This is the first fully illustrated edition of Paul Fussell's landmark consideration of the First World War and its impact on literary expression. Originally published in 1975, The Great War and Modern Memory won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named by the Modern Library one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Nonfiction Books. Erudite yet emotionally affecting, it remains as gripping today as ever: a literate, literary, and illuminating account of the cataclysmic upheaval that decisively severed western civilization into unmistakable notions of before and after. The Great War changed a generation, ushered in the modern era, and revolutionized how novelists, poets, memoirists, dramatists, essayists, and other literary artists saw the world.--From publisher description.
First, while the book is mostly about the war in literature and memory, Fussell captures and shows the actual day-to-day experience of the soldiers in the trenches more vividly than anything else I have read. He was in combat in Europe World War II, so he knew things in visceral terms that non- combatants don't know (and, as he points out, very often did not and do not want to know). Also, while much of his research was literary, the rest of it was about as immediate as you can get: he spent three months in a room at the Imperial War Museum, reading the Museum's (unsorted) archive of papers of the British troops in World War I. In so doing, he says, "For three months I lived in the trenches with the British soldiery, accompanying them on raids on the German trenches across the way, consoling myself with their rum, pursuing and crunching lice in my trouser seams, and affecting British phlegm as they jumped the bags and dashed directly into machine gun fire."
The day to day experience he conveys is horrible, claustrophobic, and increasingly pointless. Soldiers on both sides began to believe that the war would never end; "the war", indeed, begins to seem a great pitiless machine that chews up rank after rank of men, and spits out corpses. This is not a new thought -- no one who has read much about the War is going to believe that trench life was fun. But Fussell conveys more strongly than anyone else I have read just how awful, and endless, it was. He intended his description to make war look horrible, and it does.
Second, Fussell's most important literary observation, it seems to me, is less about literature per se than about a way of thinking -- the modern way of thinking, if you will. He goes through key themes as they appeared in the writings of several major authors of the War. What emerges overall, however, is a sense that for many the ability to believe in ideals was killed in the war, shifting the postwar world to an attitude of pessimism and irony. Many have criticized Fussell's focus on a small group of British writers, but I think his point is still valid. The First World War made it impossible for thinking people to believe in human progress, or in the basic goodness of humankind. In the century since then, it has been too easy to remain disillusioned.
This is a terrific book, for those whose interests are primarily historical, as well as for those who have literary inclinations. Read it.
‘Irony’ is the crucial term. And a famously vague one; let me first, like a teenager giving a graduation speech, turn to the OED's third sense of the word:
A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.
For Fussell, ‘Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends’; and ‘the Great War was more ironic than any before or since’. Highlighting the insanity of trench warfare, and the ‘ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home’, Fussell first traces the various ways people responded to this grotesque irony, and then considers how it has affected language, culture and thought processes since.
Though he does look at some contemporary letters and diaries, his main sources of evidence are the great literary responses to the war, especially Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen, and David Jones, and he locates the source of all their techniques in ‘irony-assisted recall’.
I love this attention to irony as the defining quality of the war; but it also epitomises a sense I had that Fussell was claiming a special status for the First World War that it didn't really possess. After all, irony is hardly new. To me, it seems to be a central part of war literature almost as far back as you can go: Homeric irony is almost proverbial.
Similarly it seems quite a claim to say that 1914-18 was unusually marked by a ‘sense of adversary proceedings’, an ‘us against them’ mentality, since this is surely characteristic of the whole notion of what war is. If anything, the WWI literature I've read has been notable for its awareness that the other side was exactly the same as them; I think of the German and French soldiers trapped all night together in the shell-hole in All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance.
Just one more example to make my point. Fussell believes there is something unusually theatrical in the English conception of this war:
During the war, it was the British, rather than the French, the Americans, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Russians, or the Germans, who referred to trench raids as ‘shows’ or ‘stunts’ […] And it is English playwrights – or at least Anglo-Irish ones – like Wilde and Shaw who compose plays proclaiming at every point that they are plays.
But this is weird, not just because of the qualification he needed in that last sentence, but because when I think of deliberately artificial stagecraft I think of Brecht – a German – and the term used for this in modern theatre studies is a German one, Verfremdungseffekt. In general his idea of specifically national characteristics seems a bit strained (he uses Manning's Her Privates We as an example of how English writers were saturated with Shakespeare; but Frederic Manning was an Australian).
