European Affairs

Good Reading on WWI     Print Email
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 European Affairs

The First World War has produced a bounty of books, fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry still recited in the English-speaking world. The bounty shows no signs of slowing as the anniversary approaches. Here's a sampling.

Three major books from British-based authors on how the war started in the summer of 1914 were published last year: The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and reviewed here in November; Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace; and Catastrophe 1914, by Max Hastings. They take their place alongside such popular works as Barbara Tuchman's 1962 The Guns of August and the seminal academic text from 1928-30 and reprinted in 1964, The Origins of the World War by Sidney Fay.

In fiction, there two works that have stood the test of decades: All Quiet on the Western Front, by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

British writers especially have produced vivid and poignant memoirs of the psychological toll the conflict left behind for the survivors. High among those are Good-bye to All That, by Robert Graves and Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Those works helped set a tone in British popular culture. Now something of a backlash is developing among conservative Britons who complain that the preponderance of literature has cast the war as a futile and horribly run enterprise.

A literary and cultural analysis taking the opposite view -- that too much of the writing and poetry, at least in the first years, was too propagandistic --is The Great War and Modern Memory by the American Paul Fussell. This may be the best single place to read and analyze much of the war-time poetry.

Not surprisingly, since Austria was reduced by the war from an empire to a small, struggling nation, some leading authors there produced major works of fiction on how it all went wrong. Prime among them are Robert Musil's massive The Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth's The Radetsky March. Amid the non-fiction, works by two writers stand out: A Nervous Splendor and Thunder at Twilight, by the Austrian emigre Frederic Morton and the Pulitzer Prize winning Fin-de-Siecle Vienna by Princeton professor Carl Schorske. The latter is a work of stunning breadth and depth.

The latest French contribution to World War I fiction, with the direct and simple title, 1914, is from one of the country's leading novelists Jean Echenoz. This slim, spare and taut novel describes fates of five men who left a French town in the summer of 1914 and that of the woman who loved two of them.