The Centenary of World War I

When I was doing research for my 2007 novel Journeys to the End of the World one of my reference books was The South African Forces in France by John Buchan (Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920). Buchan was a man of many parts – army officer, Governor-General of Canada, and the author of numerous novels, including the bestselling The Thirty-Nine Steps which was later made into a Hitchcock movie.

For many years I had wanted to write a novel set in World War I, largely because my late father had served with distinction in the South African Heavy Artillery on the Western Front. As a child I often asked him about the war; although he had experienced and seen a great deal, these were things that he could not bear to talk about. So apart from a few humorous anecdotes, I learnt nothing about the Great War from him, and had to rely on books. One of these was The South African Forces in France – a solid history with detailed descriptions, lists and maps, but hardly a riveting read. To research more personal views of the conflict I consulted I Was There, an extraordinary four-volume illustrated history of the Great War published in the 1930s by the Waverley Book Company, with each chapter written in the first person by someone who had been there.

An aspect of World War I that interested me particularly was ‘shell shock’, and while I was still mulling this over in my mind I happened to be reading some South African history in which I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi people (then known as Hottentots) during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War I ‘shell shock’. Then I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1914 and the present time.

Isaiah Berlin said: ‘Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.’ I saw post-traumatic stress as a common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.

Journeys was published as a paperback in 2007 and by now most copies have been sold. To make it available again in this centenary year of the beginning of World War I, instead of reprinting it was published for the first time as an eBook.

You are invited to find it via any of the following links:

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Many people who see this post will have read The Leopard – I read it for the first time in 1982 and have gone back to it several times in the past 30+ years.  For me it is one of the few novels that is truly unforgettable.

Set in Sicily in 1860 during the Risorgimento, it was rejected twice and was only published a year after the author’s death in 1957.  The protagonist is Prince Fabrizio Salina, an old-school Sicilian aristocrat.

Garibaldi and his volunteer army have landed in Sicily to start a revolution in the south, to widen the movement for Italian unification, and to march on Rome. The Leopard relates the struggle of the Sicilian aristocracy to survive in the face of societal change.  As Fabrizio says:  “Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.”

Although this is not a plot-driven novel I don’t intend to give away the plot, as a courtesy to those who have not yet read it.  I would like to be able read it (Il Gattopardo) in its original Italian;  there have been minor criticisms of Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation but I am not in a position to find fault with it, and I find his choice of  language superb.

I want to repeat a particularly well chosen paragraph originally selected by Richard Horton in his 1997 review of The Leopard.  It deals with the courtship of Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi and his lovely Angelica.  Observe its elegance and depth.

“Those were the best days in the life of Tancredi and Angelica, lives later to be so variegated, so erring, against the inevitable background of sorrows. But that they did not know then; and they were pursuing a future which they deemed more concrete than it turned out to be, made of nothing but smoke and wind. When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret, they had been days when desire was always present because it was always overcome, when many beds had been offered and refused, when the sensual urge, because restrained, had for one second been sublimated in renunciation, that is into real love. Those days were the preparation for a marriage which, even erotically, was no success; a preparation which, however, was in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief, like those melodies which outlive the forgotten works they belong to and hint in their delicate and veiled gaiety at themes which later in the finished work were to be developed without skill, and fail.”

David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) noted in 2006:  “What makes The Leopard an immortal book is that it kisses perfection full on the mouth.  Its major theme – the workings of mortality – is explored with an intelligence and poignancy rarely equalled and never, to my knowledge, surpassed.”

Here is the Amazon link:

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a remarkable yet unsatisfying novel – a tragedy within a tragedy, yet a triumph within a triumph.

The story is set in France during the German occupation of World War 2 – and it was actually written during the occupation by someone who would not survive the war.

Before you start to read this book you know that it is unfinished – a substantial fragment of what was to have been a major work, comparable in some ways perhaps to War and Peace. You also know that the author died in Auschwitz in 1942 and that it remained unpublished until 2004.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, part of a wealthy Jewish family who fled the Russian revolution in 1919 and settled in France.  Irene, already experimenting with writing from the age of 14, enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she graduated with distinction in literature.  Fluent in French, she also spoke Russian, Polish, Basque, English, Finnish and a little Yiddish.  She married in 1926 and by the time her second daughter was born in 1937 she had published nine novels in French, one of which, David Golder, had been made into a film.

In spite of their conversion to Catholicism the family were persecuted by the Nazis and they fled from Paris to a distant village where in 1941 Irene began work on an ambitious novel to be called Suite Francaise.  She planned a book of more than 1,000 pages, inspired by the current situation in France.  It was to be constructed like a symphony, but in five sections.  She took Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a model.  Unfortunately only two sections were written, “Storm in June”, and “Dolce”, before she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz;  her husband suffered a similar fate soon afterwards.  Their two daughters were hidden from the authorities by friends and survived the war, carrying with them their mother’s unfinished manuscript, which was published 64 years after Irene’s death.

“Storm in June”, the first (200 page) section of Suite Francaise, consists of stories about various unrelated characters fleeing Paris ahead of the German invasion.  The threads are widely spread and do not converge;  possibly they would have done so in the later, unwritten sections.  There is little connection between “Storm in June” and “Dolce”, the second section.  “Storm in June” is undoubtedly a candid description of these chaotic events, revealing in many cases unpleasant aspects of human nature.

“Dolce” (160 pages), is different in its construction and style, and deals with the residents of a French village adjusting to life with the occupying force billeted in their houses and using their resources. A major character is the young wife of an absent French officer;  while he languishes in prison camp far away a courteous young German officer is billeted in one of their guest rooms, which leads to complications that are more mental than physical.  There is nuanced character development, their story is left hanging, and one wonders whether the author intended to bring him back in one of the later sections.

The tragic events that unfold in the novel do so, in the mind of the reader, against the backdrop of the personal tragedy of the author.  In real-life correspondence which is included as an appendix, Irene wonders whether this novel will ever be completed, and if it will be published posthumously.

The triumph, bitter-sweet as it is, lies in the fact that Suite Francaise was eventually published, and shared with the world, at a time when Nazism had been defeated and France was once again a free country.