First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works

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.

Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.
Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.

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.

Vintage edition of Parade's End tetralogy.
Vintage edition of Parade’s End tetralogy.

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.

Original 1929 edition in German.
Original 1929 edition in German.

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.

Padurea-spanzuratilor-402Liviu 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!

Couv_1102Didier 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 .

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

AurevoirFrance’s most prestigious literary prize is the Prix Goncourt. It’s awarded each year in November, and (like the Booker in the UK and the Pulitzer in the US) there is much suspense beforehand… and much dismay and controversy afterwards. 2013 saw the win of Pierre Lemaitre’s World War One epic. I had previously read (and enjoyed) Lemaitre’s crime fiction and it seems to me that much of the consternation about his win has to do with genre snobbery. This book is just too readable, too much of a page-turner to be a novel of real literary merit… it’s just not ‘difficult’ enough.

And that is exactly why I loved it. It makes sense of a difficult subject like the end of the First World War, with its inglorious aftermath of black marketeering, petty cons, appalling treatment of war veterans, rising materialism and cynicism. The first sentence immediately sets the scene:

Ceux qui pensaient que cette guerre finirait bientôt étaient tous morts depuis longtemps. De la guerre, justement.

Those who thought the war would soon be over had all died long ago. In the war, of course. (my transl.)

But it also shows just how difficult this book will be to translate. The short ‘de la guerre’ could mean ‘because of’ the war, ‘from’ the war or ‘in’ the war. The title of the book itself is taken from the farewell letter written by a young soldier Jean Blanchard, who was unjustly executed for treason in 1914: ‘Till we meet again (up there), my dear wife…’. I will be very curious to see what catchy but faithful title the publisher will be able to come up with.

In the very last days of the war, the egotistic Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle (that double-barrel name is very important to him and says it all about this unpleasant character) orders a pointless patrol and attack which nearly kills two soldiers, the artistic Edouard and the practical Albert. Edouard saves Albert’s life and, in turn, Albert tends to Edouard in hospital. The latter is so badly injured that he can no longer talk and becomes hooked on morphine. He wants to disappear, to take on another identity, even if that causes distress to his family, and Albert helps him with that. This odd couple then try to survive in a post-war world which is all rhetoric of gratitude towards the ‘poilus’ (the soldiers of WW1), but in practice has little kindness or compensation for them, and makes no effort to help them to reintegrate into society. So they embark upon a rather desperate con trick to make money, but they turn out to be nothing like as ruthless as their nemesis Pradelle proves to be with the war graves.

pierrelemaitreMuch of this story is true, but the author brings forth his meticulous research with a light touch. The characters and the situations flow with the ease, satire and excitement of a soap opera. But a soap opera that is more reminiscent of Balzac and Zola, with macabre moments, very dark humour and real cruelty, as well as rather beautifully written passages. A book which reminds us that wars can turn any of us into monsters, and that is consequences are prolonged and unsavoury. It’s a long book, but it just swept me along, made me growl and laugh (bitterly) and cry. Lemaitre really is a master storyteller.

MacLehose Press has already published two of Lemaitre’s crime novels (see my reviews here and here) and hopes to bring out a translation of this book too soon. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author and was entranced with his answers.