There will surely be an onslaught of musings on the First World War as we approach the centenary of its start. Almost as much ink as blood has been spilled over the who’s, what’s and why’s of it yet it still looms as something of a cataclysmic mystery. Somewhere in its no man’s land lies the riddle of our time. A fulcrum between the Old World and the Modern, it is like a phase shift between gas and liquid or liquid and solid where both states briefly coexist in violent flux. It was a time when the cavalry figuratively and literally charged into oblivion, taking with it the last vestiges of the ancien regime. Red uniforms were certainly not the saddest casualty of the war but seem to embody the élan that was bled from the world in that muddy catastrophe. A melancholy emanates from it, knowing as we do not only the terrible toll but also the Great Depression and World War that were to follow. How different it seems than our collective memories of the Civil War and World War II where we can salvage some sense of heroism and betterment from the wreckage. In literature, though, perhaps we find consolation. What better reflects the indomitable human spirit than the potential for poetry in the trenches? I have been mining these literary trenches for years in search of a better understanding. What I’ve put together is a short and perhaps somewhat unorthodox assemblage that carries one from the beginning to beyond the conclusion of the war. Mixed in with the classics are a couple of short novels that may seem tangential on first blush. Viewed in totality, however, I think the collection paints a more humanistic picture than one gleaned from histories alone. Conspicuously absent from the list is a book heavy on tactics or a specific campaign for, if I have discovered anything in my readings, it is that some of the sum is not to be found at the Somme.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962) – There are more scholarly tomes that explore the origins of World War I (Albertini’s Origins of the War of 1914 and Mulligan’s more recent Origins of the First World War come to mind) but for sheer readability, Tuchman’s Pulitzer prize-winning treatment still deserves attention. Her portraits of the personages at the precipice are very vivid. The bent is decidedly anti-German but few of the protagonists emerge unscathed. Her focus on that fateful first month necessarily omits much but effectively holds the reader’s attention through the barrage of complex characters and crossfire.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929) – Chances are you read this in high school. Chances are too that you only recall it dimly. Such was the case for me anyway and I was thus stunned by its intense immediacy when I returned to it again as an adult. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it is foisted upon us at too tender an age to appreciate its profundity. Out of the madness emerges a redemptive humanism. Its marriage of brutal realism with earthly humor calls to mind the etchings of Goya. The terrible scene of the artillery barrage in the cemetery is surely one of the great literary images of the War. What staggers me as much as its message is its messenger who stumbled from one odd job to the next after the war only to finally unburden himself of this single and singular masterpiece.
The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund (2011) – Weighing in at close to 600 pages, this is a hefty undertaking to be sure. But it is one that rewards the reader seeking a single book that captures the experience of the war from myriad perspectives. It captures the lives of a diverse and thoughtful case of characters with an almost Tolstoyesque sweep. Drawn from diary entries, you find yourself in the palpable company of an ailing British nurse, a hopeful young German girl, a celebrated American surgeon and a literary-minded Italian soldier among others. It is a book very much about the Great War but one that touches upon the universal qualities of any epic struggle.
Stoner by John Williams (1965) – This selection might raise a few eyebrows as the war figures only at its margins. Better-known novels set during the war like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Dos Passos’ The Three Soldiers could stake a fair claim as being more on point. But that’s precisely why I select this quiet gem. The Great War is a silent player that imparts momentum while remaining in the background. Professor Stoner opts not to enlist but in so doing is not inured from the consequences of the outcome. It reminds one that life’s dramas sometimes play out quietly against the background of greater ones but are no less consequential, indeed perhaps more resonant by virtue of their human scale. It has been described as the little novel that could, rising from near obscurity to become a cherished favorite among the literati. It takes place far from the sturm and drang but lands with a lasting boom all the same.
1919 by Barbara McMillan (2003) – It was a toss-up between this and the David Fromkin’s equally impressive A Peace to End All War. Both convey a profound sense of what the war hath wrought. The lasting implications of the dismemberment and creation of nation-states plays out in war after war even as I write. McMillan captures the complexities of the deeply entrenched issues that plagued the post-war negotiations along with the barbed personalities that fought it out. Most of us are all too well aware of the seeds of destruction that were planted at Versailles. McMillan also reminds us of the great ideas and aspirations that found their germination in the war’s conclusion as well. You come away feeling that 1919 is, indeed, the beginning rather than the end.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980) – Sometimes the most prosaic proves the most profound. You can cover this brief novel, set in the aftermath of World War I, over the course of a rainy day. If it hits you right, as it did me, it will prove a moving experience. It is a stained glass window of a work that quietly but radiantly reflects upon the capacity to heal. It’s about process more than plot and about character more than characters. It feels like a requiem for the Great War but one needs not have come through it to appreciate its compelling simplicity.