The OF Blog: Armistice Day and fiction

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day and fiction

Through the wonders of postdating, this post will go live at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (well, it will in the Central Standard Timezone where I live). I will be just returning from a Veteran's Day presentation at my school and will likely acknowledge the day to some degree before I finish up a unit on Progressivism and get ready to start a new one on American imperialism and the Great War.

Writing now at the 55th minute of the 22nd hour of the 10th day, I cannot help but to feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension as I draw nearer to teaching this unit. Due to previous teaching assignments, I have not taught the First World War in almost 10 years, ever since I was a student teacher, but a large part of my undergraduate and graduate research revolves around the Great War and its aftermath. It is my favorite time period, in large part because so much visible and deep change occurred due to the war's devastating effects on a generation of youth, on the nascent global economy, and on perceptions of "human nature." While there have been other moments of great change, this was the first truly global and rapid-fire change that affected so many elements of so many cultures.

Yet as much as I love this time period, I fear I will do an inadequate job teaching it, because the best parts require so much of a background in the times before and after the horrors of Passchendaele, Ypres, or Gallipoli. But another thought lurks behind those, and that is of the transformative effect the War had on fiction. Considering the fictions that were popular before the war and those that followed after, could one make the case that much of twentieth-century fiction, whether it be "literary" or "speculative" fiction, has the tendency to explore (or reject, in some cases) the questions raised by the Great War's tumults? I am reminded of Modris Eksteins' excellent 1989 cultural history of the War, The Rites of Spring, and how he attempts to address those questions.

Whether or not such assertations can be definitively proven or not, on days such as this one that honor the dead from such charnel houses, it does merit some thought to be devoted to how fiction is in many cases but the tail wagged by history's dog. But before I submit this post, anyone have any favorite non-fiction or fiction from the First World War period or related to it in some form or fashion? I'll list my personal favorites in the afternoon after school is dismissed.


Anonymous said...

I just finished re-reading Erich Maria Remarque´s All Quiet in the Western Front. I´ve read it in my twentysomethings and the impact of the narrative only got stronger now. I´ve been commissioned to write a story taking place in WWI for a Brazilian anthology, and, though I already started to write it, I must confess I´m feeling like a speck of dirt after reading Remarque. There´s not much left to write after that, IMHO.

Lsrry said...

I know the feeling, Fábio. However, I'm fairly familiar with the soldier diaries and war novels that came out of WWI. Wait until you've read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Or Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. Or perhaps John Dos Passo's The Three Soldiers. Or Arnold Zweig's The Case of Sergeant Grischka. Or Robert Graves' autobiographical Good-bye to All That.

The literature of the time period is just so...damning. If you're interested in the cultural histories of WWI, read Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring or an old professor of mine, Veja Liulevicius' War Land and the Eastern Front. Some interesting discussions in those histories.

Oh, and for those others wondering at my favorite WWI reads...well, I just listed all of them above, I think ;)

Anonymous said...

Pat Barker's Regeneration is excellent.

(Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon meet in a WWI mental hospital).

Lsrry said...

Agreed. A history professor recommended those to me back in 1995, just after she won the Booker Prize. Great stories, too bad I was so focused earlier on books written in the immediate aftermath of the war to remember her excellent trilogy.

Anonymous said...

though the big Owen/Sassoon fight scene was a bit disappointing, the fans have been waiting for that one for years and it was kind of a cop-out to end it in a draw

everyone knows Sassoon would win

Lsrry said...

Yes, that was a let-down, although to be fair, Graves was a boxer in public school. But Sassoon did have that solid chin, so it might truly have ended in a draw in real-life. Alas, it was not to be...

Anonymous said...

I've read Hasek,Trumbo,Remarque and Zweig-not Dos Passos (though I liked Manatthan Transfer).
All are very good.

Lsrry said...

Glad to learn you've read and enjoyed them as well, Marco. This time period is so intriguing to me because of how much changed. There's no question of that being a deep, transformational change any more; merely a matter of just how widespread it was.

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