Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing – Alles umsonst (2006) Literature and War Readalong November 2016

alles-umsonstAll For Nothing

Until not too long ago, even Germans thought it was in bad taste to write about German suffering during WWII. The feeling of guilt ran too deep. I still remember the discussion when the movie Anonyma came out in 2008. It’s based on the diary of a German woman who was in Berlin when the Russian army arrived. She was one of 2,000,000 German women who were raped many times by the Russian troops. We may look at the war any which way we want, there’s no denying that the Germans suffered too. We just have to think of the bombing of Dresden, the mass rapes of German women by Russian troops and – of course – the huge number of people who were forced to flee from the East towards the West, when the war was lost. Many of these Germans would never be able to return because the place they came from wouldn’t be part of Germany anymore.

This may seem a lengthy introduction but it’s essential to understand not only the importance but the scope of Walter Kempowskis’ powerful and chilling novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst .

All for Nothing is set in East Prussia, in the winter of 45. In January, to be precise. The story mostly takes place on the Georgenhof estate, located near Mitkau, not too far from Königsberg. Königsberg which was once famous was almost completely destroyed and is now called Kaliningrad. For further understanding, I’ve added two maps.

east-prussia

The map above shows East Prussia in red. The other one below, is a map from 1945. It is more detailed and shows other territories. It’s easy to understand when you look at the maps, how precarious the situation was for the civilians in East Prussia when the Russians started to advance.

germany-1945

At the beginning of the novel, people already start to flee in the direction of Berlin, only the people on Georgenhof, the von Globig’s, behave as if nothing was happening. This is mostly due to Katharina von Globig’s character. She’s the wife of the estate owner who is serving in Italy. Together with her twelve-year-old son, her husband’s elderly aunt and Polish and Ukrainian servants, she lives a life of carefree ease. She’s someone who likes to withdraw from the world, into her own realm. She lives in an apartment inside of the large estate where nobody is allowed to enter. Here she reads, dreams, smokes, cuts out silhouettes, and thinks of an affair she had some years ago. Possibly the only time in her life in which she was really happy.

The aunt is a typical old maid. In the absence of her nephew, and knowing how little Katharina cares, she is in charge of the estate. Peter, the son, who should be with the Hitler Youth, pretends he’s got a cold and, like his mother, flees to other realms in his imagination.

When the first refugees arrive, the small household welcomes them. They feed and entertain them, just as if they were ordinary guests. Katharina may be distracted but she’s kind and generous. Even though her husband calls her occasionally and urges her to leave, she stays put.

But some of the refugees tell horror stories and even Katharina and the aunt realize that falling into the hands of the Russians might prove fatal. Only their life is so comfortable, so enjoyable, how can they leave everything behind? This is an incredible dilemma, and one can easily understand how so many waited far too long before they finally fled.

In the case of the von Globig’s it needs a tragedy that finally pushes them to make a decision.

The first half of the book tells the story before they flee, the second half, tells the story of the flight.

It was so strange, but reading the first almost peaceful part was really stressful. The reader knows what’s coming but the character’s don’t. It takes so long until it sinks in that all is lost.

The descriptions of the flight, those long, endless treks of refugees is harrowing. Not only are the Russians pushing forward, but the refugees are bombed and dead people and horses are piled up to the left and the right of the roads.

Kempowski did a great job at describing in a poignant way how this must have been without traumatizing the reader. We read, breathlessly, but it’s not too graphic and the characters are held at arm’s length. That doesn’t mean the book left me cold. Not at all but it never felt like it was manipulative and trying to shock and disgust.

People often say “Why didn’t they leave earlier?” when speaking of people who are trapped in a war zone. When you read this, you get a good feeling for the reasons. Not only do they have to abandon everything, but they have no idea whether it will be better where they are going. Besides, back then, all they had was accounts of a few other refugees and British radio. Their own radio told them that it was negative propaganda, that all was well, the frontline still secure. How would you have known for sure?

The luckiest thing may have been that they fled back to their own homeland and could stay on territory in which their own language was spoke. While many didn’t make it and many had a very uncertain future, they had at least that. Unlike the refugees that come to Europe from the war zones in the Middle East.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few things about the characters and Kempowski’s style. He does something I’ve never seen before. Almost every other sentence ends in a question mark. It’s really bizarre and I’m surprised it didn’t annoy me. Interestingly, it felt like we hear the characters question themselves all the time. I read a few reviews and apparently he tried to show the general confusion. I’d say he was very successful but it takes some getting used to. His characters are very well drawn. Even minor characters come to life. Most of the time he uses indirect speech but you can still hear the different mannerisms. People repeat the same stories again and again. Just like in real life. Sometimes that’s quite funny. People can be so absurd. Petty. Self-absorbed. Ridiculous. Under the circumstances it’s tragically comic. As I said, Kempowski keeps the reader at arm’s length, that’s why there isn’t a character I loved but there were two I genuinely disliked. One of them was Peter. I would love to know if anyone who read this had a similar reaction. The more I approached the end, the more I disliked this kid. Such a cold fish.

