Boyd Tonkin: Why we still listen to the battle's din

The week in books

In the nation's independent bookstores, last week's chart-topper was not a brand-name thriller, nor a celebrity confessional. It took the form of a massive, multi-dimensional, 50-year-old novel, translated from the Russian (quite superbly, by Robert Chandler). A freak event? Not really, once you merge the overwhelming grandeur of Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, BBC radio's praiseworthy commitment to its high-profile dramatisation – and our seemingly insatiable appetite for Second World War stories. The titanic conflicts of 1939-1945 remain our Iliad and sagas combined. How can, or should, we halt or divert the tide of myth?

Britain in particular should dump its wartime fixations and go forward. So argues the kind of opinion-monger who likes to talk about going forward. The case carries weight if it means paying closer attention to the entire span of the German past - not merely the Third Reich - or to Asia's history. And we have all met those Second World War junkies who inhabit a sort of bloodstained intellectual cage.

All the same, it's likely that at least one more generation will pass before 1939-1945 ceases to act as the final touchstone of heroism and villainy, resilience and barbarism. And, if the "moving on" brigade frets about the British cult, then they should visit Russia.

The Soviet Union (as was) lost approximately 27 million people in the war; China around 15 million. British dead numbered 449,000. Global fatalities, often assessed at 60 million, may be ten million in excess of that soul-shrinking sum. Those figures toll like funeral bells through the finale of Max Hastings's new synoptic history of the Second World War, All Hell Let Loose (HarperPress, £30). Wary of the battlefield mania in British publishing, I did harbour doubts about the prospect of yet another doorstop synthesis, and from an author who has already written half-a-dozen military histories about various theatres of the war.

I stand corrected. All Hell Let Loose is a truly grand achievement: humane, sceptical, vivid, authoritative and utterly free of jingoism or axe-grinding partisanship. More than in his other chronicles, Hastings delivers history from below: "bottom-up views and experiences", of civilians and combatants alike. He deploys diaries, journals and dispatches magnificently, from the Greek soldier bereft at having to leave his beloved grey horse during the bitter winter of 1941 to the grumbling professor in Dresden (the great Viktor Klemperer) and riveting reports by Grossman himself. He catches up with a history teacher in the Red Army as it re-takes Kiev. They talk about their role "in events about which history teachers will be telling their pupils a hundred years from now". From Hastings you would expect – and amply receive – sweeping and thrilling set-piece accounts of the movement of the fronts: such as that around Kursk in the stifling summer of 1943, where "the largest armoured forces the world had ever seen lunged at each other, twisting and swerving". So I tested this epic against the possible weak-points of a British military historian with his background. No recent book has done more to disturb Britain's mythical orthodoxies than Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee (Basic). Her cool, painstaking account affirms Churchill's personal responsibilty for the depth and length of the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. Up to three million died thanks to the PM's utterly bigoted obduracy – even as the imperialists who ran the Raj begged him to send more relief. And Hastings passes with colours flying. He baldly calls the famine "the most serious blot... arguably upon Britain's entire war effort". Overall, he gives full weight to the ambivalence about the war of colonised peoples, noting that the Allied "vision of liberty vanished... at their own front doors."

Although it grips and moves on almost every page, this book leaves a great weariness behind. Having itemised the butcher's bill of grief, the conclusion finds it "impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil". Yet, for as long as such compelling works illuminate "the most terrible event in human history", forgetfulness does not much appeal. "The awe of posterity" still endures.

Jack's back, and easily on top

So who came out ahead on "Super Thursday"? Last week saw the release of the 200-plus commercial hardbacks with which publishers hope to corner the Christmas market and so make up for a pretty sickly year. And a decisive winner has emerged. Lee Child's 16th Jack Reacher adventure, The Affair (see our review on p.27), sold more than 30,000 copies inside a week. Note that, compared to the stellar performance of some fictional thrill-merchants, the celebrity memoirs that garner blanket media coverage are doing less well. Top of the showbiz pile so far is The Life of Lee by comedian Lee Evans (above) – but with scarcely more than half of Child's sales.

How to win a romp on the Rhine

The Children's Bookshow, now a regular – and securely funded – fixture of the literary calendar, has started. It is currently taking its circus of writers from venue to venue across the country. Future dates in the season –which runs until December – will involve favourite authors such as Quentin Blake, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Rosen. They will appear in locations from Sheffield (today) to Plymouth, London to Liverpool, Bristol to Newcastle. As before, the Bookshow is running a competition in conjunction with The Independent to win a family trip abroad. This time it will take the winners by Eurostar (with two nights' accommodation) to Strasbourg in France, home town of artist-writer Tomi Ungerer – 80 this year, and a star of this autumn's events. To enter, answer the questions given on the website: www. thechildren'sbookshow.com (where the full programme can be found) by 30 November. For terms and conditions, see: www.independent.co.uk/legal

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape