The war that made suffering most poetic

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The Independent Online
It is almost an axiom that the First World War is a richer subject for literature than the Second. Everyone knows about the poetry that bloomed in the rank mud of Flanders; and everyone can recognise the conventions hooted at in Blackadder. But not many people, despite the eager efforts of some anthologists, can think of many books or poems inspired by the Second World War. Pat Barker's victory in the Booker Prize, echoing as it does the striking success of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong last year, confirms once again the power of the Great War's grip on the national psyche (her triumph came a week before Poppy Day). William Boyd and Susan Hill are two others who have gone over the top - as it were - in recent years.

In one sense this is a mirage. The Second World War was dealt with, swiftly and sometimes brilliantly, by the cinema. On any Sunday afternoon you can watch Jack Hawkins peering through binoculars ("Cocoa, Sir?") in search of a U-boat, or John Mills squinting into a bomb-sight. And there are endless thrillers on the subject. But the very success of the war as the setting for Boy's Own adventures points to one of the ways in which it fails as a source for literature.

For one thing, it is hard to keep out of it a triumphalist we-won note - literature prefers its heroes to lose. For another, it is much too complicated logistically: it took place in deserts, jungles and oceans, in the air and among the ice floes. And it was full of technology: ships, planes, tanks, radar and so on. A novelist wishing to describe it needs to know about fuel gauges and ballistics, about parachutes and radios - even about cryptography. But this is Frederick Forsyth country - or Robert Harris country - and polite literature often regards such technical details as uncouth. It might be a failing of literature that the Second World War is too full of action to make it a suitable theme for anything but combat- zone trash mags. Certainly the First World War satisfies more readily our expectation that literature should concern itself with hapless individuals trapped in a cruel and indifferent world. And it also satisfies our desire for suffering to be poetic.

The other commanding advantage of the First World War as a setting for fiction is that the soldiers don't move. They just wallow in mud, and suffer. There is an existential dimension to this predicament very appealing to modern literature. The war in the trenches becomes a perfect metaphor for meaningless slaughter - and also a potent (and true) indictment of the feudal system by which a callous officer class could throw the doomed youth of the nation on to enemy guns without blushing.

Pat Barker's trilogy isn't exactly about the war itself - it's about the after-effects. But though it is possible, perhaps even easy, to use the First War as an emblem of this sort, the second one refuses to perform as a backdrop: the conflict is too dispersed. Michael Ondaatje attempted just this in his own Booker-winning novel, The English Patient, which featured a wounded airman. But the airman's experience seemed anything but central to the war: whereas we can be sure that a shell-shocked man from Passchendaele has been to the heart of the matter.

Ironically, given that novelists are supposed to be alert to moral nuances, the First War might also be a simpler moral matter than the second, and therefore an easier one to invoke. It is easy to be anti-war when confronted by the horrors of the Somme; impossible, indeed, to be anything else. But the war against Hitler confronts us with the queasy sense that it might have been just and necessary. It is hard to look at a bunch of Second World War soldiers and murmur: "What passing bells for these who die as cattle?" The tone of elegiac despair does not quite fit.

Except, of course, in the war's most essential manifestation: the Holocaust. This, as it happens, is where the literature comes from, and none of it is English - it comes from the pens of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Paul Celan and, more recently, Art Spiegelman. The great books of the Second World War come from the camps because that's where the existential drama - the war between good and evil, the war over what humanity is capable of - was played out. In the First War, the field of this conflict was the front line - the trenches were the stage both for the blood and squalor and for the war of ideas: an ideal combination.

In the end, it is silly to imagine that great events somehow "produce" great literature - as if literature was merely a symptom of suffering. But it is clearly true that suffering is one of literature's favourite subjects. And the Great War, perhaps more obviously than its successor, wears its suffering on its sleeve.

ROBERT WINDER

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