This week’s movie critic at the Times Literary Supplement is Alex Danchev, Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He has interesting things to say about some recent War-on-Terror films, but I want to take issue with his first paragraph:
The classic books of the First World War appeared in spate some ten years after the Armistice. Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, both came out in 1929 (and Lewis Milestone’s film of the latter in 1930). Well-pondered work of any kind does not issue in an instant; ten years is a decent interval; and that war had a plangent and definitive end, unlike the contemporary “war on terror”.
This seems to be wrong on almost all counts. There was indeed a “spate of books” about the war in 1929-30, but the idea that writers had been sitting patiently waiting for a “decent interval” seems unlikely.
The first person to enunciate the ten-year gap theory seems to have been Herbert Read in the Criterion for June 1930:
All who had been engaged in the war, all who had lived through the war years, had for more than a decade refused to consider their experience. The mind has a faculty for dismissing the débris of its emotional conflicts until it feels strong enough to deal with them. The war, for most people, was such a conflict, and they never got “straight” on it. Now they feel ready for the emotional reckoning and All Quiet was the touch that released this particular mental spring.
This account, with its implicit appeal to Freudian theories of repressed memories, sounds impressive, but won’t really stand up. For both writers All Quiet is a key text. But is this a book that can be described as “well-pondered”? Is it the work of a man who has got “straight” on the war? It is rather a disordered and impassioned piece of writing, whose power comes from the immediacy of the present tense, which does not allow the war to be put into any perspective. Remarque presents the war as pure physical experience, an event without causes or beginning or end, purely as a site of suffering.
Is it a truthful book? Doubt has been cast, for example by Henry Williamson in The Golden Falcon:
The only thing that would satisfy about a war book was its sense, not only of reality, but of actuality. Unless the spirit of the author had breathed upon the dust of camps and battlefields, estaminets and base towns, home firesides and munition factories, mothers held and suspended each by a thin wire of awaiting – suspended life – so that the forms of men arose with life to perform their acts in authentic scenes again, the book would wither and pass. The spirit of All Quiet was alive, but no material body had arisen under its author’s ravaged breathing. Had the author ever been in a battle? Manfred thought many of the scenes were faked. The battle scenes had the tensions of imagined dread. A battle imagined was more terrible than a battle in movement. Those who had passed over the crater zones in the shrieking air were not haunted as those who had only dreaded the assault.
As for Goodbye to All That, it too fails to fit the bill as the considered response of someone who has got “straight” about the war. It was written quickly, for money, by Graves, whose strict standards about poetic form did not extend to the ethics of prose. Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, has shown how a great deal of the book is shaped for the sake of ironic story, rather than truth.
Don’t get me wrong – both of these are valuable books, and worth reading. It’s just that I don’t think either provides as coherent a representation of the War as J.B.Morton’s The Barber of Putney (1919), or Stephen Graham’s A Private in the Guards (1919) or Mottram’s Spanish Farm (1924), or Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-28).
So why was there a spate of war books in 1929-30? Partly it was a fashion thing; Journey’s End was a big stage hit in 1928, and All Quiet a best-seller in 1929, so publishers forgot their decade-long adage that war books didn’t sell, and actively commissioned work about the conflict – both Manning’s Middle Parts of Fortune and Blaker’s Medal Without Bar were written at their publisher’s suggestion.
During the twenties publishers had definitely been prejudiced against war books. Mottram had to hawk his manuscript around many before it was accepted, even with Galsworthy backing him. My own (unprovable) suspicion is that this was because the end of the war left bookshops with a glut of the kind of war books that with the Armistice became dated overnight. Then peace produced its own glut of histories and memoirs, and the market simply became overstocked.
More importantly, though, the late twenties was a time when the War returned to people’s minds. The treaty of Versailles had clearly not worked; Germany was re-arming; Europe was becoming unstable. The “war to end wars” had delivered on remarkably few of its promises, and hindsight made it seem futile. There was a ready response to books that proclaimed this futility (like Remarque’s) or presented the war’s absurdity (like Graves’s). I’m sometimes tempted to say that the books of 1929-30 tellus more about the mood of 1929-30 than they do about 1914-18. That would be stretching it a bit, but not much.
Another point of Danchev’s that I’d dispute is his claim that the “war had a plangent and definitive end”. Does he mean November 1918? Or June 1919? In Latvia the war memorials date the conflict as 1917-1921. At Les Invalides in Paris (where I saw the terrific Love War and Sexuality exhibition last month), the permanent exhibition upstairs is entitled “Les Deux Guerres Mondiales, 1871-1945”. “Plangent” I’d agree with, but “definitive” depends on who’s doing the defining.