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Monday musings on Australian literature: Some novels about the second world war

August 8, 2011

As I am still immersed in things paternal – and as my father served in the second world war – I thought that this week I’d take the easy way out again and list some of my favourite Australian novels about that war. Although I call myself a pacifist, I don’t shy away from war novels. The main reason is because in war we see humanity under duress and, through that, we see the best and worst of human behaviour. I love how the best war novels throw up the “truths” that I love to find in literature.

I’m going to list just 5 – though I’ve read more than that – in the order that I’ve read them. I’ve chosen these 5 not necessarily because I think they are the best (though I have enjoyed them all) but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war. (Note: the dates after the titles are not the dates I read them but when they were first published! Just so you know!)

Nevil Shute‘s A town like Alice (1950)

Nevil Shute was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen though when I read him now I see that he’s not as good a writer as my other teen passion, Jane Austen! Nonetheless, he was a good storyteller and many of his novels were adapted for film, including A town like Alice. It’s primarily a post-war romance, but the two characters, English rose Jean and rough diamond Aussie Joe meet when they are prisoners of war in Malaya, a story which is told in flashback. It’s a pretty stereotypical romance but the war, the English-Australian cross cultural story, and the Australian outback setting captured my teen heart.

Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)

Café Scheherazade is set in, and based on, the real cafe of the same name. It was, from its establishment in 1958 to its demise in 2008, a significant meeting place for Jewish refugees who came to Melbourne post war. The novel tells the stories of the Cafe’s patrons – their lives in Europe, and how and why they came to Australia. It taught me something I hadn’t known before – that many Jewish refugees came to Australia via Shanghai. Zable’s prose is beautiful, and though the stories, as you can imagine, contain much tragedy, the final message comprises those universals of courage, endurance, love and even laughter.

Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005)

Zusak’s The book thief is one of those rare books that pulls off telling a terrible story with humour. Its subject is an ordinary German family which fosters a young girl, and then hides, to their great risk, a young Jewish man. It’s a deadly serious book about bravery and cowardice, about kindness and cruelty – and yet it has, much of the time anyhow, a rather whimsical tone.

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Hans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946)

Bergner tells the opposite story to that told by Zusak. His characters are Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Poland on a boat – but no-one will let them land, no-one will take them in, the way the Hubermanns took in Leisl and Max in The book thief. It explores the impact of this, as the reality becomes clear to the boat’s occupants. It’s a pretty devastating story.

Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman (2010)

I started with a romance and I’m ending with a romance, but that’s where the similarity between the two books ends. Shute’s book has a pretty traditional trajectory – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, more or less – against the backdrop of the war and early post war period. Gould’s story is far more complex – more realistic about life and character, with a touch of the mystical thrown in. Gould argues that his is not really a war novel because it’s not about the war. To a large degree that’s true, but in a sense it’s true of many books set in war. War is the setting, but the themes are often something bigger (universals about human behaviour) and smaller (about how particular people behave under stress). One of the issues Gould explores is how the promise of a person’s life can be thrown, not only by the things that happen to them but by the decisions they make as a result. And in war, a lot of things can happen to a person!

I’ve limited myself to 5 so am sure to have missed some favourites of yours. I’d love to hear whether you read war novels, Australian or otherwise and, if so, what your favourites are. If you don’t read them, you can tell us that too!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2011 8:20 am

    I was recently introduced to Nevil Shute and read ‘Requiem for a Wren’ which is set during WW2. This is primarily a love story wth some mystery but interesting in regard to the role of women at this time during conflict who fought alongside the soldiers. I too loved The Book Thief and a remarkable work of fiction so I am putting Hans Bergner on my wishlist.

    • August 9, 2011 8:27 am

      Thanks for contributing jeniwren. Requiem for a wren sounds most appropriate for you to read! I read that back in my teens … many of Shute’s novels were wartime stories/romances and I loved them at the time. He then had a group set specifically in Australia – including In the wet, Beyond the black stump, On the beach (have you read that one?). Quite a few of his books were adapted for film. Besides this one, and On the beach, the most famous is probably No highway which is where I first learnt about metal fatigue in planes. (The film was No highway in the sky.)

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think – if you manage to read it – the Bergner.

