Arifa Akbar: The most memorable history lesson on war is found in fiction


Remember Septimus Warren Smith? The returning First World War veteran who haunted the darker recesses of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway? Septimus Smith, who couldn’t stop being tormented by his raw, ravaging, suicide-inducing memories of the front, even as the sun shone on postwar London? He has remained with me in a way that no history lesson has. Sorry Mr Gove, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I learned the best lessons about the Great War through great fiction.

This has got nothing to do with Blackadder. To say that I (mis)learnt history through depictions in popular culture would be like saying I learnt about Christianity by taking notes from The Life of Brian. Teenagers shouldn’t be patronised. They know the difference between history and historical satire, just as adults know the difference between the contested facts of history and the uncontested psychological insights of historical fiction.

What fiction inspired by the Great War has done – and continues to do – is to bring back the smells, sounds, and electrifying sensations of the front line; the filth and terror of the trenches; and, alongside that, just as validly, the duller terror at the home front. These fictions take you back there; they make you care. And they do more than that. Read a collection of First World War poetry to take you through the intellectual and emotional debates that consider whether war was necessary, whether the ideological victory was worth the loss of 16 million lives, a debate that has been so fervently rehearsed in recent days. Read Mrs Dalloway for insights into the effects of “shell shock”, as it was called then (PTSD, as it is now), on young men returning – seemingly intact but actually psychologically shattered – from the front line.

“Septimus bears much of the novel’s weight of social consciousness, and is the vehicle through which Woolf explored some of the meaning of her own bouts of psychosis which corresponded to the war years 1914-18”, writes Elaine Showalter in the introduction to my dog-eared, heavily annotated university copy of Mrs Dalloway.

Showalter’s theory – that Woolf imaginatively, empathetically, combined her own psychological upset in those years at “home” with the trauma suffered on the “front” to such powerful effect – is a very contemporary one. War fiction written by women over the past century has, in some ways, traced the same trajectory as 20th-century feminism in its questioning of heroic masculinity. In other words, women writing about war have often chosen broken men as their protagonists, from Woolf to Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (and more recent Toby’s Room), to explore the effect on men of having to live up to the heroic ideals that war demanded of them (at a time when women couldn’t join them on the frontlines); and, along with that, the emotional impact that war had on these men’s relationships with their wives, lovers, families, when they returned home.

Joanna Trollope, as chair of judges for the Orange Prize in 2012, identified a distinct theme across the shortlist – that of women writing about war with men as main characters, and from unexpected standpoints. Perhaps she identified an old, not new, theme. Women’s fiction on war has in the past sometimes been misdescribed as “domestic fiction” because it doesn’t include the whizz of bullets at close range. But a book like Mrs Dalloway is a war novel because it depicts, most delicately, the effects of war on ordinary men and women.

This year – this centenary year – so many more female writers have chosen the Great War as their central theme. There is Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome and Sarah Waters The Paying Guests; there is Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, reviewed on page 26; The Moon Field by Judith Allnatt, a story of love and redemption set against the war; the debut, Wake, by Anna Hope, chronicling the lives of women battling with postwar loss; Adele Parks’ Spare Brides, on the same theme of women’s lives, shattered by the death of their men. I welcome these, and more, for their stories and the history lessons they incorporate.

How to ensure your new book is not a little failure: recruit James Franco for a trailer

How does a writer in this saturated literary market make sure his forthcoming book stands out against the rest? Well, if you’re as canny and as well-connected as Gary Shteyngart, you can enlist not only an A-list actor, say, someone like James Franco, but also the A-list American author, Jonathan Franzen,  for a funny wee four-minute trailer. The trailer features Franco and Shteyngart as a married gay couple wearing pink, fluffy bathrobes and discussing their respective memoirs.

Franzen later pops up as a psychotherapist who can’t help speaking the truth, in spite of himself. Since its Buzzfeed posting in mid-December, to coincide with the American release date of Shteyngart’s memoir (published in Britain next month) the trailer has garnered nearly 9,000 Facebook “likes”.

With a result like that, Shteyngart can afford to make self-deprecating jokes about the title of his book, Little Failure, as he does in the trailer. “I don’t think of you as a failure and I certainly don’t think of you as little,” says Franco lasciviously to Shteyngart, stroking his head. We don’t think of you as a failure either, Shteyngart, and we’ll aim to judge the memoir neither by its ironic title nor by its author’s high-flying friends.

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