Monday, November 11, 2013

Post-Remembrance Day Reading

The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Remembrance Day has increasingly become nothing more than a photo op for politicians to look pious and weepy as they make speeches that celebrate the martial spirit and obliquely justify the war du jour. The actual blood and guts and terror of war is kept very much in the background on November 11, except, perhaps, for a showing of Saving Private Ryan on the History Channel. Now that the poppies and maudlin quotes have been packed away for another year, here's a list of books that provide a more honest look at some of the different aspects of the great wars of the 20th century.

Life and Fate (1959) by Vasily Grossman

This massive Russian novel is the War and Peace of the Second World War. It has a huge cast of characters, with most of the action centred around the Battle of Stalingrad. It's a brilliant novel but what makes it absolutely unforgettable is a section describing the rounding up of Jews in a small town and their transportation to a death camp. It's probably the most harrowing fictional description of the Holocaust that's ever been written. Grossman certainly had the credentials to write this passage: he was the first journalist to get inside a liberated Nazi concentration camp.

The Naked Island (1952) by Russell Braddon

Braddon was a POW in Japanese hands during World War Two, which means he saw and experienced cruelty and living conditions that were only rivaled by what the Germans were doing in places like Auschwitz. Braddon wrote his memoir in a white hot rage at what had been done to him, and that fury makes this book startling and horrifying.

Fortunes of War (1960-80) by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War is the name given to a sextet of novels about Harriet and Guy Pringle, a married couple who find themselves in Romania at the beginning of World War Two. Over the course of the six novels they're buffeted from Romania to Greece and then Alexandria, always one step ahead of the advancing Germans. These novels are superb simply as character studies; what makes them classics is their look at the chaos and uncertainty of civilian life as it was lived near the cutting edge of the war.

Journey Into Fear (1940) by Eric Ambler

It's a great spy thriller, but it's also adept at capturing the mood of Europe standing on the brink of another bloody cataclysm. The action takes place mostly on a ship traveling from Turkey to Italy, and along the way Ambler touches on European attitudes to the past world war and the one that's looming. Ambler is also notable for being one of the few left-wing thriller writers; most of his pre-war novels feature Communists or Socialists as the good guys.

Ivan's War (2006) by Catherine Merridale

We call it World War Two, the Soviets called it the The Great Patriotic War, and who's to say their name shouldn't take precedence. The Russians paid a higher price in blood, by miles, than any of the other Allied Powers, and it was the war in Russia that eventually broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Ivan's War is a study of what life and war was like for the average Russian soldier. It wasn't pretty. Soviet soldiers lived short, brutal lives, and their suffering is one of the great, untold stories of the war.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) by Siegfried Sassoon

This autobiographical novel follows George Sherkston as he goes from a loyal British soldier in the trenches in France, to his sojourn in a convalescent hospital in Scotland where he decides to become an anti-war protestor. There are lots of well-written memoirs about both world wars, but this one stands out because it shows someone acting on their hatred of war. In real-life Sassoon was an exceptionally brave soldier who risked court martial and even the death penalty for his anti-war stand. Incredibly, he eventually went back to the trenches, rose in rank, and was wounded again.

Storm of Steel (1920) by Ernst Junger

And on the other hand we have Herr Junger. If Sassoon is emblematic of humanity surviving and thriving amid the brutality of war, Junger is a reminder that for some men war is a challenge and a pleasure. Junger's memoir of life as a German soldier in World War One is astonishing because it's the only memoir from that conflict that positively exults in the violence and drama of war. Junger went on to a long and glorious literary career in Europe, and this book certainly offers proof that war is also a blood sport for some of its participants.

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