Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong April 2017: The War – La douleur by Marguerite Duras

Usually I like to say a few introductory words about my readalong titles, but I’m in bed with the flu and my head feels like it’s filled with cotton. The book has to speak for itself. Luckily, I found the first pages of  the translation of Marguerite Duras’ The War – La douleur online.

Here is the beginning:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau.

I have no recollection of having written it.

I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’ Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.

One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.

How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?

The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcieres asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.

The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

She said, “You know Belsen’s been liberated?” I didn’t know. One more camp liberated. She said, “Yesterday afternoon.” She didn’t say so, but I know the lists of names will arrive tomorrow morning. I must go down and buy a paper and read the list. No. I can hear a throbbing in my temples getting louder and louder. No, I won’t read the list.

 

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

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 April 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)

in-my-brothers-shadowuwe-timm

Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Do You Remember the First Book You Bought?

Nuvat the Brave

I still remember that day as if it had been yesterday. I was nine years old and already an avid reader. I had a little bit of money, pocket money I hadn’t spent on comics and some of the sour gums I liked to eat. It was strange to go to school on a Saturday afternoon. Usually that’s when school was off, but it was a special day, a special occasion, and I was keen on spending what little money I had saved.  I still see the entrance of the school, smell the linoleum floor, and heavy chalky air. No other school ever smelled as chalky as this. The display tables took up all the space of the entrance hall and my heart began to beat incredibly fast as soon as I was close to them. I wouldn’t be able to buy a lot. I had to choose carefully and wisely. It wouldn’t be enough money to buy more than one or two books.

The used book sale was a charity event. Children had brought the books they didn’t want anymore, and the school library had contributed those, which were not circulated any longer. There wasn’t a lot I loved more than books, not even at the age of nine. My mother always bought me the latest children’s books and the old classics. Whenever she heard that someone sold the books of their older children, she bought those too. That was wonderful and I loved it, still nothing could compare to that day and the used book sale in my elementary school because that day I bought my very first book.

I still have it somewhere in the attic. It’s torn, the spine is broken, the pages are loose, but the linen cover is still intensely blue and the little Inuit boy in his canoe is still standing upright on the front cover promising a tale of adventure and a world I didn’t know, a world long gone by now. The title was simple, embossed in bold, black letters: “Nuvat the Brave“ by Radko Doone —or rather “Nuvats grosse Fahrt“ in its German translation. It was one of the books the library discarded, an old book that no child had ever checked out.

The book wasn’t only the first book I bought, it opened a door to something, which I have been passionate about ever since – foreign cultures, the promise of strange and haunting tales, other life styles and mysterious rites and habits. A whole wide, wondrous world for me to discover.

Which was the first book you bought?

Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

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

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2014

The Black FlowerThe Killer AngelsMarch

Toby's RoomPrivate PeacefulFear

Undertones of WarMy Dear I Wanted To Tell YouPhoenix and Ashes

The LieFlight Without EndLetters From a Lost Generation

The books for Literature and War Readalong 2011 and 2012 were following the different wars in chronological order. This year, 2013, we focused on different countries and wars we hadn’t covered so far. Next year will be about genre and WWI.

I was afraid a whole year dedicated to WWI books would be too much, especially since a lot of blogs run events for the Centenary, that’s why I decided to start with three novels on the American Civil War, one of which was part of 2011’s readalong, but had to be postponed. After that it’s all about WWI and to make it more interesting, I’ve included different genres: Memoir, letters, historical fiction, literary fiction, a children’s book and one fantasy novel. I hope there will be something for everyone among these titles.

The Black Flower

January, Friday 31 

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr (US 2000), American Civil War, Novel, 272 pages

The Black Flower is the gripping story of a young Confederate rifleman from Mississippi named Bushrod Carter, who serves in General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during the Civil War battle that takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. Written with reverent attention to historical accuracy, the book vividly documents the fear, suffering, and intense friendships that are all present on the eve of the battle and during its aftermath. When Bushrod is wounded in the Confederate charge, he is taken to a makeshift hospital where he comes under the care of Anna, who has already lost two potential romances to battle. Bushrod and Anna’s poignant attempt to forge a bond of common humanity in the midst of the pathos and horror of battle serves as a powerful reminder that the war that divided America will not vanish quietly into the page of history.

The Killer Angels

February, Friday 28

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).

March

March, Monday 31

March by Geraldine Brooks (Australia 2005) American Civil War, Novel, 304 pages

Brooks’s luminous second novel, after 2001’s acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March’s earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family’s genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband’s life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott’s transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks’s affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.

Toby's Room

April, Monday 28

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

Private Peaceful

May, Friday 30

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (UK 2003)  WWI, Children’s Book, 192 pages

Heroism or cowardice? A stunning story of the First World War from a master storyteller.

Told in the voice of a young soldier, the story follows 24 hours in his life at the front during WW1, and captures his memories as he looks back over his life. Full of stunningly researched detail and engrossing atmosphere, the book leads to a dramatic and moving conclusion.

Both a love story and a deeply moving account of the horrors of the First World War, this book will reach everyone from 9 to 90.

Fear

June, Friday 27

FearLa Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.