I’m so glad that I chose this novel for the readalong because it’s not only powerful but important. It tells a story that needed to be told and does so masterfully. Raising awareness for a tragedy, making characters  come to life on the page, but not bang your readers over the head or traumatize them – that’s no mean feat.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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All For Nothing is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong will be published in December. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong November 2016 Meets German Literature Month: All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski

All For Nothing

The last title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing – Alles umsonst. It was Kempowski’s last novel. Walter Kempowski was born in 1929 in Rostock and died in 2007 in Rotenburg. He was famous for his autobiographical novels, one of which Tadellöser & Wolff, was made into a mini-series, and his huge project Echo Soundings – Echolot, subtitled “A collective diary”. In this project he collected and juxtaposed excerpts of diaries, letters ,and documents to illustrate and capture history.

Here is the first sentence of All for Nothing

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 25 November 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Literature and War Readalong September 2016

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Luckily Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was one of my readalong titles or I might have given up after fifty pages. I found it hard to get into but once I passed the fifty page mark, I was so engrossed, I could hardly put it down. What a terrific, poignant, witty, and sarcastic book.

The novel is set on the last days of Bravo company’s victory tour. Billy Lynn and his comrades are heroes. They survived a firefight in Iraq, during which they overthrew a group of insurgents. One of the Bravos died in the fight, another one came back disabled. Nonetheless, this “sacrifice” might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been filmed by an embedded journalist. As a reward they receive medals and are sent home on a propaganda tour.

This does it; they throw back their heads and roar. In a way it’s so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they’re happy, they love him, everybody gets along. Sometimes he has to remind himself there’s no dishonor in it. He hasn’t told any lies, he doesn’t exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied.

The last day is meant not only as a special tribute but as a special treat. The Bravos assist and participate in a game of the Dallas Cowboys. They are allowed to go back stage and to talk to the players, their manager and their rich Texan supporters. At halftime, they are on the field, right next to the musical attraction – Destiny’s Child. And during every break, the footage of their fight is shown on a giant screen.

During this tour, and especially on this last day, people force themselves on the young men, telling them how much they admire them, asking them questions about the war “Are we winning?” – “Did you kill many?” – “It’s a god war we’re fighting, right?”

Billy who’s done the most heroic thing, is the 3rd person narrator of this story. Like Holden Caufield he is equally precocious and naïve and such a terrific character. One of the central plot lines is his falling in love with a cheerleader. While his testosterone-fuelled feelings might not be love, as he thinks, hers are even further from the feeling as all she wants is “a hero” – “a soldier”, as Destiny’s Child sing. She wants the idea of a man, not the man himself.

“Hi, you’ve reached Faison! I’m not able to take your call right now…”

It makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear. It puts a frame around the situation, gives it focus, perspective. It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself, and here is a mystery that seems worth thinking about, why this stacking of awareness should even matter. Ant the moment all he knows is that there’s structure in it, a pleasing sense of poise or mental ordering. A kind of knowledge, or maybe a bridge thereto–as if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn this to another? As if you might aspire to some sort of context in your life, a condition he associates with adultness. Then comes the beep, and he has to talk.

It’s a very difficult book to review as it’s not very plot-driven. It’s the exuberant style that’s important, the descriptions of the absurdities, the frenzy with wich football and war are celebrated by the very rich, as if both only served one purpose – to make them feel good about themselves and about being Americans.

Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants.

 

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

 

All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a contemporary book that was so astute and harsh in its criticism of the negative aspects of American culture. It shows that most things are about money and consumption. And even when people pretend they care about something, they ultimately only care about what it can bring them.

Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.

The book is written in a frantic, quick-paced style, with long sentences and paragraphs that reminded me of listening to a frenzied sports commentator.

Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought – send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys – how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skits and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!

Sometimes, when I watch a war movie or read a book about war, I have my doubts. I wonder whether or not it’s really anti-war – as it should. I never wondered for one second while reading this book. It’s not only against war but against the justification, the fake heroism, the phony concern and gratefulness. But it’s kind to the soldiers. They are shown as victims who very often only joined up because they were too poor to do anything else.

