Tag Archives: postmemory

The War’s Not Over Yet: instalment 2

The novelist Anthony Doerr has remarked that there will soon be nobody left on earth who can personally remember World War 2.

In a previous post I discussed a few recent examples of “postmemory” writing (to borrow Marianne Hirsch’s term), where authors are retrieving and pondering the traumatic wartime experiences of an earlier generation – often parents, grandparents or other older relatives – even when the genre is notionally fictional. Their stories, I suggested, seem driven by a desire to expiate or exorcise – or simply to ensure that some memories of World War 2 are not forgotten.


Here I’ll pursue this theme in relation to three more novels. The first is by Anthony Doerr himself, and it’s one of the most impressive works of historical fiction I’ve read for a long time.

All the Light We Cannot See creates a powerfully sustained tension by using the perspective of children (one French, one German) to dramatise the build-up to World War 2 and the subsequent devastation. Its early chapters quickly drew me in and the device of frequent alternation between the stories of the two main characters, mini-chapter after mini-chapter, held my interest throughout.

Already on the first page there’s a tensile quality in the writing:



At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.

That quality, blending the stark with the lyrical, never slackens. It’s August 1944 when the book opens, and fierce bombardment of the historic French town of Saint-Malo is imminent. Two months after D-Day, with half of western France now liberated, this last German stronghold on the Breton coast faces destruction. As the waves of bombers approach it, two teenagers who are unknown to one another become the dual nodes of the narrative: a blind and seemingly helpless French girl is hiding in an attic, separated from her family, while a young German soldier with a flair for radio technology is sheltering nearby in a hotel cellar.

The gradual unfolding and suspenseful convergence of their stories is handled with great skill. More than anything else, what holds it all together tautly is the consistent stylistic control. Poised, precise, the language rings true. Rhythm and tone never seem forced.

The title image works on several levels. Light suffuses the action, yet one of the main characters cannot perceive any of it. Besides, another kind of electromagnetic radiation is pervasive in this novel – the wireless transmission of sound. Much of what happens is dependent on radio waves, which are of course invisible, a form of “light we cannot see.” The author says in an interview:

I wanted to tell a story [about] a time in history when radio had a lot of power. When hearing the voice of a stranger in your home was a magical thing. So I knew I’d have to go back to World War 1 or World War 2.

He chose the latter period because the rise of Nazism and the devastating impact of German propaganda were made possible by radio. That technology was a key to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

One slight reservation about Doerr’s fine novel: by prolonging the story far beyond the war years he risks weakening its impact. I can well understand, and forgive, his reluctance to take leave of such memorable characters; but the novel’s centre of historical gravity is 1944, and when the final chapters stretch  forward to 1974 and then 2014 it’s as if the author feels compelled to affirm (needlessly?) the lingering power of “postmemory” through a narrative relationship between his own generation and those wartime predecessors.


The other two recent war stories I’ve been reading are prize-winners by notable Australian authors: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a story of Australian POWs, and Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People, which mostly takes place in London during the Blitz but also dramatises its aftermath by focusing on a traumatised Australian pilot. This pair of works controversially shared the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction after the PM himself insisted that Flanagan’s should be placed alongside the judging panel’s strong preference for Carroll’s. Flanagan also won the Booker Prize for his novel.

Both have arresting qualities, but neither of them, I’m sorry to say, has aroused in me the passionate admiration evidently felt by many readers, though I don’t intend to provide here a full-on critique. As a general rule I think Australian novelists should hesitate to review in negative terms the work of other Australian novelists – not so much to avoid the risk of reprisals as just to acknowledge that our national literary scene, being small and commercially frail, is not well served by internecine strife. Yet in this case, having committed myself to a couple of blog posts about recent WW2 stories, I can hardly avoid mentioning these two acclaimed novels – and it would be lily-livered to disguise the fact that they underwhelmed me. (Both Flanagan and Carroll are well-established and highly successful writers, so my murmurings won’t inflict any harm on their secure reputations.) Perhaps it may be worthwhile to ponder why, despite the plaudits The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A World of Other People have attracted, I’m by no means alone in my inability to be totally enthusiastic about them.

