BOOK REVIEW / Blitzing the muse

DJ Taylor on the literary legacy of battle; Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry 1939-45 by Adam Piette Papermac, pounds 10

Some large claims get made in Adam Piette's study of what he calls "the consequences of war-time isolation on the private imagination". The first turns up in the blurb, which suggests that the Second World War "represents" - it means "was", but never mind - "the most traumatic experience that British culture has undergone this century, and that the story of that crisis has until now remained essentially unwritten." It has? I seem to remember a long essay by Malcolm Bradbury, Andrew Sinclair's War Like A Wasp, Alan Munton's English Fiction of the Second World War and even Derek Stanford's fusty memoir, Inside The Forties, none of which appears in Piette's 11-page bibliography.

Piette's second claim deserves rather more serious consideration. This is that the war, fought on a scale and with an intensity previously unknown to the western mind, had a dehumanising effect on the literary imagination. In particular, the vastness, complexity and horror of a six-year struggle, fought on innumerable fronts, fatally injured the ability of the writer to turn it into art. Hamstrung by incomprehension, or simple ignorance, the typical literary sensibility, Piette argues, was reduced to a kind of piecemeal reportage, always liable to be channelled into prescriptive (and therefore inaccurate) treatments of what was essentially untreatable. In effect there were recognisable literary forms for dealing with, say, a fire storm, no variation on which could convey the enormity of the real event. Out of this gap between private experience and its public representation grew "some obscure guilt within British culture about its own isolation from the real horrors of the war" which has "traumatised" our post-war culture.

Post-war British culture certainly has its fair share of neuroses, but one wonders whether the link is quite so straightforward as this. Ominously, perhaps, Piette hardly tries to establish it. In a series of closely argued chapters on potent symbols such as the war in the desert, the Blitz and propaganda (where he adduces the existence of a "propagandized intelligensia, islanded within false notions of fiction..."), his forte is simply a piling- up of the evasive and unsatisfactory responses forced upon art by conflict. Moving on to the specific, he has a good chapter on the theatricality of Evelyn Waugh's war fiction, and notes some telling linguistic links between Julia's spiritual sufferings in Brideshead Revisited and Waugh's own experiences in Crete.

While all this works well enough within the parameters Piette has set for his enquiry, it is hard not to feel that these boundaries are unreasonably restricted. In his discussion of war fiction, for example, he confines himself to books written during the war, mostly by serving soldiers. This severely limits his source material - most soldier novelists (Anthony Powell is a good example) were too exhausted to write anything - and ignores novels from the home front by, for instance, JB Priestley, Pamela Hansford- Johnson and Monica Dickens. Various arguments are jeopardised by over- statement, notably the confident assertion that before the war Evelyn Waugh "had never been serious about anything" (Waugh's letters after the break-up of his first marriage, his opinion of Catholicism and his book about Mexico suggest otherwise). Even reading Piette's line on the "complexity" of the war's assault on private histories, its tendency to make descriptions of warfare "completely inarticulate", and the idea that "the Blitz was too extraordinary for words" one wants to shout back that nothing is too extraordinary for words, because in the last resort words are all we have.

Above all, Piette's war/trauma link is overly reductive. One of the greatest traumas of post-war British literary culture was the suspicion of a gang of right-wing novelists that they had won the war but lost the politics. The great novel sequences of Waugh and Anthony Powell are exercises in teleology, in which the origins of post-war social change (or what Waugh and Powell assumed to be social change) are projected back into the Forties. Whatever the evidence to the contrary, Waugh believed that the Second World War turned England into a socialist holiday camp. Piette has some useful points to make, and his textual readings show a sharp eye for detail, but in its refusal to consider wider issues of this kind, his book is too self-limiting for its own good.

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