The Lie

July, Monday 28

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (UK 2014) WWI, Novel, 304 pages

Set during and just after the First World War, The Lie is an enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers. Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

Undertones of War

August, Friday 29

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

September, Monday 29

My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young (UK 2011) WWI, Historical Fiction, 336 pages

A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty. ‘Inspires the kind of devotion among its readers not seen since David Nicholls’ One Day’ The Times

While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead?

Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.

Phoenix and Ashes

October, Friday 31

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

Flight Without End

November, Friday 28

Flight Witout End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth (Austria 1927) WWI, Classic,  144 pages

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

Letters From a Lost Generation

December, Monday 29

Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and Four Friends (UK) WWI, Letters, 448 pages

Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart-rending descriptions, have made me realise war like your letters’ Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton, 17 April 1915.

This selection of letters, written between 1913 & 1918, between Vera Brittain and four young men – her fiance Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and their close friends Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow present a remarkable and profoundly moving portrait of five young people caught up in the cataclysm of total war.

Roland, ‘Monseigneur’, is the ‘leader’ & his letters most clearly trace the path leading from idealism to disillusionment. Edward, ‘ Immaculate of the Trenches’, was orderly & controlled, down even to his attire. Geoffrey, the ‘non-militarist at heart’ had not rushed to enlist but put aside his objections to the war for patriotism’s sake. Victor on the other hand, possessed a very sweet character and was known as ‘Father Confessor’. An important historical testimony telling a powerful story of idealism, disillusionment and personal tragedy.

I think the list is very different from the last years. The one or the other title like Mercedes Lackey’s book is a bit of gamble but I tried to make the list as diverse as possible.

I hope that many of you will join.

Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Why Be Happy

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is largely inspired by her childhood. Her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? tells the other side of the story. That what was left out. It took me a long time to read this memoir. I started it four times, not because it’s not good, but because reading it was painful. The first part, until Jeanette leaves home at 16 and her mother asks her the question that has become the title of the book, is painful and disturbing for many reasons. The wit and the humor she uses to describe her awful childhood made me shudder. Shudder because I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how you could live through so much pain and not go crazy, to write a book at 21 and become famous and leave it all behind. I was glad she proved to be so resilient, but it made me uneasy. I kept on thinking: When is it going to happen? When will she break down? Is that still in the future? I don’t think that you can survive a childhood like Winterson’s and not break down eventually. It’s just a matter of time.The second part of the book deals with what came much later. Jeanette Winterson’s descent into madness (her terms), her breakdown and attempted suicide in 2008. Reading that felt like entering a freshly aired room. I know this may sound weird, but the beginning made me choke. I couldn’t believe that she’d left it all behind and only when I read about the descent into madness, did I finally feel glad for her. Now she can move on.

Jeanette Winterson was adopted by the Wintersons when she was 6 months old. She was never told who her real parents were and her mother always said that the devil led them to the wrong crib, meaning she would have liked another child, a nicer child. This is such a typical statement from a woman like Mrs Winterson who is a depressed zealot and always utters half-truths in bible-inspired metaphor. Jeanette Winterson says that all of her books start with individual meaningful sentences and we see where that comes from. Her mother often only says one dark ominous sentence over and over again. Sometimes without any apparent connection to what just happens or what was just said. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .”, “It’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead and a fault to nature . . . ” Uttered without any context or referring to very mundane things like the gas oven blowing up, these sentences are either creepy or hilarious.

Winterson grew up in the North of England, near Manchester and she loves this part of the country, lovingly tells us about its history, which is quite interesting. The Wintersons are not only religious fanatics but working class and her mother is so suspicious of books that she confiscates and burns all of those Jeanette has been hiding.

Punishment is frequent and comes in different forms. Either Jeanette is beaten or left outside all night and day, on the door step, even in winter.

When she falls in love with a girl, and Mrs W finds out, they perform an exorcism. Jeannette finally leaves at 16. She only returns once, when she’s studying in Oxford and things go very wrong. That’s the last time she sees her mother.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t an easy book to write about. I marked so many passages and sentences that hardly any page is left white. Jeanette Winterson has a way with words that is amazing. Although I don’t always agree, I find the sentences, many of which are used in her novels, arresting.

In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson paints her mother like a giantess and in her memoir she says she was too large for her circumstances. I was puzzled that there was no explanation whatsoever why Mrs W was the way she was. Mean, fanatic, abusive, depressed and just plain crazy. She had her dreams and her wishes, but smothered them. She lived as if she was wearing a very tight corset. The Wintersons were Pentecostals and the religion was like a mental corset.

If you like memoir, then you should read this. It’s disturbing, but it’s so amazingly well written and the first part has hilarious moments. Mrs Winterson is crazy, but she really is larger than life. She reminded me of some of Picasso’s paintings of grotesquely deformed women. We read about her with horror, but at the same time we almost wishes we had been there. I even felt compassion, there were small details that could almost make her endearing. At the end of the book, when Jeanette Winterson has found her birth mother and looks back on her childhood, she says she’s glad Mrs Winterson was her mother. Although she was crazy and abusive, she made her who she is, maybe without such an adoptive mother, there wouldn’t be a writer like Jeanette Winterson. I can understand that thinking very well.