Shockers

Jeremy Treglown

  • Writers on World War Two: An Anthology edited by Mordecai Richler
    Chatto, 752 pp, £18.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3912 9
  • Legacies and Ambiguities: Post-war Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan edited by Ernestine Schlant and Thomas Rimer
    Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins, 323 pp, $35.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 943875 30 7

It can sometimes seem that the Second World War never stopped. Stephen Spender alluded recently in the London Review to the idea that it was simply a continuation of the First, but the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ view of 20th-century history has in turn to accommodate some of the later continuities of which one is reminded by both Mordecai Richler’s anthology and Ernestine Schlant and Thomas Rimer’s collection of essays. There’s the fact, among many other examples, that US air bases on Japanese territory, acquired at the end of the Second World War, were used against Vietnam. There is the durability of Central European anti-semitism. And now there is the war in Yugoslavia. Richler includes an extract from Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender (under its bland American title The End of the Battle). No one today can read the novel’s closing chapters without hearing a pre-echo of current catastrophes: ‘Summer came swiftly and sweetly over the wooded hills and rich valleys of Northern Croatia. Bridges were down and the rails up on the little single-track railway-line that had once led from Begoy to Zagreb ... In one Mohammedan village the mosque had been burned by Ustachi in the first days of Croatian independence.’

Such tragic persistencies help explain the near-obsession with the war among writers who were children at the time, or not even born. Richler prints a vivid – and typically too-brief – extract from Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes (b. 1946), although nothing from Shuttlecock, by Graham Swift (b. 1949), which gives the best description I know of the territory, real and psychological, in which his generation grew up in Britain:

What attracted me then about Camber was less its whispering billows of sand and wheeling black-headed gulls ... [than] the relics of the war that still littered the region. Rusting tangles of metal to waylay landing-craft; huge, zigzagging rows of concrete teeth waiting to snap at concrete tanks; pill-boxes marking the dykes on Romney Marsh. All this was scenery from that awesome drama in which Dad had only recently been an actor. And looking out at the grey, flat English Channel, which in that part of the coast retreats to a sullen distance at low tide, I would have a vision of the war as a simple, romantic affair of opposing powers.

There is inevitably nothing in Richler’s book, either, from Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. Amis, too, was born in 1949, and one of the critical objections raised against his novel was that he hadn’t lived through the events which he seemed to be treating so cavalierly. You can see what was meant by this, but the reception of Time’s Arrow was interesting in part because it so vehemently illustrated the primitive, or merely patronising, kinds of critical response which war literature often prompts. Another of these objections, also levelled at Amis, is that beyond a certain point, art about human suffering becomes inconceivable – that as, Adorno claimed, ‘after Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write poems.’ Richler includes some grimly beautiful counter-examples, among them Peter Porter’s ‘Annotations of Auschwitz’, a poem which incorporates Adorno’s point:

                    Such death, says the painter,
is worthwhile – it makes a colour never known.
It makes a sight that’s unimagined, says the poet.

To this speaker, the problem is not too little imagination, but too much. So far from making poetry impossible, Auschwitz becomes its daily obsession:

My suit is hairy, my carpet smells of death,
My toothbrush handle grows a cuticle.
I have six million foulnesses of breath.
Am I mad?

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