Monday, 25 August 2008

New books on the First World War. . .

While browsing in my local independent bookstore this afternoon, I came across two interesting newish books. Doris Lessing's latest, Alfred & Emily is part novella and part biography of her parents - both of whom were haunted by the First World War. Alfred was injured fighting, losing a leg; Emily worked as a nurse at the front lines and lost her fiance. The novella imagines what her parents' lives would have been like if the war had never occurred. This is followed by biographical sketches showing the lasting results of the war on the rest of their lives - and how it affected her own relationship with them. This blend of fact and fiction is intriguing to me - in some ways it seems the perfect way to tackle a subject that is inevitably elusive in its dependence on memory, stories, and the clarity (or not) of thoughtful hindsight. I tend to think of the war as so far away; nearly all the people who lived through that horror are gone now. But how could it not affect their children and grandchildren? With the 100th anniversary not that far away, I imagine many of the next generation will be examining the war - both in fiction and non-fiction - over the next few years.

Michèle Barrett's Casualty Figures: How Five Men Survived the First World War, was the second book I discovered. It also examines the long-term psychological effects of the war on the five soldiers that she profiles. I imagine it will be a heart-breaking read.

One book being brought back into print that I'm quite excited about is Mary Borden's The Forbidden Zone which Hesperus is publishing at the end of this month. I collect women's writing of the First World War and have a 1930 edition of this book (first published in 1929). I think it's one of the best works of fiction to come out of the war by any writer, male or female. Borden was a nurse in France and this collection of short stories and prose pieces drawn from her experiences is so beautifully written and powerful; I hope this new edition will introduce her writing to a whole new audience. It makes a perfect companion piece to Hemingway's In Our Time, for example. "The Beach" is my favourite piece of hers. Borden led an absolutely fascinating life, actively participating in the Second World War as well. I wish someone would write a really good biography of her.


Anonymous said...

This was my area of study at university so I've added all three books to my must find list. I'll be especially interested to read Borden's book. It sounds like it will make a good companion to Vera Brittain's memoirs.

Too bad we don't have a good independent bookseller in this city.

Blithe Spirit said...

Me too - I had lofty plans at one point of doing a PhD in the area of women's WWI writing but alas, I only got two years done and then had to quit - one must pay the rent. But I did manage to build up a decent library and I still try to keep up with new research.
There's a lovely blog called Great War fiction (see link at the side)written by a retired school teacher who has gone back to do his PhD on WWI. He's looking at literary representations of the common soldier, not just in the canonical works, but popular works too. And because he's not in the academic rat-race, he's happy to publicaly post about his research and ideas - I've learned a lot from him.