This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.
Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.
Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far
Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through
Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him
Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece
Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations
Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!
Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker– an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern
Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny
Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement
Teffi: Subtly Worded– ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces
Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction
Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge
Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine
Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.
What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.
I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!
With apologies to Caroline and Lizzy for this very late review for #GermanLitMonth.
I was planning to read more for one of my favourite annual reading challenges, namely the German Literature Month, but the Young Writer of the Year Award reading took priority this time round. Besides, even though it was a reread, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is not a book to be read in a rush. I obviously had a stronger constitution as a teenager, as this time nearly every chapter left me in tatters and I needed a day to recover before attempting the next.
The book is based partly on own experience (although Remarque was only very briefly on the front) and mostly on eyewitness accounts. The First World War has been dragging on for several years now. The ‘Hurrah- patriotismus’ fervour and speeches of their schoolmaster Kantorek, which made the four friends and schoolboys join the army in 1914, has turned to disillusionment and ashes. The frontline seems to be stagnating, as they fight over the same piece of land over and over again, fruitlessly. There is no glory, no heroism here, just endless drudgery and pain. The young soldiers know nothing else but despair, death and fear. The narrator, Paul, paints the contrast between those espousing the necessity of war and the virtues of the Fatherland with those who actually experience the futility of it.
While they wrote and talked about it, we saw the military hospitals and the dying; while they talked up one’s duty to the state, we knew that fear of death trumped it. We didn’t become rebels, deserters, cowards – all those terms that they bandied about so easily – we loved our home just as much as they did, and we advanced courageously at every attack. But we were now able to distinguish between the two, we had learnt to see. And we could see that there was nothing left of their world. We were suddenly left all on our own – and we had to deal with it on our own.
Little wonder that this book was banned when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, as it goes against all of the ideology that they espoused. But it wasn’t just them who objected to this book – quite a few other German readers were concerned that it didn’t portray their country (or its military doctors and nurses) in a good light, that it was badly written, sensationalist, piling on horror upon horror merely to further the author’s pacifist agenda.
I personally found the style often dry and matter of fact, rather than melodramatic, but the simple factual description of some scenes makes them truly horrific and unforgettable – both visually and auditively. There is the constant booming of gunfire, the whistle of grenades, of course, but there is also the crying of the wounded and, in one particularly gruesome scene that I had somehow managed to suppress from my earlier reading, the agonised groaning and whinnying of wounded horses.
Another vivid scene is when they head off to the frontline and on the road they see piles upon piles of freshly-made coffins, with the smell of resin and forest still upon them. The soldiers joke about them, but they are in fact intended for them: heavy casualties are expected. The narrator says drily:
The coffins are indeed for us. In such matters, the army is very organised.
This contrasts with the lack of food and boots (one pair of boots gets inherited from one member of the platoon to another when their owner dies).
What Remarque manages to convey so well is how war has damaged these young men beyond redemption: they are numbed, they have become dehumanised, they don’t fight – they are cornered beasts, merely defending themselves from being annihilated. They have lost the connection with their home and family. When Paul goes briefly home on sick leave, he struggles to explain his experience, he doesn’t want to talk about the war, and he realises that he no longer belongs in his quiet town. Although he is glad to see his dying mother again, his conclusion is that it’s best not to go home from the front. There is a refrain of ‘What will become of us now, even if the war ends?’ that is typical of a lost generation, regardless of which side of the war they were fighting on.
Another reason for the delay in reviewing this book, which I appropriately enough finished on the 11th of November, is that I wanted to compare it with the reread of another favourite war book, this time about a lesser-known front during the First World War, the Eastern Front, as described in The Forest of the Hanged (Pădurea Spânzuraţilor) by Liviu Rebreanu. This was published in 1922, even earlier than Remarque’s novel (published in 1929), and likewise shows the pointlessness of war and the psychological damage it wreaks on participants. Interestingly, enough, it too is written from the point of view of what one might call ‘the baddies’ or the ‘wrong side’ and it too has been accused of bad writing, not so much melodrama but for having a style that is too dry, too banal. I wonder if in this case it is a bit of a cultural dig towards the Transylvanians, who had just united with the ‘Kingdom of Romania’ after 1918. The Transylvanians are renowned for being less verbose, more phlegmatic and colder than the rest of the Romanians from other parts of the country (as well as more organised, more disciplined and more Westernised – too German, in other words, make of that what you will!).
Liviu Rebreanu’s book is an account of Apostol Bologa’s internal journey from blithely joining the Austro-Hungarian army as an ethnic Romanian living in Transylvania (which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to becoming a tormented soul, disenchanted by war, who decides to desert and is condemned to death as a traitor. Bologa’s moral dilemma is all the greater because he is actually not fighting for his fatherland. The ethnic Romanians were often oppressed by their Hungarian overlords and his own father had been one of a group of militants for equal rights. Yet Apostol joined the army mostly to impress his girlfriend Martha. His mother and the local priest are frankly horrified when he tells them he has joined up. ‘You are going to fight for the Hungarians, who beat us up? This is not our fatherland. When you have a “fatherland” like ours, you are not at all obliged to step up to do your duty, on the contrary!’
Nevertheless, Apostol does his duty, somewhat grumpily, having to endure some needling from his fellow officers. His first moment of doubt comes after witnessing the execution by hanging of a Czech officer who had been caught while trying to run away. Apostol initially brands him a traitor and shows little understanding or mercy, but after a conversation with his superior office, Klapka, also a Czech, who describes a forest of the hanged which he encountered on the Italian front, a tiny crack appears in his facade.
And then the bad news comes: their regiment will be moved to the Romanian front. Romania was on the side of the Entente powers during World War One. In other words, Apostol will have to fight against his own ethnic group. He begs to be sent to another frontline, he even attempts to cover himself in medals and glory to impress the Hungarian general and be excused from fighting in Romania. But to no avail. So, for the rest of the book, we witness partly the absurdities and ruthlessness of war, but above all a man’s inner turmoil, a fight between mental deterioration and a struggle for forgiveness and salvation. Unlike Paul in Remarque’s work, Apostol does find connection with other human beings (interestingly, he falls in love with Ilona, an ethnic Hungarian, showing that it’s not about ethnic animosity, but about the hollowness of nationalistic discourse). There are touches of religious mysticism which some modern readers may find old-fashioned, but remind me of Dostoevsky.
As is the case with Remarque, Rebreanu did not personally experience the war, although he was briefly in the Hungarian army in 1906, but he left both the army and Transylvania and settled in Romania in 1909, working as a journalist and novelist. However, his brother Emil faced precisely the dilemma he describes in this novel. Emil was executed for desertion in 1917, but his family only found out after the end of the war. Of course, the author was profoundly shocked and influenced by this personal tragedy, but he explained that the novel was not his brother’s story, but rather the story of an entire generation.
Update: For those showing an interest in the Romanian novel, there is an English language translation (I cannot find the name of the translator) from Casemate Publishers, which is a publisher of mostly military history. There is also a film adaptation from 1965 directed by Liviu Ciulei, which won the Best Director Prize in Cannes that year.
The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.
The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!
Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.
Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930
Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.
Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it. As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.
Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28
This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929
Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.
Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922
This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front). It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.
If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!
Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984
The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!
This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .