Tag Archives: World War 1

The Stranger’s Child (2011) – Alan HOLLINGHURST

Alan Hollinghurst is not someone I would describe as a fast writer. His last novel, The Line of Beauty, came out in 2004, and beat Cloud Atlas – one of my most favouritest novels – in winning the Man Booker Prize that year. Unsurprisingly, this brick of a book was a favourite to win the Booker this year, and with good reason. I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist. While The Line of Beauty life me somewhat cold, this novel is truly excellent.

George Sawle has brought his friend from Cambridge, Cecil Valance, to the family house for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem that, taken completely out of context, becomes one of the most loved British poems of the twentieth century. Following the ripples this poem causes throughout this century, we discover a world of lost opportunities, of lost love, and of

The first section is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Hollinghurst’s slightly formal, very controlled, deeply English way of writing is perfectly suited to the Edwardian era, and building this first section around a summer garden party, complete with upper-class English people, gin and tonic, and sneaky make-out sessions in the grounds, is just perfect. Perhaps I’m just projecting my ideal image of “England”, but there is something here that really draws you in. George and Cecil’s attempts to, well, have some alone time while putting on a respectable front are funny, and Daphne’s attempts to get Cecil to take an interest in her – coupled with her complete obliviousness to the fact that, actually, she probably isn’t his type – are also nicely played. Indeed, the fact that no one seems to notice that George and Cecil are making out at every available moment is well done, particularly reading it from our perspective.

The friendship – well, relationship – between George and Cecil is pitch perfect, too. Cecil, so cocksure (no pun intended) is having far more fun that George, who clearly worships the ground Cecil walks on, to the extent that he doesn’t really see that Cecil is sometimes a bit of a pompous, self-important arse. George’s sister Daphne, too, is crushing on Cecil, though the fact that she is several years younger than him means he treats this as little more than a simple schoolgirl infatuation. Indeed, the poem for which he will be come famous, Two Acres, is intended as a love poem for George. The central, cruel irony of this novel, though, is that no one but George can ever know this.

Hollinghurst is uncompromising in his desire to focus on the small character pieces. Despite starting in the 1920s, and finishing in 2008, the important parts of the centre take place off screen, as it were. Instead, we deal with the ramifications of these important events with the main characters, away from the action, both physically and temporally. And as time goes by, new characters are introduced, and old characters are left behind. By the end, our only constant companion is Daphne Sawle, though even she becomes more tangential as the years go by. More than Daphne, this novel revolves around Cecil – even though he only physically appears in the first section. Somewhat like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the latter parts of the novel deal with literary criticism, and historiography, and whether those of us left behind can ever truly work out what was going on in the minds of authors from long ago.

For those who are expecting the sensuality and physicality of Hollinghurst’s earlier works, you may be somewhat disappointed. There are no full-on scenes of man on man action – this time, he prefers to leave much of it unsaid. Indirectly, though, this is also a novel about the gay history of England. From the secret, furtive relationship between George and Cecil, to a relationship in the 1960s, cut in half by the revocation of the law criminalising homosexuality, to the final scene of a funeral for the husband of a gay man, Hollinghurst manages to remind us just how far the gay rights movement has brought us in just under one hundred years.

There’s so much going on in this novel, and I’ve barely touched on most of it here. Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed it. From the garden parties, to the boarding schools, Hollinghurst evokes an almost clichéd England. By populating it with characters who mean something, and feel something, though, he manages to make this one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

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Regeneration (1991) – Pat BARKER

In an attempt to find some cheap English books in a country that isn’t big on stocking foreign language books anywhere, I headed to the internet to find some cheap Popular Penguins. But, they were actually cheaper on Book Depository, so there you go. I still managed to get a good cover after all.

In a hospital in Scotland in 1917, several patients are being treated by psychiatrist, William Rivers. As these patients slowly open up, patients that include famous war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, about the war they have been fighting, Rivers finds himself questioning whether or not he really wants to send these young men back to the front in Europe.

I’m not sure whether my distinct lack of knowledge of the works of World War 1 poets – including Owen and Sassoon – is a good thing or not when reading this. In some ways, I feel like I’m missing a lot of references and allusions to poets and works I don’t know. On the other hand, I quite like coming to a novel fresh, and free from any ideas about what people should be doing in certain situations, based on their reputations. As such, I’m not sure there’s any way I can comment on how these people are portrayed here, even though they are basically the main characters – I an only comment on how they are as fictional creations.

Taking this into account, then, I really enjoyed reading about them. I love Sassoon as a character – there’s so much logic behind his cries for peace in Europe that you can’t but help feel for him, being trapped in this world that doesn’t belive in anything of the sort. His frustration at knowing that he’s not really crazy, but is here because he’s asked the questions no one else has ever bothered to ask, is palpable, and this slowly influences Rivers, as the relationship between the two of them mutates into something quite different.

If you read this novel, and only this novel, as research into soldiers in World War 1, you would easily be forgiven for thinking that every officer in the British Army at the time was gay. While this clearly isn’t the case, the characters Barker has chosen to assemble here all tend towards that end of the spectrum, and it’s not just coincidence. Well, yes, it’s coincidence to an extent, but by choosing this theme, Barker is able to explore masculinity in a different way. That is, after all, what this novel is all about – the English man at war, and how he reacts to what is going on around him. By having gay characters – people already seen as less masculine – the entire tone of the novel shifts. To what, I’m still not quite sure, but she certainly subverts the image of big, masculine, slightly dumb men breaking down in the trenches.

It’s important to remember that most of the people in this hospital are not crazy. With the benefit of 21st century thinking, things like PTSD have become so much a part of the mainstream way of thinking it, and so it can be easily forgotten that people didn’t think these things were real less than 100 years ago. Perhaps the most terrifying scenes of the novel come not from the interviews of soldiers back from the war, but the way another “psychologist”, Lewis Yealland, who uses electroshock therapy to basically torture his subjects into admitting that there is nothing wrong with them, thereby allowing him to return them to the battlefield. It’s a harrowing sequence, made even more so by the fact that Dr Rivers himself is watching, but is unable to stop it from happening.

A large part of the second half of the novel is taken up with the budding romance between Billy Prior and Sarah, a woman working in the munitions factories in London. The romance is fine in itself, but it feels like something of a distraction from the main storyline in the hospital, and somehow seems like an excuse for Barker to include some stuff about feminism in the early 20th century – maybe she thought the book was too male oriented. Either way, these sections seem less interesting, or maybe just less important to the crux of the novel, creating something of a lull in the main narrative push.

This is, as the back of my copy proudly proclaims, the first novel in the Regeneration trilogy. I’d be interested to see what Barker does in the other two, because this certainly seems like a complete novel. It’s certainly not a traditional war novel in any sense, and the insights she gives are, for the modern reader, nothing new. But it is interesting to read the clash between currently accepted wisdom, and the Edwardian mindset of people before and during World War 1. This is not a perfect novel, but there’s enough to keep it going, and keep one hooked.

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House of Meetings (2004) – Martin AMIS

I went on a book buying binge the other day. My bad. But, in my defence, none of the books I bought were full price. So that counts for something, right? Anyway, this book was in the binge, and when I saw a cheap Martin Amis novel, I knew I was going to end up with it. Let’s face it – his novels I’ve read so far have been pretty amazing.

Our unnamed narrator is back in Russia, after a self imposed exile. At the age of eighty, he had returned to the sites of his incarceration at a gulag camp during and after the Second World War.  He remembers his relationship with his brother Lev, who married the woman our narrator had intended to marry, and the way this affected how each man saw the rest of the century play out in front of them.

I should start by pointing out that I have not read very much Russian literature, so I don’t really have a comparison to other books about Russia. But Amis does a fantastic job of recreating a part of history that is unwelcome in the public mindset. Obviously, Amis has a gift for writing unpleasant characters and situations, and a Russian gulag is no different. He vividly recreates the condidtions of the labor camp, from the physical squalor of camp conditions, to the social strata that pop up in the camp – right up to the lower class shiteaters. There’s a lot to love here, particularly since our unnamed narartor, for the most part, stays out of trouble. Instead, he must reflect on what his brother does when he arrives at the camp, and how his brother fits in to the already established order. Lev is, at first, willing to play the game, but by the end, he just doesn’t want to, forcing a wedge between the narrator and Lev, and setting up their relationship outside the camp.

Once the gulag parts of the novel end – about two thirds of the way through – House of Meetings does, to an extent, run out of steam. Trying to cover a lot of groun in not much time, Amis doesn’t leave himself enough room to tell us everything he wants – indeed, he barely mentions his marriage to his stepdaughter’s mother (important since the novel is a letter addressed to said stepdaughter) – and so the ending does feel rushed. In this sense, then, it does feel like a missed opportunity. This novel cries out to be a grand sweeping epic, in the Russian tradition, and yet it simply isn’t.

Having said this, the closing letter of the novel – a letter carried around by the narrator since a long time ago – is a perfect closing, and almost worth the cover price in itself. All Lev ever wanted was normality, but he has become so twisted by the experiences of the gulag, he can’t even make love to his wife anymore. The man outside the gulag gets off on the idea of physical love, but as Lev makes love to his wife for the first time in many years, he gets off on thoughts of food, of warmth, of freedom. And he can never change back to his old mindset. And he nearly goes mad because of this. This is, then, perhaps a timely reminder to the reader not to take things for granted. And yet, Amis never hits one over the head with this message, particularly since this revelation is only mentioned near the end of the novel. We want desperately to understand what has happened in the House of Meetings, but this blindlingly obvious and normal explanation makes the most sense. No lover’s tiff, no erectile dysfunction – simply the realisation of the simple things in life. A lovely thought.

Here’s the kicker, though. I reckon Amis is wasted on writing historical novels, no matter how obscure or disgusting the period of time he’s writing about. This man has such an amazing imagination and ability to write mind bendingly postmodern novels, that in many ways, I felt that House of Meetings could have been written by anyone. Sure, it’s probably better than the average historical novel, but I want more. So here’s the question, can you separate the author from their work? I’m going to go with probably not. We come to expect certain things from certain authors, and when we don’t get it, we, as readers, are disappointed. Well, maybe disappointed is not the right word. But there is a sense of loss when they don’t do what we expect. And that is, of course, completely our fault – I’m not blaming Amis at all. The thought is there, though. Who knows – maybe Amis has one trick, and when he doesn’t use it, novels don’t turn out so well.

I don’t want to put anyone off this novel – as a generic historical novel, it is perfectly competent. Indeed, it’s probably quite a bit better than competent. But, to judge it as an Amis novel, you would be (in my opinion) perfectly correct in saying it’s not one of his better works.

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Johnny Got His Gun (1939) – Dalton TRUMBO

I’ve been eyeing off this novel for quite a while – ever since Penguin Classics reissued it in their new format. Lovely. And the more I hear about Dalton Trumbo himself, and his politics, the more I wanted to read what is considered to be his best novel.

Joe Bonham has been injured in a shell blast on the battlefields of World War One. And yet, when he wakes up in hospital, he is not sure what is going on. But soon it becomes crystal clear. He cannot communicate with the outside world, and is forced to relive the best parts of his life to see what he can never experience again.

For those who have seen films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will be well aware of locked-in syndrome, a condition that means one has no control over one’s body – to the point of not being able to speak – but one’s mind is still in perfect condition. While those with locked-in syndrome can still hear and see what is going on, Joe is afforded no such luxury here. The extent of his injuries slowly becomes apparent to both him and us. To begin with, his legs are cut off. Then his hands. Finally, in order to keep him alive, his mouth, nose and eyes are removed. He can no longer hear, see, speak, or communicate. He is trapped in his own body.

Trumbo does an excellent job of keeping up the sense of claustrophobia and desperation that is felt by Joe throughout the novel. We are fully and totally emerged into his mind, and it truly is terrifying. We can only imagine what a life like this might entail – but Joe’s descend into insanity is perfectly timed, complete with highs and lows. We feel the excitement and elation of finally being able to work out time once more. We are terrified as his limbs are hacked off by well-meaning doctors. And, in those final pages, when he finally discovers a way to communicate, we are angry and disappointed when the authorities don’t want to listen to him.

This is a major theme of the novel. There is a definite vein of anitestablismentism running through Johnny Got His Gun, and this is directed at the army – the American Army. Joe is but a victim of a war machine that plucked him out of obscurity, and placed him in this situation. His desire to tell the world about what he has become, what one must do to avoid the same fate, is eventually crushed by the authorities, and he is trapped in his own nightmare. There is this sense that, if we were to take away the horrific injuries, his situation might be the same as any soldier wanting to scream out to the world – it’s just that the exaggerated nature of his situation makes us feel this message that bit more keenly. This is made more ironic by the fact that the army do recognise his actions – by giving him a medal. He can’t have his freedom, but he can have a piece of metal.

Juxtaposed against this is the life Joe led before be joined the army, making his present state that much more sad. Joe is only twenty – so the flashbacks we get to his past life are simply him growing up. But Trumbo has written such an idealised, perfect vision of his small hometown in the midwest – complete with a heartbreaking teenage romance – the horrors of war are brought even more sharply into vision. Scenes of Joe fishing with his father, playing around with his mates, seeing the wonderful sights the wide American landscape has to offer are told almost as dream sequences, as he struggles to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps, then, this is why they are so idealised – in an attempt to go to his happy place, Joe has created a world where almost nothing is wrong – a far cry from the situation in which he now finds himself.

There is something compelling about Trumbo’s use of simplistic language (I don’t remember a single comma in the entire novel) throughout the text that allows us to remember we are reading the thoughts of an ordinary man, a man slipping in and out of consciousness – and sanity. Questions of his own humanity haunt him as he ponders his own existence. If he has been reduced to a torso and the back of a head, with almost no way of communicating or interacting with the outside world, can he really be called a human? Is there any point in him remaining alive? Certainly, he himself is so disgusted, the first thing he does when he finally realises he can communicate is to ensure no one he knows sees him. Instead, he wants to be placed in a glass cabinet, to be shown to the world, to stop fighting of all kinds. Very noble.

Johnny Got His Gun is certainly the best anti-war novel I’ve read. There is so much anger here, but it is controlled and measured. Instead of descending into rage and emotive hyperbole, Trumbo carefully and subtly creates a man who is the embodiment of war’s endgame – a solider destroyed by the other side. And it is through him that we must question whether it is all worth it.

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Mrs Dalloway (1925) – Virginia WOOLF

I was supposed to read this book for English a while ago. Fine, in May. But, when I started reading it, I was really tired, and wasn’t concentrating very hard, so I put it down in the ‘too hard’ pile. Now that uni is over, however, I decided to revisit it. Also, I have a copy of The Hours in my pile, that I refuse to read without having read this book.

One summer day in June 1923, two very different people are contemplating their lives. Clarissa Dalloway, a member of the social elite of London, is hosting a big party that night, but has errands to run first. Meanwhile Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier of the First World War, is spending in the day in Hyde Park with his deeply unhappy wife, Rezia. As the day unfolds, it turns out that these two people have far more in common that one might first see.

I’m going to be honest – I really had to concentrate to properly read this novel. The whole stream of consciousness thing is, when done well, a pretty amazing literary technique, but it also has the tendency to be pretty rubbish, because no one can do it that well. Except, clearly, Virginia Woolf. This is a brilliant example of this done right – it’s just one stream of words (no chapters, almost no section breaks) that meander along the street, stopping at characters that might seem interesting. If it were a film shot, it would be one long sweeping shot that just focused on the people it met. Woolf manages to make it not seem forced or contrived – you can truly believe these little connections that these people have, which makes the jump from one character’s story to another that much easier.

While there are two main characters, it is the secondary characters that really help make this novel what it is. In particular, Septimus’ wife, Rezia, is an excellent creation. Her desire and need to understand what has happened to her husband is so real, you understand exactly what she is going through. At the same time, you feel for her because, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, you know exactly what is wrong with Septimus, and what kind of help he needs. Which is not the help he gets in the end. Peter Walsh is also worth a mention – as an outsider to Clarissa’s world, he tries desperately to fit in and understand, despite still being hung up on Clarissa, who married Richard Dalloway instead of himself all those years ago.

It is interesting, then, that while there is a huge cast of characters that populate this book, Clarissa Dalloway herself is not in focus the entire time, despite her being the titular character. She, too, is concerned with events from her past, including a kiss with another woman, as well as worrying about her party. She represents the ultimate in upper class – tonight, she will host a party which will be attended by the best of society (including the Prime Minister), and yet, somehow, we know so little about her. We know that she is not happy with her husband, who would prefer to lunch with another important woman, we know that she is on good terms with her servants, and we know who she is in society. But there is something that is fundamentally missing from Clarissa, which is ironic, considering just how much this novel focuses on the interiority of its characters. Perhaps Mrs Dalloway is just unknowable.

I don’t think I’ve respected a book as much as I have Mrs Dalloway. There’s a lot to take in here, and I’m pretty sure I’ll need to read it again to more fully understand what is going on. But, I endured, and I really was rewarded – this is a pretty amazing book. I don’t think that Virginia Woolf is underrated in any way, and this novel proves it in so many ways. I’m always cautious about reviewing ‘classic’ novels, but in this case, the label is most certainly earned.

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