own. Paul-André Lepprince, a seemingly rich and elegant Frenchman arrives in Barcelona at the beginning if the War and is soon given a senior position in the firm. Our hero, Javier Miranda, who works as a legal assistant, is detailed to assist Lepprince and soon becomes embroiled in Lepprince’s efforts to control striking workers. When the other senior managers of the firm are murdered, apparently by anarchists, Miranda is even more embroiled and is suspected by Inspector Vázquez. We know from the beginning that he somehow gets out and emigrates to the United States but there is a long and complicated plot before we find out the details of what really happened. The book has been translated into English but is currently out of print.
The latest addition to my website is Józef Wittlin‘s Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth). This was originally published in 1935 and originally published in English in 1939 but this is a new translation. It is a World War I novel, part-mocking, part-serious. It is also the first part of a trilogy but only the first section of the second book remains, the others having been lost during World War II. We follow Piotr Niewiadomski, an illiterate, half-Polish, half-Hutsul railway worker. When World War I breaks out (we see Franz Josef signing the order), he is first promoted to acting signalman and then called up into the army. Because the Russians might be breaking through, he and his fellow conscripts are shipped off to Hungary, where we follow their hard life in a garrison (next door to the abattoir and cemetery). The first part is more mocking, both the people the area where Piotr lives but also the preparations for war, while the second part is more serious, with criticism of the cruelty of the officers and NCOs. Wittlin is clearly anti-war and puts over his point of view well but it is a pity that we do not see the men in action.
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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