Belatedly, a nod to a review article by Joanna Bourke in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of weeks back. She is considering books about the two World Wars, and her remarks ring true.
Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the First World War aims to show “what it was like”, and to examine the impact on “its smallest, most basic component – the individual”. Bourke’s is concerned that this reduces the history of war to “the history of affect”, so that:
Readers end up knowing what certain events meant to specific people, rather than how these events acquired their meaning.
Arguing against writers whose idea of war writing is the stirring up of obvious outrage, she refers to Auden’s Squares and Oblongs. As I think more and more about War literature, the greater my respect for Auden becomes. Here is part of what he wrote:
If one reads through the mass of versified trash inspired, for example, by the Lidice Massacre, one cannot avoid the conclusion that what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough. Could a good poem have been written on such a subject? Possibly. One that revealed this lack of feeling, that told how when he read the news, the poet, like you and I, dear reader, went on thinking about his fame or his lunch, and was glad that he was not one of the victims.