There are several more such quibbles I could adduce, but none of them stopped me enjoying Fussell's arguments, most of which are brilliantly constructed. He is especially convincing on the pervasive influence of the Oxford Book of Verse on contemporary patterns of speech and thought, and he has a fantastic ability to spot poetic echoes buried in the most unlikely places. When CE Montague writes of one destroyed battalion, ‘Seasons returned, but not to that battalion returned the spirit of delight in which it had first learnt to soldier together…’, perhaps it is not too difficult to discern the presence of Milton's ‘Thus with the year / Seasons return, but not to me returns / Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn…’. But Fussell also finds parallels to both Sassoon's ‘The Kiss’ and Owen's ‘Arms and the Boy’ in Bret Harte's ‘What the Bullet Sang’ – and there are other, even more obscure examples.
An American, he seems fascinated by the extent to which the idea of ‘English Literature’ was a part of daily life for so many British soldiers, and he gathers a great deal of evidence from letters and diaries showing how common this was among all ranks.
Carrington once felt ‘a studious fit’ and sent home for some Browning. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘I was mocked in the dugout as a highbrow for reading “The Ring and the Book”, but saying nothing I waited until one of the scoffers idly picked it up. In ten minutes he was absorbed, and in three days we were fighting for turns to read it, and talking of nothing else at meals.’
Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the one about the homoeroticism of war writing, which examines certain tropes in First World War literature and traces them back to the influence of Housman, the Aesthetes and the Uranians, with their veneration of wounded or dying soldier ‘lads’, forever stripping off and bathing in handy streams. Here and elsewhere, Fussell follows the variations forward in time as well, to modern war literature, where he sees Heller's Catch 22 and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as especially representative. For him, this style of heavily ironised, conspiratorial writing has its roots in the Western Front: ‘Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama, which I take to be a primary mode in modern writing.’
Well, maybe. I enjoyed seeing the argument made even if I'm not sure I believe it.
Fussell himself fought in Europe the Second World War and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart; in a certain sense this book is personal, and it has to do with exploring the gap between ideas of war and the reality. The way he reacted to the fighting in Alsace was in some sense (so at least he seems to be arguing) pre-moulded by society's experience of the Somme and Paschendaele. And indeed, like many other writers I've encountered recently, Fussell notes that one can easily ‘conceive of the events running from 1914 to 1945 as another Thirty Years' War and the two world wars as virtually a single historical episode.’
There are a lot of eerie moments - the description of the summer of 1914 being one of the best in memory provokes me a little, because for the life of me I can't remember what the summer of 2001 was like.
Fussell makes the argument - which I find possible but not fully convincing - was that the experience of WWI for the Allies prolonged the course of WWII. Supposedly, the US was so horrified of casualties that it wasted many opportunities to be aggressive, thus allowing the Nazis to do an organized retreat. He does not cite any specific example of a battle or part of the 1944-1945 campaign where a more aggressive strategy could have been used, however. Certainly, Patton's push out of the Normandy beaches and Market-Garden were aggressive to a fault; I can't think of anywhere else where a more offensive approach would have helped.
Fussell seems to be pretty much a literate liberal. One particular item of note is he is the author of the famous essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb", which got him no end of FLAK from the intelligentsia. Fussell was waiting to go in a part of Operation Olympic (so was my father, adding some personal relevance) and he recalls he first reaction to the news of Hiroshima as "I'm going to live after all". To Fussell's credit, he doesn't just express this as a personal feeling, but poses some cogent arguments against the accepted liberal doctrine about "The Bomb". For example, to the argument that the war would have been over in "a few months" even if the bomb was not used, he points out that Allied soldiers were dying at the rate of a few hundred a week even at this late point, and that several thousand Japanese soldiers and civilians were dying each week. Thus "a few months wait" might have actually cost more Japanese lives, not just Allied lives, than using the bomb.
I'm also grateful to Fussell for introducing me to the poetry of Randall Jarrell, who is the only English language WWII poet of the same stature as the WWI poets. I wonder why? Maybe some of the stuff that happened in WWII was beyond poetry.