I was thinking, if Salinger had written Catcher in the Rye right after 9/11, it might have been a lot like Billy Lynn. I loved the Catcher in the Rye. Needless to say, I loved Billy Lynn.

Since the writing is the most important thing in this book, I’ll leave you with some more quotes:

Don’t talk about shit you don’t know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantage, and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve.

 

Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all.

 

It’s going to be a long, lonesome eleven months in Iraq, long and lonesome being the best-case scenario.

 

Everybody supports the troops,” Dime woofs, “support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we’re so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we’re on everybody’s tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.

 

Other reviews

 

 

 

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the German WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski. Discussion starts on Friday 25 November, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2016: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Next up in the Literature and War Readalong 2016 is Ben Fountain’s novel on the war in Iraq Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy Lynn is Ben Fountain’s first novel. Before that he was mostly known as a short story writer. Many of his stories were published in prestigious magazines and received prizes (the O.Henry and Pushcart among others). A lot of people who already read this novel, told me how much they liked it. If I’m not mistaken, the book is set in the States and not in Iraq. It’s neither a war zone story, nor a home front story but a story of soldiers who are back home to celebrate a victory, before they will be shipped out again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here are the first sentences

The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and limo’s mini bar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where over caffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 30 September 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

The Hunters

The Hunters was James Salter’s first novel. It is based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during the war in Korea.

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell, an excellent, seasoned pilot who is sent to Korea. Cleve is anxious to get there. He wants to prove himself and become an ace, a fighter pilot who has shot down five enemy planes – MIGs. He knows he’s running against time because he isn’t a young pilot anymore.

One thing he was sure of: this was the end of him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren’t good enough anymore. With a athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after  man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

Cleve and every other pilot lives for nothing else but the adrenaline rush of a mission that may bring the possibility to shoot down an MIG and to survive another dangerous mission. The pilots are all competitive but that doesn’t mean they would endanger each other.

They had shot down at least five MIGs apiece. Bengert had seven, but five was the number that separated men from greatness. Cleve had come to see, as had everyone, ho rigid was that casting. There were no other values. It was like money: it did not matter how it had been acquired, but only that it had. That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything. If you had MIGs you were standard of excellence. The sun shone upon you.

Then, one day, Pell arrives. Pell is by far the most competitive pilot Cleve has ever met. And the most reckless. He’s assigned to Cleve’s flight, a small group of pilots of which Cleve’s the leader. Cleve hates him immediately. Not only because he’s so competitive but because he senses he would do anything for a kill and that he’s dishonest. Pell hates Cleve just as much. He’s jealous of his reputation and undermines his authority from the start.

At first, Cleve’s very sure of himself because he’s known to be one of the best pilots but after he returns from many missions, without one single kill, he loses confidence. On top of that, Pell shoots down one enemy plane after the other and, so, killing turns into an obsession for Cleve.

Cleve’s not the only pilot who seems to have forgotten, that ultimately they are in a war. The following quote might explain why this is the case.

They talked for a while longer, mostly about the enemy, what surprisingly good ships they flew and what a lousy war it was. The major repeated that despairingly several times.

“What do you mean, lousy?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Abbott said distractedly, “it’s just no good. I mean what are we fighting for, anyway? There’s nothing for us to win. It’s no good, Cleve, You’ll see.”

The Korean war is often referred to as the “forgotten war” and this sense of not really knowing what they were fighting for, seems to have been almost universal. Many of the pilots who fought in the Korean war, fought during WWII. While they had the sense of having done good in Europe and the Pacific, they often didn’t really understand why they fought in Korea. However, the book doesn’t explore the political or historical dimensions of the war. It only focuses on the drama of the pilots.

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.

The book offers a fascinating character study, or rather the study of two characters. And it’s suspenseful. We wonder constantly whether Cleve will make it, become an ace and leave Pell behind or whether Pell will leave him behind for good. And then there’s the almost mythical figure of “Casey Jones”, a Korean Fighter pilot who is so reckless and successful that everybody speaks about him and thinks he’s invincible. Shooting down a pilot like that, would make up for everything else.

I can’t say more as it would spoil this excellent novel. It’s amazingly well written and surprisingly suspenseful. And, as if that was not enough, the end is unexpected and satisfying.

