A Week in Books: The slaughter of 1914-18 stands on the very brink of living memory
Friday 07 November 2003
As his Westminster "colleagues" plotted to unseat Iain Duncan Smith, back-biters and back-stabbers took care to appear in the TV studios with scarlet poppies in their blue lapels. One hardly needs to be a former member of the forces or a bereaved relative to worry about the the way that the Royal British Legion's fund-raising device serves as a flag of convenience for every gruesome creep and chancer in the public eye. The language and symbolism of remembrance created in Britain in the aftermath of the First World War was, in its way, unique: a new model of national myth and ritual, free of bombast, hatred and belligerence.
Inevitably, politicians and their media hounds soon hi-jacked the elegiac mode. The Thatcherite gutter press of the 1980s rarely sank so low as when it tried to convict Michael Foot of disrespect because he turned up at a Cenotaph ceremony in a (rather expensive) coat it called a "donkey jacket". For a long time, however, the presence of survivors - above all, from the Great War itself - acted as a dignified reproach to jingoistic stunts. Not even the most brazen tabloid could recruit the Somme and Gallipoli in the service of its cheap crusades.
Now the slaughter of 1914-18 stands on the very brink of living memory. The handful of veterans still alive have reached their centenaries. From now on, memory will be cultural, not personal. And that, I think, makes access to Great War literature - the poems, the novels, the memoirs - more and not less essential. Generations of schoolkids, of course, have already yawned over Graves and Owen (hence the popularity of Blackadder spoofs). A few literary monuments may look tarnished and over-familiar. Many remain more or less unvisited.
In poetry, readers who think they know the tone and timbre of Great War verse should explore the work of Isaac Rosenberg. Killed on a night patrol on 1 April 1918, aged 27, the precociously gifted painter and poet from the Jewish East End has long been a fixture of anthologies with pieces such as "Break of Day in the Trenches" and "Louse Hunting". Both duly turn up in Andrew Motion's useful new selection of First World War Poems from Faber & Faber (£12.99). Yet his achievement as a whole has been harder to gauge: hence the value of the Selected Poems and Letters edited by Jean Liddiard for Enitharmon Press (£12). Coming from the margins of his culture, Rosenberg shows little of the ruined romanticism that gives poignancy to Owen or Sassoon. In his brief career, he developed fast into that rarest of British beasts: a working-class Modernist, seeking a cool, laconic "outsider" style to convey the catastrophe that struck in "August 1914": "Three lives hath one life -/ Iron, honey, gold./ The gold, the honey gone - / Left is the hard and cold." This volume reveals not only a poet of blazing, fragmentary visions but also, in the letters, a quicksilver critical intelligence.
In fiction, Penguin Classics has re-issued one of the true landmarks of Great War prose: Under Fire (trans. Robin Buss; £8.99) by the French soldier-writer Henri Barbusse, who in the 1920s became a leader of European pacifist politics. Under Fire follows the ordeal of a single company in 1915 with a candour and compassion that set the mark for future novelists. Incidentally, it gives the lie to the widespread belief that disenchanted fiction from veterans took a decade or more to mature. The documentary novel began to appear in serial form during 1916, even before the carnage of Verdun. This immediacy makes for a few lapses: the book has its moments of slapdash rhetoric, but also a mesmerising quality of shocked and sudden witness. After 87 years, its flaming rage might still redden the face of every sabre-rattler in a suit.
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