New books about the wars that forged our world in fire divide into wild flowers and hothouse blooms. The former - a fragile minority - grow unpredictably, wherever the seeds of imagination fall. Publishers and tame authors breed the latter under artificial light, according to a timetable and with a market in mind. That market depends on anniversaries, commemorations and every other gimmick in the bookbiz calendar. For a year, we have seen the grotesque overproduction of bicentenary books about Nelson and Trafalgar; titles to mark the end of the Second World War in Europe and Asia have spread almost as fast.
So when a conflict that lacks a definite peg or hook generates a cluster of strong new novels, readers should start to pay attention. Of course, First World War stories have never lost a certain mournful attraction. More than a decade after Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks revived the genre in Britain, they appeal and appal as parables, as warnings, as nightmare fairy-tales. All the same, it seems worth noticing that this spring and summer have witnessed a barbed-wire bouquet of compelling novels about the global carnage that began 91 years ago this week.
These ghosts will not rest in peace. From the US, we have had Peter Pouncey's Rules for Old Men Waiting; from Ireland, Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way; from Canada, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road (see page 22). All find distinctive, and cliché-free, ways to approach the slaughter and shock of absolute war. My favourite member of this ad hoc platoon comes from France; and I suspect that its mood may tell us something about the persistent power of the genre.
Very deliberately, Philippe Claudel's Grey Souls (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) is not a novel about the "great abbatoir" of the nearby trenches. Set in Eastern France, mostly through the bone-chilling, spirit-sapping winter of 1917, it unfolds in two grim factory towns, just within earshot of the front lines. Not many miles away, the artillery booms and the "docile" multitudes die, while the local hospital stays choc-a-bloc for four years - "like a prestigious hotel in a spa resort, much sought-after by those in the know".
Here, amid dismal weather and landscape to make any reader shiver on a torrid August day, the strangled body of a girl - the innkeeper's beloved daughter - is hauled from the foul canal. A desultory investigation follows, led by our narrator, who - as we gradually find out - has a domestic tragedy preying on his mind. The innocent turn out guilty, and the guilty no more compromised that the rest of the ambiguous "grey souls" who wander around this dank circle of hell. Their individual troubles counterpoint, and somehow even intensify, the industrial slaughter that drags on just a little way offstage.
Claudel writes with a heart-gripping, melancholy beauty about this death-ridden spot, where "even the sky seemed to be bearing some grudge against humanity"; in Adriana Hunter, he has found the perfect translator. Oddly, for a book so infused with material and moral mists, every minor character and setting stands out in sharp relief. This is a gem of a novel, but a gem that carries a curse. It evokes above all the emotional climate of total war. A noxious fog of dread, grief and suspicion seeps into the hearts of civilians and combatants, adults and children, turning the "blossoming countryside" of everyday life into "a barbaric expanse of pus, acid and blood". For the narrator, the arrival of this choking misery "carved our world and our memories in two".
From that moment - through world wars, cold wars and "assymetrical" terror wars - European culture has lived at some level in the shadow of a conflict without term, limit or rule. We are not afraid? Maybe we have been since August 1914.Reuse content