Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Importance of Fictional Works About the War, Part III of III

A true war story, if truly told, makes the 
stomach believe. 
Tim O'Brien

By Jane Mattison Ekstam

World War One novels represent another kind of truth: a truth which is based on sound historical research but which has been re-formed into a personal narrative with the aid of the imagination. Like the soldier, authors of World War One novels must also "miss a lot," but unlike the soldier, they are not troubled by jumbled pictures which may cloud the vision. There is no trauma, no fear of failing to tell "the hard and exact truth." The angles of vision are those determined by the writer and subsequently identified and interpreted by the reader of fiction. World War One novels contain a disproportionate number of characters (soldiers, nurses, etc.) who survive the war. This is a literary necessity, of course: on a very basic level, characters must live sufficiently long for their story to be worth the telling. There is, however, another, more important, function for the large number of survivors in novels: they have learned an important lesson, one that is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago, and must convey it. For life to be worth living one must identify and adopt a set of values which makes sense of and gives meaning to our daily existence. Many of the fictional survivors of World War One leave the war stronger than when they entered it and are as such sources of inspiration to the reader. They are not necessarily happy or successful but they know what they believe in and why. In most cases, this knowledge stimulates a renewed desire to live. These values are also important in death: if luck is against you, the conviction that you have acted true to your principles may be of some comfort. Finding such insight requires considerable courage.
Survival, Values, and Belief 

A strong sense of right and wrong was particularly important for survival in a situation where the individual soldier was largely powerless. Most actors in the Great War were what Paul Fussell describes as modernist antiheroes, "the man things are done to, or the person whose power of action is severely restricted. The victim of mass conscription and military discipline is a version of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, Hemingway's Jake Barnes, Eliot's Prufrock, or Beckett's Krapp" (The Norton Book of Modern War, p. 12). Many of the war novels I have studied demonstrate that with a sound ethical foundation it became possible, at least for some, to transcend these limitations of the modernist antihero.

Since war is a time of confusion and ambiguity, all those involved—in whatever capacity and at whatever level—must work in what crime writer Jacqueline Winspear, the author of the popular Maisie Dobbs detective series, describes as "grey zones." Tim O'Brien argues: "For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls" ("How to Tell a True War Story," p. 181).

War in "spiritual" terms belongs to a realm where truth is no longer true, right is no longer right, and the boundary between good and evil is shrouded in a thick mist which allows one to enter but not to exit. If you do not know who you are or "why you're there," only ambiguity can result. The uncertainty that comes from ambiguity is dangerous for the soldier. Survival on the modern, industrialized battlefield of World War One would depend to some extent on luck but also on creating an ethical/spiritual basis which provided comfort, security, and a rationale for dealing with such danger and ambiguity. Memoirs, diaries, and letters of the Great War's soldiers often capture the ambiguity but usually fail to show how it was escaped from.

For fictional characters, however, the potential exists to show how the soldiers actually negotiated their way out of the mist: you cannot be certain that you will not be killed, but you can be sure of what you believe in, and you can hold on to this. Ambiguity is thus circumvented.

It is this ethical/spiritual struggle which modern World War One novels can illustrate clearly and convincingly. Well-written novels enable us to understand, on the human level, the sacrifices made in a war that proved to be the beginning of modern warfare. The novel is a powerful complement to firsthand accounts of the war. It is time for World War One novels to take their place alongside memoirs, autobiographies, and correspondence as invaluable sources of historical knowledge as well as unique explorations of the effects on, and consequences for, individuals taking part in war.

End of Part III.  Part I was presented on Roads to the Great War on Tuesday 2 June 2020 (HERE) and  Part II on 2 June 2020 (HERE).

Source: Originally presented in the Winter 2010 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

1 comment:

  1. "with a sound ethical foundation it became possible, at least for some, to transcend these limitations of the modernist antihero." This reminds me of contemporary crime fiction.