War Novels Revival

William Boyd writing in the Daily Telegraph reviews the first four books in a new series published by the Imperial War Museum. These are notable novels from WWII that have been relatively neglected. See previous post. Boyd opens his review with an interesting observation that the great literature of WWI was mostly by poets (he can think of only one novel worth considering: Her Privates We by Frederic Manning). In WWII, on the other hand, he can think of only one great poet–Keith Douglas–whereas there have been several great novels. The best of these were, according to Boyd, written by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Powell; he might in all fairness have included Olivia Manning. Boyd explains this phenomenon by the fact that during the period of WWI poetry was the most popular and accessible of writing forms whereas after modernism took hold in the 1920s (especially The Waste Land) poetry became more difficult and therefore less accessible to the average reader and writer. The novel was more able to absorb elements of modernism without distancing itself from the reader.

The IWM’s remit is to republish novels written about the war by those who experienced it. Boyd describes all four IWM books as realistic novels: Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough is about a soldier preparing for D-Day; the book by actor Anthony Quayle, Eight Hours from England, is an autobiographical account of clandestine work in Albania; and Kathleen Hewitt’s Plenty Under the Counter is a home-front mystery. Boyd gives his highest praise to David Piper’s Trial by Battle which relates to the fall of Singapore:

What elevates Piper’s novel is the fastidious elegance of his prose. The writing is very fine and acutely observed. […] The other feature of Piper’s novel, and indeed all four, is an unsentimental realism. These are not gung ho, patriotic celebrations of British pluck and derring-do.  On the contrary the world-view is more often cynical and jaundiced. […] The jingoistic songs and doggerel of the First World War–pack up your troubles in an old kit bag–would be impossible to reproduce in the Second. What the First World War taught the fighting men was that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was a cruel lie. By the time the Second War War came around, the soldiers and civilians had wised up. […] Warfare was never going to be the same again and the men and women who endured it were going to tell the truth this time. Paradoxically, the best place to tell the truth was through fiction. Scales had fallen away from everybody’s eyes and these four novels are excellent testimonials to our hard won maturity.

While not mentioned by Boyd in the review, he adapted Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy for TV. This featured Daniel Craig as Guy Crouchback and was broadcast by UK Channel 4. It is still available on the internet as well as DVD. Boyd also wrote and directed a film about WWI: The Trench (1997). His TV adaptation of Scoop was broadcast in 1987 and gets less attention than is its due, if only for the performances of Denholm Elliott as Mr Salter and Michael Hordern as Uncle Theodore.

UPDATE (18 August 2019): The full text of William Boyd’s review is now available on the internet and the notice has been modified to reflect it.





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