Now on One Great (Inter)war: The Great Gatsby, a 1925 novel(la) by F.Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s time for a revelation. I am in my mid-twenties, and until a month ago, I had never read the Great Gatsby. Gasp, I know. Well, I picked up the gorgeous vintage imprint recently, and one quiet Sunday afternoon while sitting with my grandmother (who can’t be left alone), I read it cover to cover. This will be a short review, both because it’s a short book, and because it has only glancing reference to World War I, which is, after all, the theme of this blog.
Anyway, the Great Gatsby. I enjoyed this book a lot - more than I expected to. I think if it had been any longer than it was, Fitzgerald’s writing style would have started to wear on me, but it was a well-written, well-plotted, perfectly self-contained narrative that really sucker-punched me with its cleverness.
(I’ve read a bit of nonfiction that I’ve been very lazy about reviewing, so I’m going to try and churn out a few little reviews in the next few days to clear the decks!)
Bad Characters - Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Australian Imperial Force by Peter Stanley is a 2010 non-fiction book that does basically what it says on the tin. Stanley trawled through the AIF court martial files and basically put together this book about the various miscreants of the AIF. This is interesting on its own and also useful as a reference book for WWI fiction writers.
Letters from a Lost Generation, a collection edited by Mark Bostridge and published in 2008, of the letters between Vera Brittain, her brother Edward, and their friends Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Both Edward and Roland sent their letters back to Vera for safe-keeping, so the collection of letters between those three is almost complete (barring many letters between Vera and Edward in 1917-18). Many of Vera’s letters to Victor and Geoffrey were also returned to Vera eventually. These letters, along with Vera’s diary (Chronicle of Youth) formed the backbone of her excellent memoir, Testament of Youth.
Cut for length and spoilers (to the extent that I can spoil history…!)
Parade’s End, a 2012 TV miniseries based on the 1924-28 teratology of novels by Ford Madox Ford (which in the interests of full disclosure I will admit I haven’t read yet), charting the decline of the old English upper class and its values through the doggedly genteel Christopher Tietjens (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), his much more interesting wife Sylvia (played by the lovely Rebecca Hall), proto-feminist wet blanket Valentine Wannop, and various other morally-compromised people of his acquaintance. This series was all right— but not really about World War I, which left me feeling a bit as if I had been sold a pig in a poke.
Cut for length, some spoilers, but I have tried to avoid big ones.
Oh! What a Lovely War, a 1969 film based on a 1963 revue-style stage musical that epitomises the Lions led by donkeys view of the war in a surrealist, absurdist interpretation. Most of the songs are from the WWI era and include the eponymous ‘Oh! It’s a Lovely War’, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, ‘Keep the home fires burning’, ‘The bells of Hell go ting a-ling a-ling’, and ‘Over There’. The plot, such as it is (like the musical Chicago, it’s mostly there to hang the songs on), follows the fortunes of the Smith family as they are swept up in the tide of patriotism and the young Smith men go off to war.
Cut for length, not spoilers.
Fly Away Peter, a 1982 novel (well… novella) by David Malouf. I read this today (it’s probably 40-50,000 words) and I am going to dash off a short review while I am working up to writing a review of Letters from a Lost Generation, which I am still crying a thousand tears over. Not kidding.
What to say about “Fly Away Peter”? First, a little background. I read this book in high school, as the compulsory “UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR FOREBEARS WENT THROUGH, CHILDREN” book (I understand a lot of kids are reading Somme Mud for this now - I pity them. It’s a better book, but a tough read). As I reread, I had some vague memories of bird symbolism, the juxtapositioning of Ashley and Jim and issues of class, and some weird undertones to Jim’s relationship with elderly spinster Imogen. I also recall that I was extremely snide about the “poetic language” which made passages of this really obscure to my seventeen-year-old self, who was reading it in between dinner and getting on MSN to IM with my friends. Do kids still use MSN? I feel old. Anyway.
Undertones of War, a 1928 memoir by Edmund Blunden, based on his experiences in France and Belgium from late 1915 to early 1918. Does require some knowledge of the overall shape of the war to stitch together towns and battles, and I would hesitate to recommend it to a casual reader, because probably for the “human factor”, Good-bye to all That and All Quiet on the Western Front are justly more famous. However, Undertones of War is a lovely read, and provides more insight into the day-to-day lives and stresses of the company officers.
Cut for length.
The Secret Battle, a 1919 book by A. P. Herbert, available free at Project Gutenberg. It is fairly short, but very well worth it for the amazing descriptions of the struggles, both petty and major, experienced by junior officers in Gallipoli and France. It is written as a sort of fictional memoir from the point of view of a narrator, who is writing to set the record straight about his friend, Harry Penrose. The story is a protest against the mercilessness of the military machine, and does a very effective job of showing that Penrose has been failed by the system. Winston Churchill called it,
“One of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops … like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon [it] should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means.”
A. P. Herbert was probably partly inspired by the case of Edwin Dyett, whose fate apparently haunted him. It is difficult to talk about this story without spoiling the ending (and you may be able to guess what happens), but I’m going to try because I think knowing probably changes the way you read from the beginning. However, most reviews will discuss the ending of the story, so be warned – and if you’re willing to be spoiled, the Wikipedia page actually has excellent analysis of the inspiration for the story and its impacts as a piece of protest literature.
Beneath Hill 60 by Will Davies, is a 2011 non-fiction account of the tunnelling activities of the war, with particular emphasis on the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, Captain Oliver Woodward, and the mining under the Messines Ridge, the detonation of which kicked off the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917. Will Davies edited Somme Mud, which I have previously reviewed, and was asked to prepare this book to tie in with the 2010 film Beneath Hill 60, which I have also reviewed.