  2. August 9, 2011 8:47 am

    LOL missed that feathered connection! I do remember seeing the film many years ago but no haven’t read ‘On The Beach’. I can assume Shute saw active service by the topics in regard to war that he wrote about in his novels. I was also checking on the Gould you mention but it does not seem to be readily available??

  3. August 9, 2011 1:27 pm

    Yes, he did serve (in WW1 and WW2) and was an aeronautical engineer. Was born in England but spent last years in Melbourne.

    I’m not surprised about the Gould because it’s not one of the big publishers which is a shame … the National Library of Australia bookshop might have it (that’s where I got mine) but I notice their online service is down for upgrading at present. I’m not sure where you are but I could look at second hand shops here if you wanted me to (in a couple of weeks when things settle down).

    Oh, and LOL back re name!

  4. August 9, 2011 6:35 pm

    Yes, me too, this is the second time you’ve suggested a book by Gould and I’ve been tempted. Jenny, maybe we can scout around on Brotherhood Books?

    • August 9, 2011 10:30 pm

      Lisa, this is the same book … listed here again because of its subject matter and because I’d recommend it!

  5. August 9, 2011 9:31 pm

    While I’d normally feel silly for only having read one of these, I think I get extra points because I think I played a part in encouraging you to read The Book Thief? I’ve been considering re-reading it, actually, though I don’t know if I want to cry right now!

    • August 9, 2011 10:31 pm

      I s’pose I’d give you the extra points … but you should give some of these others a go too.

  6. August 10, 2011 6:28 am

    I absolutely loved The Book Thief, it’s definitely one of my favourites.

    I’d recommend an autobiography called Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel. It’s totally heart-wrenching, but I think it’s a must-read.

    • August 10, 2011 8:10 am

      Thanks Nikki-ann for contributing. It’s amazing how many people love this, in many ways, odd novel. I’ve never heard of Lengyel, but will add her to my list.

  7. August 10, 2011 9:57 am

    The American poet Karl Shapiro spent some time in Australia en route to New Guinea. I find among his collected poems “Sydney Bridge” and “Christmas Eve: Australia”. Some of “Recapitulations” is set there also.

    But most of the war novels I can think of from WW II are not that great, and none of them involve Australia.

    • August 10, 2011 11:31 pm

      Wow, that’s interesting George. I can think of a lot of WW2 novels that I think are excellent … many written by non-Australians. Bernard Schlink’s The reader, Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation are just three off the top of my head that have left big impressions on me.

      You say most are not great – are there any you do think are great?

      • August 11, 2011 10:13 am

        Of the Americans, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was certainly ambitious. Vance Bourjaily’s picaresque The Confessions of a Spent Youth gave an interesting picture of life as an ambulance driver, and of a Palestine waiting for the end of one war to start another. Then there were a lot of decent enough novels without special literary ambition–Wouk and Beach’s work come to mind.

        Heinrich Boll’s novellas And Where You Adam? and The Train Was on Time have their moments, but do they really hang together?

        Evelyn Waugh’s war trilogy I do think very good.

        • August 11, 2011 10:36 pm

          Thanks for these George. Certainly not all the books I’ve listed in this post have special literary ambition, the way the Kertesz and Amis ones do, or Gould for example.

          I haven’t heard of Bourjaily but a picaresque war novel sounds interesting

  8. August 11, 2011 4:17 am

    Had no idea that zusack is Australian. I loved the Book Thief. I read Shute’s On the Beach when I was teen and was both liked it and was horrified by it. I should probably give something else of his a try sometime.

    • August 11, 2011 9:21 am

      There’s nothing to give Zusak’s Australian-ness away is there. A town like Alice is VERY different to On the beach. Shute’s works are quite versatile, though the biggest proportion of his works is wartime romance.

  9. August 12, 2011 6:29 am

    David Malouf’s The Great World and Fly Away Peter are the first two titles I think of when I hear Australian and war and books — especially Peter, which I think is the more complete and quietly complicated book of the pair. It’s not as ambitious as World, but it gets more done. There’s that great, concise moment when the soldiers on the battlefield pause and skirt around a fossilised mammoth being excavated along with the arrowheads that killed it — old weapons and an old death meeting new weapons and new deaths, and such a summary of an idea: that this kind of vicious and intensified competition may be hell, but it can also lead people to revelations and discoveries. (It was trench-digging that exposed the mammoth, if I’m remembering that rightly.) And the men are stumbling past, sick and hurt, but here is a different mood, examination and care and science. It’s one of those moments of poetry that Malouf writes so well — it’s so simple, and so charged.

    But outside Australia I say, Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, and I take that title and wave it around and say, Life and Fate! It’s a massive multiperson war-saga, a War and Peace for World War II, complete with Tolstoy’s sudden move into Napoleon’s point of view, only here the author jumps into Hitler and strolls around in him for a while. He spends some time in Stalin too, and inside a woman being sent to the gas chambers, and a lot of other people — he inhabits a unit of Russian soldiers on the front, he wanders through a POW camp on the German side, he spends time with the family of a Russian academic, he becomes a party loyalist, and he becomes a man terrified of the party. He seems infinitely capable. The language of the translation is so plain that I almost sneered at the book, but by page one hundred I was admiring it, and years later I still admire it.

    Re. … but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war.

    In Daniachew Worku’s The Thirteenth Sun there’s a young man who hates his father — hates him for a lot of reasons, but partly because his father’s generation fought the Italians when they tried to colonise Ethiopia in the 1930s, and now they use it as a bullying tactic. Well you may be young and strong, Sonny Jim, but we fought the Italians. What did you do today?

    • August 12, 2011 9:04 am

      Ah yes, I started this post on War in general and the first book on the list was Fly away Peter. Love that book – and must read it again – but then I decided that the topic would spread too thin. I might look at other wars another time. I haven’t read Grossman or Worku but will add them to the burgeoning list! Another WW2 book I like is Captain Corelli’s mandolin, particularly the little portraits of Mussolini and Metaxas, and the way he plays with our values and emotions regarding war and human behaviour.

      • August 13, 2011 1:48 am

        That, I haven’t read, but I remember it being popular. (Which reminds me all of a sudden of the existence of his Red Dog, and the Melbourne Film Festival, where the film-of-the-book was screening a little while ago, and Bill Hunter, who had a bit part, and now that I look at the poster on Wikipedia I see that it makes the film look like a perverted sex comedy with a massive dog somehow leering over a ripped couple on a gleaming motorbike; and frankly I would not trust that animal an inch.) The popularity put me off — I soaked up the impression that it was a love story about a pretty island with incidental moments of war and Nicholas Cage looking misty. Not so?

        • August 13, 2011 9:03 am

          Ha, my review-of-sorts of Red Dog will go up today.

          As for Corelli, the book has a lot to it … there is a romance but there’s a lot about how occupation on a small island worked, about brutality and humanity on both sides, about what war “makes” people do, and about how you can sympathise even where you hate. I did see the film but it’s not as vivid. Can’t even recollect how well I thought it was done though I do recollect some beautiful scenes!

  10. Andy Walker permalink
    August 16, 2011 8:58 pm

    I just can’t resist chiming in with a “me too!”…I loved A Town Like Alice when I was a teenager, count The Book Thief among my all time favourites, and was also captivated by Captain Corelli… I was really disappointed with the movie of same – they changed such important elements of the story. There are so many more stories worthy of mention – for instance Catch 22! This is a very long piece of string…cheers! Andy W

    • August 16, 2011 9:14 pm

      Oh welcome Andy, thanks so much for chiming in, with more than a “me too”. I reckon A town like Alice is a perfect teen girls’ book – all that drama, heroism, and romance in wonderful settings.

      Maybe that’s why I can’t recollect much about the Corelli film!

  11. Mark permalink
    August 25, 2011 2:48 am

    These all sound great! I’m a total WWII buff, but I like reading stories about people with the war as a backdrop.

    The other day, I got a free chapter of a book about WWII general Omar Bradley. It’s really interesting so far, if you wanna check it out. Here’s the link- http://www.regnery.com/books/omarbradley.html

    • August 25, 2011 8:55 am

      Welcome Mark and thanks for joining the conversation. I primarily focus here on fiction – but I agree that biographies can be fascinating too.

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