The book comes with a foreword, for which I was glad as it’s key to understand in what formations the pilots flew and to know what the characteristics of the respective planes were. There’s a great scene towards the end, in which Cleve and another pilot fight with almost empty tanks. The logic of this and other fights would have been difficult to understand without the introduction.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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The Hunters is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the US novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Discussion starts on Friday 30 September, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong May 31 2016: The Hunters by James Salter

The Hunters

James Salter’s The Hunters is this month’s Literature and War Readalong title. It’s the first novel about the Korean war that we’re reading in the read along. I’ve been keen on reading James Salter for ages as he’s always mentioned as one of the greatest US writers. Published in 1956, The Hunters was Salter’s first novel. Until the publication of this novel, Salter was a career officer and pilot in the US Air Force. He served during the Korean war where he flew over 100 combat missions. This was certainly the reason why he chose to write about a fighter pilot in his first novel. The novel has been made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. James Salter died last June in Sag Harbor, New York.

Here are the first sentences:

A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east, over the rugged floating islands, all the cities and towns, the small houses, the bitter streets.

Cleve stood at the window, looking out. Dusk had arrived, and he felt a numb lethargy. Full animation had not yet returned to him. It seemed that everybody had gone somewhere while he had been asleep. The room was empty.

He leaned forward slightly and allowed the pane to touch the tip of his nose. It was cold but benign. A circle of condensation formed quickly about the spot. He exhaled a few times through his mouth and made it larger. After a while he stepped back from the window. He hesitated, and then traced the letters C M C in the damp translucence.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 May 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Jean Echenoz: 1914 – 14 (2012) Literature and War Readalong March 2016

1914

Jean Echenoz tells a very simple story in this short, compressed novel. Five men go to war; two of them return, three don’t. Two of them are brothers and in love with the same woman. The characters as such are not that interesting. What is interesting is what happens to them. Each stands for something that is particular to WWI. Charles is shot down when he joins a pilot to take pictures. The industrialization of war and the use of planes is new. Both elements were important for Echenoz and whole chapters are dedicated to them. One of the men is blinded by gas. That, too is a new and especially beastly feature of WWI. One man returns after having lost an arm. I don’t think any war saw as many mutilated men return. One of the men is executed because they mistake him for a deserter. The absurdity and farce of these decisions is made clear. One man dies during an attack. His body’s lost somewhere in the mud of no-man’s-land. All these are exemplary fates and could have turned the men into pure types, but thanks to Echenoz’s sense for detail, they are more than just types. Echenoz, as he said many times, isn’t interested in psychology. To convey a characters personality and emotions he sticks to pure “show don’t tell”. He describes the actions and the objects surrounding the characters. Both contribute to the description, one in a very realistic, the other in a more symbolic way. I think this was what fascinated me the most. Echenoz’s writing is so rigorous. There’s not one superfluous word. The vocabulary is refined, rich, and exact. He uses lists and enumerations, abstraction, numbers, irony. His writing is visual, even audiovisual because he tries to convey emotions through sounds.

1914  – 14 is one of those books that gets more interesting the more you read about it. My French paperback had about 40 pages of additional material, for which I was grateful, as an important element of Echenoz’s writing is intertexuality. I’ll give you one example. The story begins with Anthime on a hill. There’s a strong wind and suddenly he hears church bells ringing the tocsin that signals mobilisation. At the end of the scene, Anthime drives back to the village on his bicycle. He loses his book which has fallen from his bicycle and opened at the chapter “Aures habet, et non audiet”. What is interesting here is the fact that this whole scene is inspired, or rather taken from a scene in Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize – 93. It’s almost the same scene, only in Hugo’s novel, the character cannot hear the church bells, he only sees them moving. Echenoz who is interested in sound – the incredible noise is another new feature of this war – rewrote this scene, describing the sound of the bells. The book that Anthime carried with him is Hugo’s book. Allusions like these, which blend history and literature and the writing about history and literature are frequent and the closer you read, the more allusions you find.

When the book came out it was praised for its originality although Echenoz himself doesn’t seem to think it’s all that original. Here’s a quote from the book.

All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.

I can see why critics found this original. His writing style is unique and he includes some chapters, like the one on animals, which is very different from what I’ve read in other WWI novels. The most original however is that he uses the techniques of the Nouveau Roman. One of these techniques is to explore nontraditional ways of telling a story. That’s why we find shifts in POV, intrusions of the author. Comments about the future etc. To some extent it is as much a book about writing as about war.

In an interview at the beginning of my edition, Echenoz names the three books that have influenced him the most when he wrote 14. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – Im Westen nichts Neues, Henry Barbusse’s Feu Under Fire (Prix Goncourt 1916) and Gabriel Chevallier’s Peur – Fear, which we have read during an earlier Literature and War Readalong.

As short as this novel is, it’s very complex. Luckily, others have reviewed it too and much better than I.

I really liked Echenoz’s writing and would like to read more of him. Do you have suggestions?

Other reviews

Juliana (The Blank Garden)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

 

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1914 was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the a novel on the war in Korea, The Hunters by James Salter. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 May, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.