On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, 4x4th Estate seeks out the stories we are unused to hearing.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
In the Kent countryside at the turn of the 20th century, Byatt provides a fascinating rendering of the Great War from the vantage point of a generation whose lives were abruptly interrupted by it. This is not a war novel: the story does not serve as a ‘build up’ to the war; the characters have not been crafted by Byatt to die as soldiers nor to become grieving widows. Rather, their fate befalls them at random, capturing the arbitrary nature of their suffering.
Tracking a collection of families through two generations, it is the children of this novel that we most closely follow. Immersed in the lives of this young generation and invested in the sagas of their disputes and loves, the reader – like the characters themselves – is surprised by the sudden imposition of the Great War. Byatt delivers a pre-war period that is not defined by what is looming, but which is free to explore the themes and events of a fascinating age. Set in a period when conceptions of childhood were undergoing significant cultural shifts at the close of the Victorian era, she also explores the effect of the artistic and unconventional lives of parents upon their children. This is a novel that captures the beginning of a war, its interruption of a society, a community and a family.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (Translated by Michael Hofmann)
Ernst Junger served as a German soldier in the First World War from August 1914 until September 1918. Storm of Steel is a powerful memoir based on Ernst Junger’s diary. It is a book that provides a broad and vividly visual account of the terrors and catastrophes of war. As a young soldier, Junger went quickly into combat and, despite receiving fourteen wounds over the duration of his four years service, emerged from the war alive. Within the months that followed, Junger re-edited his detailed accounts, publishing the first edition in 1920. After decades of revision, Michael Hoffman’s translation is taken from the final revision of 1961.
Based on Junger’s first-hand experiences of combat, this book is famous for its striking visual descriptions. The reader is placed in the dugouts and tranches with the unsentimental realism of Junger’s writing. While there are disturbing, brutally unemotional accounts of death and suffering, central to the book is an exploration of the compulsion to keep fighting. Junger’s memoirs communicate his feelings of pride, courage and commitment to duty, deftly considering the allure of war in all its complexity.
The Years by Virginia Woolf
For a long time rendered apolitical, both by her husband, Leonard Woolf, and by many readers of her work, Virginia Woolf may not be a name that first springs to mind when you think ‘First World War novelist’. But Woolf is a writer that lived through this period and many of her novels resonate with a palpable consciousness of the War.
The Years traces the story of a large upper-middle class family in London, The Pargiters, from the 1880s to the present day in the mid 1930s. We glimpse one single day every year or so for half a century. We follow the characters, the children of Colonel and Mrs Pargiter, as their lives meander into diverse territories; through childhood, marriage, militancy, academia and war. The lives of the characters are delivered through present situations made hazy by the interjections of memory and fragmented conversations of the past.
Woolf’s novel provides a civilian perspective from which the presence of the war can be explored in the lives of individuals, families and communities. Episodes of air raids, dinner parties taken underground and a continuation of the novel in the aftermath of the First World War, deliver an experience of the war for those, like Woolf, who dwelt in towns and cities, removed from direct conflict but no less part of it.
Old Soldiers by Paul Bailey
A mesmerising account of the War in where the reader finds himself in the company of a pair of veterans: two survivors of the Battle of the Somme. Captain Standish is an ‘unholy trinity’ of a man who adopts three distinct personas; that of an officer, a poet and a tramp. Victor Harker is a retired bank manager, grieving over the recent death of his wife, Stella. Harker, having moved to London to escape the memory of his late wife, meets Standish in 1976. The two are complete strangers and perhaps it is because of this lack of prior intimacy that they can talk freely together, disclosing long held secrets. Both of these old men are haunted by memories of the Somme. Old Soldiers offers a moving display of the fluctuations and toils of old age, whilst poignantly playing out the receding memories of the First World War that have plagued the minds of these two former combatants over a lifetime.
Words by Emma Hendersen
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