PEN promotes writers of the Great War among its voices On The Edge

Posted on on 06 May 2014
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Centenary News' Dr. Jillian Davidson reports on the 10th Annual World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC (April 28-May 4), organised by PEN - the worldwide association of Poets, Essayists and Novelists - as  an evening discussion was devoted to “Literature of the Great War.” 

To mark the centenary of the beginning of the war, Melville House and the New York Review of Books co-sponsored the event.  Melville House recently published the first unabridged English translation of Wolf Among Wolves (Wolf unter Wölfen, 1937), a Balzacian portrait of post-WWI Weimar Germany by Hans Fallada. Similarly, the NYRB is about to republish in May the 2013 prize-winning translation of Fear (La Peur, 1930), an autobiographical novel about death in the trenches by Gabriel Chevallier.

Both books were recommended during the course of the evening. 

Moderating the panel discussion, Janne Teller, the Danish novelist and essayist, who lives in New York, invited each speaker to begin with a personal statement on their relationship to the subject of World War I Literature. Teller’s own story was of her German grandfather, who was born in 1900.

On his eighteenth birthday, he received his draft notice. By the time he got to the front, the war was over, but he had to walk home. On his way back, he decided he no longer wanted to be German and crossed over into Denmark.

Geoff Dyer, from Cheltenham, who read English Literature at Oxford and is the author of The Missing of the Somme, explained to the audience how being born in England in 1958 meant that his childhood was completely dominated by World War Two, in comics, in movies and in books, culminating in 1973-4 with The World at War series.

"Don’t worry,” he cautioned, “I have not gone mad. I know we are supposed to be discussing World War One!” 
The First World War was also all pervasive, Dyer felt, but in a geological sense. It felt more domesticated and routine.

To convey his point, he shared vivid childhood memories of his friend’s grandfather dropping his trousers to show his shrapnel wounds. His introduction to the poetry of war came at school and via Wilfred Owen, which was typical of his generation. It was, in other words, an anti-war introduction. 

In contrast to Geoff Dyer, Liesl Schillinger did not grow up surrounded by intimations of World War One culture, but rather in a laden post-Vietnam society. The New York Times Book Review critic hails from Midwestern college towns and studied comparative literature at Yale.

Her initial fascination with World War One literature came from an American poetry book, which her mother gave her, hoping to rouse in her an interest in Civil War poetry.

Schillinger, however, found herself more drawn to John McCrae’s "In Flanders Field" and Alan Seeger’s "I Have a Rendezvous with Death". She was nine years old, in Indiana, crying over World War One American poetry. So taken was she that the young Schillinger learned French from the age of ten and German from the age of twelve in order to read and understand more of that culture.

Reading an excerpt from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, it became clear that Schillinger still finds this war literature emotionally very difficult. 

Growing up in Los Angeles, Justin Go became interested in World War One, neither by family background or education, but from personal experience. At the age of thirteen, he read All Quiet on the Western Front and the book captivated him.

After studying History at the University of California, Berkeley, he became a lawyer but soon quit his job to become a writer. He spent six to seven years researching the war era for his debut novel, The Steady Running of the Hour (April, 2014), taking his title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s poem "Strange Meeting.”

“There is an amazing mystery about this war,” Go explained “… I read everything.” He agrees with Ernest Hemingway that the greatest novel of the war was Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune. Turning to Geoff Dyer, Go quoted from his The Missing of the Somme, how “Every generation since the armistice has believed that it will be the last for which the Great War has any meaning.” Justin Go disagreed: “I think that it will persist.” He himself is living proof.

These four panelists, so deeply rooted and personally invested in World War One Literature, tried to keep their dialogue as free from academic talk as possible, but it proved impossible for them not to draw upon Paul Fussell’s work on World War One poetry and British Modern Memory.

Almost regardless of their “good” intentions, Fussell’s statement that “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” formed a centrifugal point for the discussion. That ever-present assumption and failure of imagination was at its strongest at the onset of the 1914 war, said Go, and it alone makes World War One worth commemorating.

The panel spoke about the early influence of Henri Barbusse’s novel, "Under Fire" (1916), the differences between American and European writers, the nature of books from various European countries, the ten-year publishing lag and the contrast between writers with first-hand war experience versus those without. 

“We are living in a Golden Age of War writing,” Dyer declared, finding a parallel between the present surfeit of war literature and the original boom in the late 1920s.

He called it “the Aldington phenomenon,” quoting from novelist Richard Aldington’s telegram to his publisher in 1929: “Referring great success Journey's End and German War Novels. Urge earliest full publication Death of a Hero to take advantage of public mood. Large scale English war novel might go big now.”

For Dyer, however, the best stuff to surface now was not novels but a new form of reportage. Representative of this new approach to war, Dyer recommended: 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies and The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund.

No wonder John Williams considered in his Artsbeat blog for The New York Times that this PEN panel “served as a live recommended-reading engine” for The Great War.