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Fiction about WW1 and WW2

I have just posted another review in the Elizabeth Jane Howard topic about her novel sequence on WW2 and its immediate aftermath, and looking through that thread again, I see that several people thought we could have a separate thread to discuss the fiction arising from both world wars. So here it is!  Smile

There was some discussion that WW1 gave rise to more fiction, but then others felt there was a lot of perhaps less well-known fiction written about WW2, some of which came much later but still from authors who lived through that time. A lot of this was semi-autobiographical - e.g. Howard and Olivia Manning. I think anyone not familiar with the Persephone Books list might like to be aware of all the books from those eras they have reissued. And then there's something like "Suite Francaise" and the others books of hers that have been unearthed. I think it's incredibly brave of an author to chronicle and fictionalise terrifying events as they are actually occurring.

And where does something like William Boyd's "Reckless" come in this disucssion? I'm just throwing the doors open ...

Olivia Manning was an author who immediately came to mind. Like many of the others who wrote about this period, her focus was on the war in Europe and North Africa, with only a passing mention of what was happening at home. Another book that I read recently which deals with the immediate post-war period is Marghanita Laski's 'Little Boy Lost' (a Persephone title), but again it deals much more with the effects of war on France and Europe.

Most of you know that I am a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and her first published novel 'At Mrs Lippincote's' is an excellent account of life in England during the period. The disruption of normal life and relationships, the constant uncertainty and the struggles to survive when practically everything was either rationed or unobtainable is shown with humour and understanding. It is a long way from the normal story of surviving the blitz, but has a real feel of authenticity neverthelas.

Where does 'Restless' come into this? Nowhere at all, if you really want my opinion. I felt it was really not up to the standard of William Boyd's other books: more a cliched representation of stereotypes with a bit a sex thrown in for good measure. 'Small Island' wasn't a great favourite of mine, but I did think that it came a bit closer to the reality of WW2 experience than 'Restless'.

'Suite Francaise' on the other hand, was one of the most moving and shocking books that I have read in my entire life. But then, it was written at the time the awful events were taking place, not churned out sixty years later.

I've been pondering a bit and have thought of a few writers who dealt with the war in the Far East, rather than in Britain and Europe. J.G. Ballard's 'Empire of the Sun' is of course well known, if only because of the film. This is based on Ballard's own experience as a young boy, and I think is pretty authentic. Certainly I used to know a man who had had a similar experience to Ballard's (he was in fact in correspondence with him) and he had no quibbles with the accuracy of Ballard's account.

Shirley Hazzard's 'The Great Fire' deals with post-Hiroshima Japan and is an impressive look at the conflict between private and public morality in the face of such major events. It is half a century since I read it, but I seem to recall that Nevil Shute's 'A Town Like Alice' deals at least in part with the aftermath of the war in the Far East. And of course Ishiguro's 'A Pale View of Hills' deals with the immediate legacy of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Coming slightly further West, much of Paul Scott's 'Raj Quartet' is set in war-time India.

Back in Europe, one book about WW2 that I can never forget is Kenneally's 'Schindler's Ark'. Again, it was based upon real events and the authentic reports of survivors. Indeed, it was only because  I knew that many of those whose stories were told did, in fact, survive, that I found it possible to read the book at all.

Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' deals both with the war in Europe, including Dunkirk, and the way people back home coped with everyday life and events such as the Blitz. McEwan did meticulous research and gives credit as a source to Lucilla Andrews, best known as a writer of romances, but whose memoirs of working in London during the Blitz are a minor classic (and their accuracy was confirmed to me both by my late mother-in-law and her sister, both of whom were nurses at the Royal Free during this period).

Anyway that provides a bit more food for thought. The books I have mentioned cover a period of 50 years or so from the end of WW2, so I suppose the density of them is not great, but there must be many more that other people can think of and suggest to us.

On the subject of the Blitz, there's a wonderful novel set in (and written in the midst of) the Blitz - Caught, by Henry Green. Whilst not directly "about" the Blitz, you nonetheless get a great sense of it. Green (or Henry Yorke, to use his real name) wrote this book whilst serving as a volunteer fireman, and his protagonist Richard Roe is in the same position.

The great tension between the professional firemen and the volunteers is brought out; exacerbated in this case by the fact that Roe's boss Pye (a professional fireman) happens to be the brother of an insane woman who, some years earlier, had abducted Roe's child. It's a fascinating character exploration, but also features a superb set-piece at the end, when the uneasy calm of the so-called "phony war" has given way to the Blitz, and Roe's crew are called out to tackle a massive blaze in a timber warehouse at the East End docks, following a German bombing raid.

WRT to the war in the East, the first thing that springs to mind is the play "The Long and the Short and the Tall" by Willis Hall, set in Malaya.

Then there's the other JG - JG Farrell - who wrote The Singapore Grip about the Japanese invasion of Singapore. I haven't got round to this one, but must do some time, as I loved his novel Troubles.

I keep meaning to read Henry Green - really must make an effort.

Two more novels that come to mind are 'Slaughterhouse 5' and 'Catch 22', both by authors who experienced the horrors of WW2 at close hand.
Green Jay

MikeAlx wrote:
On the subject of the Blitz, there's a wonderful novel set in (and written in the midst of) the Blitz - Caught, by Henry Green. Whilst not directly "about" the Blitz, you nonetheless get a great sense of it. Green (or Henry Yorke, to use his real name) wrote this book whilst serving as a volunteer fireman, and his protagonist Richard Roe is in the same position.

I've not heard of this book, Mike, though I have read some of Green's other books. Thanks for the tip.
Green Jay

There is Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, very far from the tone of his early 1920s books. From what I remember it is a very accurate depiction of serving, with long periods of boredom, training, waiting, pointless tasks and frustration, and then short periods of fear and action.

There is also the wartime perspective in Brideshead Revisited. I just read something about Waugh saying it was too lush, looking back, overdone, but was written in 1944 (?) when it felt as if nothing would ever be like that again.

Apart from the poetry of WWI I can far more easily think of WWII writing than WWI.  Not necessarily 'literature' though.  Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, Nevil Shute's books, the light but very enjoyable novels of Margaret Mayhew, the Guernsey Potato Pie one, and plenty of non-fiction.  In my tiny wee library we have detailed books on Cassino and the fall of Singapore.  Books about the holocaust - Anne Frank's Diary, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, The Nazi Officer's Wife, The Book Thief and doubtless dozens more.  

Cheers, Caro.

Isn't "Regeneration" about WW1?

I don't know why, when Regeneration features Siegfried Sassoon quite strongly and Wilfred Owen as well, that I should decide it's set in WWII!  Sorry.

I generally don't tend to read a lot of WW2 fiction, as if some of the facts used in the story are not totally accurate I tend to get a bit picky about it.

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