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.