Roll out the novel

Alan Judd

Filed under: Fiction

Alan Judd salutes fiction of the Second World War.

The question was: ‘Why are there so few novels about the Second World War?  And why, given the scale and impact of the event, has it not produced a War and Peace?’  Why, in other words, is there no literary equivalence of the intensity and consequences of that series of events?

This assumes that it is natural for literature to be about – perhaps even that it sometimes ought to be about – historical events.  It may be, of course –War and Peace again – or it may be deeply influenced by even if not directly about them, as in Milton and Orwell.  It may be conditioned by a particular view of them – Richard 111 – or it may obliquely reflect them –The Lord of the Rings, Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita.  Or it may make little or nothing of them – Chaucer lived and wrote during the Hundred Years War, Jane Austen during the Napoleonic Wars, James Joyce during the First World War, but you’d learn little of any of it from their writings.  Although literature often reflects historical events, we should neither assume that it will nor presume that it should.

Secondly, the question assumes that there aren’t may Second World War novels.  But there are – hundreds, I suspect.  I don’t make a particular habit of them but a glance along my shelves shows Monsarrat’s classic The Cruel Sea, Richard Hilary’s The Last Enemy, Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough, Geoffery Wagner’s The Sands of Valour and various lesser-known works, as well as Evelyn Waugh’s and Anthony Powell’s very well known contributions, of which more later.  What, anyway, constitutes Second World War novels?  What is the ‘it’ they’re supposedly about?  Surely not only fighting – active service is anyway 90% waiting.  There’s also the wider experience of war as reflected in its social and cultural contexts.  Many novels must have been set in what was called the Home Front, and perhaps they too should be considered war novels.

As for there being no War and Peace, nor was there the original for over half a century after the events it describes.  So we shouldn’t despair.  But mere mention of that book unpacks a third assumption behind the question – that, whatever Second World War novels there may be, none counts as great literature.

Should we be surprised?  After all, most wars lack a Homer or a Tolstoy.  And, although we live in an age of hyperbole in which greatness is daily acclaimed, the very notion of Great Literature implies a longer perspective, a distant past, winnowed by time of fad and fashion.  In the breaking wave, where we live, it’s hard to get a perspective on the present.  Which is to say, it may be too soon to say.

But perhaps the notion that there are no great Second World War novels is an aspect of a deeper, more troubling perception: that there are no truly great novels any more.  Either we deconstruct them out of existence and refuse to accept Great Literature as a category (unconsciously promoting Great Criticism in its place), or we sense that the printed word is not as central to human experience, and to reflection on that experience, as it was.  Nor, therefore, is that one talent which is death to hide – imagination.  We enjoy the merely fantastical but we’re in thrall to the factual.  We would rather record experiences than create the imaginative apprehension of experience that brings with it insight, understanding, meaning.  One of the commoner questions asked of novelists is, what’s it based on, which bits happened?  It’s not the revealing power of imaginative insight that impresses, but the knowledge of direct factual links. Would Tolstoy have written as he did if Napoleon’s Russian campaign had been, like Hitler’s, on film?  A 19th century version of Anthony Beevor’s best-selling Stalingradmight more likely have been a novel.

All that said, Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (along with Put Out More Flags) and the three wartime volumes of  Powell’s Dance to The Music of Time are generally acknowledged as being of enduring literary merit.  Waugh’s are better known, partly because they were more successfully televised, partly because you need to read all twelve of Dance in order fully to appreciate the wartime trilogy, and partly because Waugh is such an entertaining and ruthless purveyor of charm and eccentricity.  Partly, too, because he was in action.  Powell, though also a soldier, was UK-based and mostly in staff jobs.  This was common: for every man with his finger on a trigger, it was reckoned to take eight to direct, transport, feed, clothe, train, equip, heal and bury him.  Powell didn’t see fighting, and didn’t write about it.  But he saw action of a different sort, plenty of it, and he wrote about that.

It was called bombing.  Like many at home during the Blitz, he felt and heard more bangs than many who fought overseas.  The difference between being bombed out of your home and shelled out of your slit-trench is pretty academic at the sharp end, but the former isn’t called fighting.  Powell would be better known as a war novelist if it were.

Both writers have Blitz scenes and both include details you wouldn’t have imagined without having been there.  Waugh, for instance, has characters walking home in groups from their St. James’s St. club in order to avoid being what we would call mugged in the dark.  Powell has prostitutes in alleyways briefly lighting their faces with torches.  He writes more about the effects of bombing than Waugh, particularly its social effects, but he doesn’t dramatise.  He locates his scenes within action but rarely describes it directly; rather, he comments on it and shows its effects on and through personality.  But it’s still war and it’s still action.

Again, although Waugh is better known for his portrayal of the army, Powell actually tells us more about it.  He evokes it more fully and more truthfully, more interestingly, while eschewing Waugh’s more pointed humour and mockery.  Powell’s humour is ever-present but it’s a slower stream, filtered through character, pathos and minor – in the sense of individual – tragedy.  It’s more like life, in other words.  Certainly, he conveys a more authentic feel of the texture of army life, not only the companionship and humour but the boredom, the loneliness and ‘the sense that no-one cares a hoot about whether you lived or died.’

He does this through soldiers as well as officers.  Unlike Waugh – and contrary to what is sometimes said of him – Powell is not snobbish and doesn’t portray those of the lower orders who have broken through to the sunlit uplands of commissioned rank as a threat to civilisation.  He has a Chaucerian gallery of minor characters – funny, sad, banal, profound, idiosyncratic – where Waugh has only points of ridicule, wonderful though they are.

This is not to say that Powell’s books constitute a British War and Peace, or anything like it.  They couldn’t, not only because he isn’t Tolstoy and because novels are not the windows into our souls that once they were.  It’s also because human character itself is perceived as mattering less than it did.  Impossible to say why – the decline of religious belief, wars on an industrial scale, prison camps for millions, our slavery to statistics, our love of technology, our faith in system – but the result is that people are more often portrayed as the spawn of impersonal forces than authors or agents of destiny.  Character lacks the potency and eternal significance that it once had.  Arguably – at least until Kafka – most great novels were dramas of character, but the originality and fate of individuals now seems of less moment.

Nevertheless, Powell’s social comedy, his Canterbury Tales of one part of mid-20th century life, may be as close as that century got to War and Peace.  Less ambitious and intense than Tolstoy, more comprehensive and shaded than Waugh, less tied than other war writers to particular actions or theatres, it is through his variegated characters that he shows the effects of that war better than any writer I’ve read.  And in speculating about one of his characters, he encapsulates one of the essential attractions of war and war writing:

‘Why did one envy Barnby his operational flights?  That was an absorbing question.  Certainly not because one wanted to be killed, nor yet because the qualities of those who excel in violent action were the qualities to which one had any claim.  For that matter, such qualities were not specially Barnby’s.  That was perhaps the point.’

So I suppose my answer to the question is, firstly, that there are plenty of Second World War novels; secondly, that although it’s true there’s no War and Peace – and perhaps never shall be – there is a series of novels that deserves to be called great, only they’re not widely known as war novels.  And there’s still time.

RSL Review 2005

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Alan Judd 1990