Seventy years after World War 2 ended, there continues to be a flood of literary works about it. Many are novels, but there are also beautifully written memoirs and biographies. In recent months I’ve been reading several books set mostly or wholly in that wartime period, and I’ll share a few of my thoughts about them here.
Most of the authors were born quite a while after those years of global conflict. An exception is Mary Wesley. This remarkable writer was already 71 when her first novel appeared in 1983, half a dozen more being published subsequently. The action of The Camomile Lawn centres on the late 1930s and early 40s in southern England. It’s clear from a biography of Wesley (Wild Mary, by Patrick Marnham) that this novel draws on her own experiences as a promiscuous young woman during those years, and perhaps it’s significant that the story she tells doesn’t get submerged in suffering, unlike so many books written about the war by those who weren’t there (and perhaps feel guilty about being belated). Mainly ironic in tone, and even comic at times, The Camomile Lawn is a startlingly frank portrait of an upper-middle-class English family and their sexual antics against a muffled background of international conflict. Especially noteworthy is the pace of the writing: I admire Wesley’s cleverly economical use of dialogue to depict character and move the story along.
The other books I want to mention (some here, some in a sequel post) are darker in tone, and come from a later generation than Mary Wesley’s. All have been produced in the last few years. Often the authors are retrieving and pondering the traumatic experiences of parents, grandparents or other older relatives, even when the genre is notionally fictional. Their writing seems driven by a desire to expiate or exorcise – or simply to ensure that some family memories are not forgotten. Marianne Hirsch has coined the word “postmemory” to describe “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before – to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” The following narratives are products of this “generation after.”
Alison Pick’s novel Far to Go, long-listed for the Booker in 2011, evokes the increasingly tense atmosphere in Czechoslovakia as the Nazis moved into Sudetenland, with betrayals disrupting civilian life. Although there were a few striking passages, I didn’t find it particularly impressive as a shaped work of fiction; some laboriously contrived imagery was a distraction, the layered method of telling the story struck me as unconvincing, and the characterisation seemed sketchy. What seemed to be the intended high point – the “Kindertransport” whereby thousands of Jewish children were rescued and taken to Britain just before and after the outbreak of war – lacked imaginative insight, coming across as an anti-climax. Far to Go has already begun to fade from my mind, in contrast to another novel set in the same place and time, Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room – which I read some years ago but still remember clearly, though I know it’s one of those books that readers tend either to love or to hate. Returning to Pick’s novel: the framing material indicates that this is a fictionalised version of things that the author’s grandparents experienced. The impulse to produce a kind of family testimony is understandable, but that in itself doesn’t make it successful as a work of fiction.
Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir A Fifty-Year Silence is, for me, much more satisfying than Alison Pick’s novel. Despite their generic differences the two books have enough in common to invite comparison: Mouillot’s story is about her Jewish grandparents and their efforts to escape the Nazis – in this case from occupied France. But more than that, it’s about the author’s attempts to piece together the elusive tale of what really happened to them at that time and why their relationship subsequently fractured, resulting in a long and bitter estrangement. Also interwoven through that narrative of patient detection is Mouillot’s account of her own latter-day return to France, through which she eventually redeems what her grandparents almost lost. It’s written with a deceptively light touch, but I found it perceptive and moving. Both grandparents emerge vividly as flawed yet in some ways admirable figures, whose painful divergence is rendered with affection and empathetic respect.
During her session at the recent Perth Writers Festival, Mouillot mentioned that she had initially tried to cast the story as fiction – and there are still several passages in which she imagines details of scene setting and interaction. This brings to mind Marianne Hirsch’s remark that “postmemory’s connection to the past is actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” But the focus of A Fifty-Year Silence is scrupulously factual: Mouillot resists the temptation to turn the untidiness of actual events into the beguiling shapes of romance. Her book shows convincingly that if a writer wants to bear witness to the wartime tribulations of family elders, it may be best to keep the truth in an unvarnished condition.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France is another absorbing stranger-than-fiction family story from that period. Priscilla was the author’s aunt – a somewhat aloof figure in her declining years, holding her secrets tight. This fascinating biography takes great pains to uncover her astonishingly chequered career, and in the process paints a sombre picture of urban and rural life during the Vichy regime, from the privations of foreigners held in detention camps to the nefarious activities of the black market. Shakespeare’s persistence and skill (along with some good luck) in researching his aunt’s numerous relationships has produced many insights into the moral climate of the time; I was reminded at times of Wesley’s characters in The Camomile Lawn. The author makes this memorable comment on the process of delving into past events:
So much of research involves combing for wayward threads. Most of the time you pluck and what comes away is fluff. Just occasionally, as in fishing, the line goes taut and you feel a tug like a submerged handshake.
In a sequel to this post, I’ll comment next time on three recent wartime novels, all highly acclaimed (though only one appealed strongly to me), none of which could have been written without extensive research: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People.