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?

Adorno is not the only critic, of course, to have rebelled against the old idea that literature is capable of finding new ways of uttering what otherwise seems unutterable, and in doing so can both console us and prevent us from becoming inured. But writers still keep on trying. Peter Porter, Martin Amis, the American cartoonist Art Spiegelman and the Soviet dissident Vasily Grossman are among the many who have done so for the Holocaust although none was ever an inmate of the camps.

Of the four, Grossman came closest: born in 1905, a Jew, he spent the war as a reporter, and wrote what is said to have been the first eyewitness account of the camps to appear anywhere. But Life and Fate satirises those who believe in authenticity for its own sake (one character, the real-life General Gureyev, is convinced that Tolstoy must have fought in the Napoleonic Wars). The book’s daring lies in its imaginative range, its matter-of-fact way of incorporating concentration-camp episodes into a large-scale realist novel with a dozen settings and scores of characters, each treated with impartial sympathy and curiosity. This man is a general, that one a physicist, the next, Eichmann.

Grossman was also brave enough to equate the Nazi camps with Stalin’s gulags: a truth-telling for which he and the book were both made to suffer. Life and Fate was completed in 1960, but not published until it had been smuggled to the West, where it appeared, in English translation, in 1985, by which time its author had died in poverty and isolation. The outrageousness of Art Spiegelman’s nursery-school cats and mice is at once more obvious and more ingratiating: the cartoonist – whose parents were in Auschwitz – draws himself agonising over whether he ought to be drawing like this. Martin Amis, by contrast, is characteristically unapologetic about his reverse time-scheme (although he wavers in the book’s Afterword). He claims no personal connection with the events to which his novel ineluctably returns, beyond the one he forces on its readers, of struggling to interpret its central character’s guilty, evasive mind.

If shock is part of the armoury of all war writers, perhaps one should be grateful that readers seem to succumb to it so readily. The reaction takes many forms, including a kind of nervous male bluster masquerading as chivalry. When Mervyn Griffith-Jones put his famous question to the Lady Chatterley trial jury about the reading-matter appropriate to wives and servants, he may have had in mind the criteria applied by a Sunday Times editor in 1949 to The Naked and the Dead. ‘No decent man could leave it lying about the house,’ the paper had exclaimed about Norman Mailer’s novel of the Pacific war, ‘or know without shame that his womenfolk were reading it.’

Women’s experience of the Second World War may not invariably have been the same as men’s, but they were hardly sheltered from it, and Mordecai Richler’s wide-ranging anthology reminds anyone who needs reminding how much they have contributed to its literature. Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Bowen, Marguerite Duras, Martha Gellhorn, Natalia Ginzburg, Shirley Hazzard, Doris Lessing and many other women writers are here (but not Anne Frank or Hannah Arendt), and among the more unexpected selections are the reminiscences of Soviet women, collected, Studs Terkel-wise, by Julia Voznesenskaya.

The reaction to The Naked and the Dead perpetuated into peacetime one of the standard responses of reviewers during a war. Suddenly, everyone becomes a prig. The TLS’s review of Evelyn Waugh’s Put out more flags, in 1942, typified the accent of the time: ‘in its rendering of those to whom the nation has to look for orders and guidance this book would be mischievous, but that it is unlikely to impress readers whose value to the community would be reduced by accepting its implications.’ People who didn’t live through that anxious year can’t confidently say what tone they themselves would have adopted. But even twenty years later, when Joseph Heller’s ‘unedifying tale’ of the Italian campaign, Catch-22, first appeared, the TLS thought it helpful to warn that there is ‘no shadow of nobility’ in Yossarian’s behaviour, as if this were something the author might have wanted to correct in future editions.

If shock is a naive response to such books, it is one they are increasingly forced to find new ways of producing, as the time-gap increases between work and event. The closer one is to the action, the less necessary – even the more repugnant – artfulness of any kind seems. ‘In the presence of the violent reality of war,’ Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘consciousness takes the place of the imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of fact.’ It’s some such argument that lies behind the 1939-45 revulsion against Modernism, or indeed any kind of artistic experimentalism. Again, you don’t have to have lived through those events (and those of us who didn’t are now the overwhelming majority) to understand the several different compunctions felt by Henry Moore about sketching people in London air-raid shelters. Facts, though, aren’t everything, as David Cecil argued early in 1941, in an article lamenting the propagandist pressures being brought to bear on artists. Prisoners of war were commended for escaping, he pointed out. Why shouldn’t writers be escapists, too?

This was itself a shocking thing to say, and brought down wrath on Cecil’s wobbly head. But there was no pleasing the critical jingoists. Another of the difficulties encountered by literature of the Second World War was that everyone expected it to be like the literature of the First. Shockers in their own day, Owen, Blunden and the rest were canonical, now. It is to them that Barbara looks, in Put out more flags, when she wants a model for what she imagines will be the wartime role of her feckless brother Basil Seal: ‘She thought of him in terms of the war books she had read. She saw him as Siegfried Sassoon, an infantry subaltern in a mud-bogged trench, standing to at dawn, his eyes on his wrist watch, waiting for zero hour ... ’ Hers is a familiar mutation of the truism that generals are always preparing for the war they’ve just fought. It must have been a scholarly version of this syndrome that led A.J.P. Taylor to pronounce, as late as 1965, that ‘the Second World War, unlike the First, produced no distinctive literature. There were no war poets during the war, and no war novels or memoirs after it.’