The main problem, perhaps, is that they tend to become over-insistent on their messages. In The Narrow Road, for example, despite powerful scenes and images that linger in the mind, too much of the prose can seem overwrought and strident, with far-fetched similes and repeatedly gruesome in-your-face details. After so many pages describing emaciated bodies and extreme physical torment, some readers will wish the author had understood that “less is more”; and they may also think there is undue reliance on stereotypes: the Australians are too Australian in their laconic bravery and mateyness, the Englishmen too class-bound, the Japanese too shrilly and insanely Japanese. Perhaps credible, but too loud in the telling. Yes, yes, we get it!

Flanagan’s novel has been flayed almost as often as it has been praised. Tony Abbott’s foolish intervention in the decision-making for the PM’s Literary Award provoked one of the prize judges, Les Murray, to break confidentiality and announce publicly that most of the panel members thought The Narrow Road “a stupid, pretentious book.” Less succinctly scathing but just as fierce was a critique by Michael Hofmann in the London Review of Books. Among the novel’s many faults, says Hofmann, is that “the writing is overstuffed, and leaks sawdust.” Phrases such as “sham texture,” “sticky collage” and “descriptive cant” run through this review, which sees Flanagan’s prose as parading a show of tender sensitivity, full of romantic clichés.

Susan Lever’s discussion of this novel in the Sydney Review of Books is less dismissive, but still expresses “unease” at the book’s insistent “literariness” in representing vicariously a generation of war veterans whose experience “is now receding into the past.” Lever concludes by describing it as “a work of filial and national piety.” That’s a shrewd comment, putting a finger on the obvious source of the novel’s emotional investment – and what some see as its sentimental excess. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is dedicated to the author’s father, a survivor of Japanese POW camps, and with understandable feeling Flanagan himself has spoken in interviews of growing up as a “child of the Death Railway.” This work, then, is an expression of “postmemory” in Hirsch’s sense: its focus is on “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.”


Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People has also come in for censure as too strained in its romantic gestures (What does that cover image on the left tell you?), too self-consciously literary, and “in no way convincing.” That verdict is by Andrew Fuhrmann, writing in the Sydney Review of Books. He describes the novel as “a somewhat bland story of doomed love” with “a romantic feebleness to the psychological mechanism.”

To judge by comments on this novel to be found on the Goodreads website, some readers think Carroll’s writing too often draws attention to itself. For example, in paragraph after paragraph nearly all the sentences are so short that the result can look like a kind of stylistic stammer, awkward and unproductive, yet with a portentous air. Here’s a random example:

You had to be watching to notice and Iris was. The statue has moved.
As she pieces the movements together – the shoulders, the hands, the eyes – she realises what they signal. The statue has not only moved. The statue, she realizes with astonishment, is crying.
She was about to leave. But she can’t now. Not while the statue is crying. Absurd as it may seem, she feels implicated. Responsible in some way. She has been watching him, studying him, all this time. Fascinated by the immobility, the stillness of the young man, and drawn to the waves of intensity radiating from him. Almost willing him to break. And now that he has broken she can’t go. Bronze and marble have melted into life.
So she waits.

There are other difficulties for a lot of readers. The way in which this novel uses T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding as a framing device can seem contrived and fail to carry conviction. Arguably, Eliot’s presence as a character in the story feels awkward: he is “stiffly drawn” and other characters are “cardboard.” Those comments, too, are from the review by Fuhrmann, who adds: “it is hard not to wish the whole thing had been done without dragging in Eliot.”

These resistant readers of the Carroll and Flanagan novels remind me of John Keats’s remark in a famous letter 200 years ago: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” (For him and his contemporaries, the term “poetry” could apply to imaginative literature in general, including fiction.) Many of us feel, as Keats did, an antipathy to literary works that are too stridently insistent on commanding our attention. In the same letter, Keats says this:

Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, Admire me I am a violet! Dote upon me I am a primrose!

If you’ve read any of those novels and have a different opinion, tell me.

The War’s Not Over Yet: instalment 1

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.”

FAR TO GO_HB.inddAlison 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.

9780804140645Miranda 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.

Unknown 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.