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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?