You still sometimes hear this argument. One reason is that the landscape – literally – is so various. The battlefields just aren’t recognisable. A few writers, such as William Boyd in An Ice-Cream War, have remembered that the First World War, too, was geographically far-flung, but its locus classicus will always be the grim zigzag of trenches crawling from Belgium to Switzerland, a kind of negative image of the great walls of ancient China or Rome. No such physical centre, real or conventional, can be found in World War Two. Richler’s anthology helps show that the conflict has always been written about with a powerful sense of place – but how many places! Primo Levi’s Auschwitz, Günter Grass’s Danzig, Natalia Ginzburg’s divided Italy, Elizabeth Bowen’s London, Nicholas Monsarrat’s North Atlantic, Norman Mailer’s Pacific, Olivia Manning’s Balkans, John Hersey’s Hiroshima ... Among other matters, these writers record the largest, most urgent set of human migrations the world has ever seen, and the responses of the displaced to them. But if the war involved people in visiting new territory, it also changed, and charged, how they saw their own surroundings, and how their children would see them.

In his autobiography, Michel Tournier has written about how peculiar it seems to someone who lived through the war to read accounts of it by those who didn’t. But of course for the children of Vichy France there has been more than Graham Swift’s romantic curiosity at stake in the question ‘What did you do in the war. Dad? – let alone for those of Germany and Japan. It is the dominant theme of the articles in Legacies and Ambiguities, the first serious attempt I know to compare the postwar literary experiences of West Germany and Japan. The book shows how writers have responded to various cultural phenomena: for example, to the way Hiroshima encouraged the Japanese to continue seeing themselves as victims, a form of denial which is compared with the much-discussed moral amnesia of Germany. Individual articles trace the various post-war intellectual convulsions in both countries, and relate them to both the Allied occupations and the ensuing economic ‘miracles’. Contributors discuss the effects in Japan of the Vietnam War, or in Germany of successive revelations about the Holocaust.

Here are literary historians doing the job so long neglected in studies of English and American writing: building up empirical evidence, however untidy-seeming, rather than squeezing what was already known into grotesque but modish new shapes. Peter Demetz and Marlene J. Mayo provide fascinating, well-written accounts of literary conditions under the Allied occupations immediately after the war. Mayo is particularly interesting on the Allied suppression of Japanese writing about Hiroshima – all the more so because she doesn’t fudge the relevance of the country’s own long history of internally-imposed censorship. Arnulf Baring’s account of German intellectual developments between 1945 and today is more than matched by Carol Gluck’s absorbing overview for Japan. Gluck argues that ‘the critical challenge that emerged in Germany in the Sixties had long been the status quo in Japan,’ where the most powerful new movement came not from the left but the right – for example, in Mishima Yukio’s call for a return to the lost samurai spirit of patriotism, and his ritual suicide in 1970. But an alarming essay here by Walter Hinderer qualifies this contrast. Most post-war German novels critical of the Third Reich have sold poorly, Hinderer shows, by comparison with those glorifying its military exploits.

Inevitably, Mordecai Richler includes few of the writers discussed in Legacies and Ambiguities, but his book has an internationalism still rare in such anthologies. In this respect, it’s an improvement on Paul Fussell’s recent The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern War. Fussell covers a bigger time-span, and where his choices overlap with Richler’s, his extracts from them tend to be both better-chosen and longer. All Fussell’s work, though, gives the impression that, but for a few exceptional foreigners, the only people who write well are American or English. Mordecai Richler also lets in more humour than Fussell. Again, the difference may partly be one of distance: Fussell fought in France when Richler was still a boy. Still, one of the ways by which even the contemporary literature distanced itself from that of the First World War was its comic scepticism. There isn’t much of that in Legacies and Ambiguities, although Peter Schneider gives a wry account of his childhood efforts in the Fifties to learn something about Nazi beliefs: ‘Given the fact that the Nazi Party had six million members, I estimated that there should be at least one in my town ... who could satisfy my curiosity ... All that I did find were secret opponents, inner emigrants, the ever-sceptical persons; indeed, everyone I asked had somehow been against Hitler. Believing them, one could come to the conclusion that the Nazi Party had been an enormous organisation for undercover resistance fighters.’

Apart from the writers already mentioned, Richler’s anthology includes not only Auden, Primo Levi and Sartre, but Grass, Vonnegut and Skvorecky. V.S. Pritchett’s ‘The Voice’ is here, with its defrocked clergyman singing in the ruins of a bombed-out church; and part of Geoffrey Wolff’s memoir of his extravagantly reckless father. The Duke of Deception; and Doris Lessing’s story ‘The Black Madonna’, about an Italian prisoner of war in Southern Africa, making a film-set village for a military exercise: ‘They heard a voice booming through the loudspeakers: “The village that is about to be shelled is an English village, not as represented on the programme, a German village. Repeat ... ” ’ Not all the book’s humour is intended. The textual apparatus (another area where Fussell easily has the edge) is comically unusable: no author-index; next to no bibliographical details or explanatory notes. Authors are re-introduced on each appearance, often inconsistently and with some gossip-column fatuity such as ‘the brilliant but cantankerous Louis-Ferdinand Celine’.