Literary Review

Battle chronicles

The writer takes a look at the literature on World War I in its centenary year.

Memory is in present tense. The Royal Society of Literature programmed Voices of the Great War at the Space for Thought festival hosted by The London School of Economics’ Literature series, and held at Sheikh Zayed Theatre. Michael Longley (poetry), Tobias Hill and Louisa Young (fiction) and Timberlake Wertenbaker (drama) introduced and discussed literature of World War I that meant the most to them. Tobias Hill remembered Alan Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes not as a war memoir but as an adolescent novel vivid in its account of life of 1913; the promise of writing that lay ahead before Fournier was killed in September 1914.

Michael Longley read poems from his anthology of Robert Graves’ poetry featuring those whom we know as ‘the war poets’. We miss the grave irony of the loss of generations, of youth, of a future: You are too young to fall asleep forever/And when you sleep/you remind me of the dead. Longley remembered the ‘war poems’ as love poems too.

Timberlake Wertenbaker selected Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy to illustrate the trauma of modern warfare. As a dramatist, Wertenbaker was interested in stories that dig deep into memory and recalled Captain W.H.R. Rivers, a psychotherapist at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, whose unique treatment for shell shock was the ‘talking cure’. This enabled the patients to express their emotions, and re-generate. Once healed, paradoxically, the patients had to return to the war front and kill. Many were killed. The guilt weighed on Rivers, making him the subject of compassion and complexity in a time of war.

Louisa Young is among contemporary women novelists writing about women and their lives keeping ‘home’ while their sons, husbands, lovers went to war. Young cited Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, which turns the concept of ‘unknown soldier’ into the amnesiac dimension of soldiers sent home from war who are unknown to themselves and their former self, before facing the family they are sent home to, and whom they cannot remember.

The striking selections of each of these writers evoked the vibrancy of life, nature, science and research and youth in the writing of their subject — whether they were of that time or not.


A new wave of women writing about women in World War I is about to hit the book stores soon. Wake by Anna Hope is set in 1920 and this debut novel focuses on three women across social classes and the way the war impacts their chances of survival. Mary Gibson features factory girls fighting for their rights during the War in Bermondsey with Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts. Spare Brides is another debut by Adele Parks about four women making their way through the ‘shabby glamour’ of post-war England that will enter yet another war. Louisa Young, a descendent of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, has Heroes’ Welcome, the second in her trilogy My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Anita Shreve’s The Lives of Stella Bain forms a genre within this new wave — a psychological thriller about an American woman who wakes up in 1916, in France, and has lost her memory. Kate Williams’ new trilogy starting with Storms of War is the story of one family from World War I until 1939. Pat Barker’s trilogy is out as a single volume.

Women writing about war and the home front will bring new perspectives about an old world, its eras and social classes, the shifting ground of morals, loyalties, patriotism, comradeship, religion, spiritualism, science, nature, psychology, sexuality, medicine and representations in art at the opening of 20th century. It is a different kind of memory that gives voice to generations of women who felt all the turbulence of loss and love, power and powerlessness, strange alliances and domestic animosities.


Memory is visual and making sense of what is seen and perceived reaches a heightened reality in the art, methodology and discourse of Paul Klee (1879-1940). In Making Visible, at Tate Modern, an exhibition of Klee’s work curated with intelligence by Matthew Gale, we see the world of an artist and perceive the reality within the familiar, and wonder at its diversity and detail. Klee’s meticulous note taking, cataloguing, reading, and thinking began in 1910. Before the war years, he met August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky and in 1911 joined the Expressionist artists’ group Der Blaue Reiter. In 1914, he travelled to Tunisia with Macke to discover colour: “that’s the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.” In June that year the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo led to the outbreak of World War I. Kandinsky, a Russian citizen, was considered an enemy alien by the political mapping of the world. August Macke was drafted into the German army and killed on the western front. The death of many more artists led to a new policy of ‘preservation’. Through their work, Paul Klee and the artists who survived World War I made a statement that culture, making visible reality, counted for life beyond loss. The focus on graphic art, colour, composition, form the architecture of mind present to all life and to be able to abstract it compels the ‘beholder’ or viewer to participate in this parallel universe of living memory.

Memory is total recall of an unseen force of the imagination that then manifests itself through the transitory and is made vocal and visible. It has to be continuously present.

Vayu Naidu is Sage in Residence at Eton College

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 12:26:08 AM |

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