1917 – a film for 2020

The first thing that must be said about 1917 is that it’s a gripping and brilliantly made film. The effect is that the camera follows two soldiers on a dangerous mission, in a single shot, in real time. An effect of immediate realism is produced that looks simple, but has in fact been achieved by immense and complex technical wizardry. It’s one of those films where the end credits seem to be going on forever, listing a city’s worth of names of technicians and artists in several continents who have contributed to the brilliant, labour-intensive CGI.

In this respect it reminds me of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which also used high-tech digital trickery to achieve a shock of realism – in this case by colouring old documentary footage to make it seem vividly alive.

The second thing to be said about 1917 is that it is very definitely a film for 2020. It is a film that simply would not have been made ten years ago, and shows how the decade of the centenary has changed perceptions of the war.

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Troy, and then Standen

There are many good reasons for enjoying the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum. Some remarkable ancient artefacts, some fine Victorian paintings, and so on.

But what filled me with delight was in a small section devoted to Troy and Gallipoli. Under a a painting of the landing a small book was open. It was Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s copy of A Shropshire Lad, and on its endpapers he had written out his ‘I met a man this morning’. He wrote the poem at Imbros, while preparing to return to the peninsula; it ends:

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Sheila Kaye-Smith and the Middlebrow reader

In her 1916 study of John Galsworthy, Sheila Kaye-Smith writes perceptively about the audience for which he was writing. She first defines what she calls the mob-public:

The spread of education, with other causes, has brought into being a mob-public, and the approved of the mob-public have a popularity which could hardly have been conceived two generations ago.

But there is another literary market, which is neither the mob-public, nor the avant-garde. Essentially she is describing the middlebrow audience, a few years before Virginia Woolf coined the phrase (and defined these readers far less sympathetically):

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Christopher Tugendhat’s ‘A History of Britain Through Books: 1900 – 1964’

There’s a recently published book that I’ve been enjoying greatly, so I thought I’d spread the word about it here.

It’s A History of Britain Through Books: 1900 – 1964, by Christopher Tugendhat. The author is a collector of modern first editions and, inspired by Neil MacGregor’s excellent History of the World in 100 Objects, has combed his shelves for books (fiction or non-fiction) that offer an insight into the times in which they were written. He mostly takes the books in pairs or threes to explore what they say about Britain at various times. For example there’s a good essay which pairs Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood with Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, showing what had happened to the English working class in the thirty-year gap between the publication of the two books.

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What’s the very worst war novel?

The worst WW1 novel? I’d generally be tempted to name one of the really poor twenty-first century efforts, like John Boyne’s The Absolutist, a book which combines an utter confidence in its own self-righteousness with an astonishing disregard for historical actuality.

Recently, however, I have read a novel of 1922 which takes the (tasteless and appalling) biscuit. It is Man and Maid by Elinor Glyn, about a facially-wounded ex-soldier who lives in Paris during the last year of the Great War. I have written a review elsewhere which focuses on the book’s treatment of of love and sex, a treatment that makes a modern reader more than somewhat queasy,. (The wounded hero uses his wealth and position to bribe and bully a young woman into marriage. Luckily, she eventually falls in love with him. The author seems to think this a wonderful happy ending) Here, I’ll just speculate how a book like this could become a best-seller in 1922, to be filmed in Hollywood in 1924.

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Prime Minister versus Parliament

We currently have a Prime Minister openly at war with most of his Parliament, a situation without precedent in modern British politics.

For parallels we need to look abroad, and I’ve recently been reading about Austria in 1916, when the Prime Minister, Count von Stürgkh declared a state of emergency in order to divest the parliament of its power.

Physicist and logician (and Social Democrat politician and friend of Albert Einstein) Friedrich Adler (1879-1960) was convinced that this was the beginning of an absolutist rule that could not be combated by legal means, and therefore decided on drastic action.

Friedrich Adler
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Sinclair Lewis

Writing about Zane Grey the other week, I asked if other writers had dealt with the situation of German-Americans during the Great War. Sally Perry kindly pointed me towards the 1916 story ‘He Loved His Country’ by Sinclair Lewis. I therefore got hold of The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis (edited, as it happens, by Sally Perry) and investigated. I had previously been thoroughly ignorant about Sinclair Lewis. (The older I get and the more I read, the more I become aware of how much more there is…), I was very pleased to find that his story turns out to be excellent – much more intelligently crafted than the Zane Grey.

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Which Allatini to read?

Since publishing Rose Allatini:A Woman Writer, I’ve been asked by a few people – which Rose Allatini should they read first?

The obvious answer is Despised and Rejected (1918), since it’s both in print and a novel of historical significance. Certainly, that’s the right answer for anyone researching the Great War.

Yet Despised and Rejected, for all its brave choice of theme and its pioneering exploration of sexuality, is not actually her best novel. So what other possibilities are there?

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Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (1919)

Last week I posted rather sceptically about the splurge of moralistic emotion that is Zane Grey’s The Day of the Beast. I said I wouldn’t be reading any more Grey for a while, but then I took a look at his The Desert of Wheat, and I was hooked right away. It’s a much better book (though still a bit hard to take in some of its attitudes).

One important way in which this is better is that it is located specifically in Washington state, up in the top left-hand corner of America. The Day of the Beast was set in the deliberately unspecific Middleville, but in this novel Grey shows a real feeling for the vast wheatfields of the North-West, and for the people who live there.

The book’s hero is Kurt Dorn, second-generation American. His father was born in Germany and still has strong German sympathies. I think this is the first novel I’ve read about the dilemmas of someone from the sizeable German-American community whose loyalties were tested by the decision of America to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

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Zane Grey’s ‘The Day of the Beast’ (1922)

Zane Grey is, of course, very well known as an author of Westerns, but in The Day of the Beast (1922) he deserts the romance of Old West for a topical theme and a deliberately unromantic and stereotypically modern setting:

Middleville […] a prosperous and thriving inland town of twenty thousand inhabitants, identical with many towns of about the same size in the middle and eastern United States.

The book is a fierce and stormy (and indeed steamy) melodrama, and an indignant denunciation of American postwar society. Three wounded privates return from the war, too late for a hero’s welcome:

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