Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars (2)

Last week’s post focused on attitudes to writing about the war during the interwar period, particularly in relation to the realism of books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All quiet on the western front. This post continues the discussion, but will share some specific war writing from the article that inspired this series.

But first, a reminder of the main concern expressed about the war novels coming out in the late 1920s to early 1930s. L.S. Avery, former Secretary of State for the Dominions, explains it in his statement that the

fashion of “stench warfare” writing would pass, and the war would take its place as the marvellous effort and an amazing romance in which no part was more amazing that that played by the Australians.

He was proposing the toast of “The Commonwealth of Australia” at a dinner at the Royal Society of St. George, London, in May 1930. I can’t resist digressing to a description of the dinner, which:

was reminiscent of old times. The roast beef of Old England was borne around the room, preceded by the crimson cross of St George, and heralded by the roll of drums and the playing of fifes. Only Empire food, including Australian apples, was served.

No wonder they looked to war being presented as a “marvellous effort” and “an amazing romance”, eh?

Recommended war writing

Cyril Longmore, c. 1941. Public Domain from the Australian War Memorial

Now to Non-com’s article on the “AIF in Literature” in Perth’s The Western Mail (30 April 1936).

Who is this Non-com, I wondered? Some googling took me to the State Library of Western Australia photographic database where I discovered that he was Cyril Longmore (1897-1964), of The Western Mail, which, the photo notes said, preferred to use pseudonyms. Of course, I wanted to find out a bit about Cyril Longmore. More googling found the portrait I’ve used here on the Australian War Memorial (AWM) photographic database. Its notes said he’d been “appointed Military Commentator of the Department of Information” in 1941. At this point, I returned to Trove and found an article in Launceston’s Examiner (21 January 1941) about this appointment. He was to replace one Major Jackson who was returning to military service. The Examiner says that Longmore was recommended by C. E. W. Bean (the respected war historian), and that he had served in “the last war with the 44th Battalion and attained the rank of captain”. Post-war, it says, he “has been actively connected with Australian journalism and has written extensively on military subjects, of which he is a close student”. 

So, not only did I find out who Non-com was, but I also ascertained his credentials for writing the article he did. (Oh, and the AWM also told me that he was The Western Mail‘s editor!)

His article is based on a talk he did for an “Australian Authors” session on the “National station” (by which I presume he means the ABC). Despite his credentials, he commenced by saying that

I speak on the A.I.F. in literature with diffidence, being no authority on the subject, although I have read most of the Australian war books, and my work has led me to make some study of them during the last few years. In this talk I am not touching Dr. Bean’s great historical work on the A.I.F., nor am I mentioning several Australian war novels. I have taken those books produced during the last five years which purport to be the experiences of those who wrote them—men (and a woman) who served in Australian units.

In other words, his focus is not novels but memoirs and the like, but I think they are relevant to our discussion. I’m glad he includes women (albeit “a woman”, parenthetically!) It’s now 1936, but he too references All quiet on the western front, negatively, saying it “seemed to stimulate the imaginations of authors all over the world, for each seemed to try to outwrite the others in his trail of ghastliness”.

Anyhow, here’s his list, in his order:

  • Red dust (1931), by JL Gray, writing as Donald Black: Subtitled “A classic account of Australian Light Horsemen in Palestine during the First World War”, this was apparently written during the war as a diary, and, says Longmore, “is a remarkable description and analysis of the life and deeds of the Australian trooper”.
  • The desert column (1932), by Ion L. Idriess: Also a story in diary form of the Lighthorsemen, but at Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine. Longmore says that “some of his pen-pictures are epics of war realism”. (As realistic as Remarque’s, I wonder?)
  • Hell’s bells and mademoiselles (1932), by Joe Maxwell, VC, who served with the 18th Battalion. Longmore says it is “an enjoyable volume, but there is some fiction woven into its truth, especially about the mademoiselles. The best feature in it is its faithful reproduction of types” that diggers would recognise.
  • Jacka’s mob (1933), by E. J. Rule: Longmore describes it as “a true and vivid picture of experiences with the 14th Battalion, A.I.F., by a man who was intimately associated with everyone and everything of which he wrote. It is no glowing picture of faultless knighthood.” He continues that “Knighthood and chivalry were in every unit in the A.I.F., in all the fighting armies, but even knighthood experienced the chill pangs of “wind-up” at times, and it is in the correct proportions in which the author has presented these and many other of the minor personal details that somehow escape the novelist [my emph!] that makes Jacka’s mob so valuable.”
  • The gallant company (1933), by H.R. Williams: Subtitled “An Australian soldier’s story of 1915-18”, it is praised by Longmore as the “best of all the Australian war books … It is not highbrow literature and there is no forced striving for effect. But it is a faithful, vivid narrative of an Australian unit and of its individuals, with just sufficient historical background to give them their proper atmosphere. A readable book that does justice to the great achievements of the digger and puts “war, wine and women” in proper perspective”.
  • Iron in the fire (1934), by Edgar Morrow: About the author’s experience of the 28th Battalion, Longmore praises it for being “the truest and most comprehensive war book of the lot” in terms of capturing the “inner feelings — sinking in the pit of the stomach before zero; sorrow at the death of a comrade; joy on receipt of a letter, or a parcel, or leave, which we all tried to hide under a mask of unconcern.” It’s “critical”, he says, and “all may not agree with the criticisms of authority, but it is a fine book”.
  • The grey battalion (1933), by Sister May Tilton: The one book by a woman, “the only one of its kind”, this “gives its readers an idea of the great courage and endurance that were needed by these women in their unenviable task of nursing the sick and maimed victims of war back to health and strength”. Interestingly, he notes that “what they suffered themselves no one will ever know”!
  • The fighting cameliers (1934), by Frank Reid. By a member of the A.I.F’s Camel Corps, but Longmore sees it as “the one disappointing Australian war book” because “colour and realism are lacking”.
  • Crosses of sacrifice (1932), by J. C. Waters. Differs from the others because the author is a journalist who was too young to go to war but had “toured the battlefields and war cemeteries of the world”. Longmore says he “brings a reverent and understanding mind to … his subject”. He writes more on this book than on any of the others!

Do you read war histories, diaries or memoirs?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars

By accident, really, I came across an article from the 1930s in Trove about war novels. However, with Anzac Day coming up here in Australia next weekend, it seemed apposite to follow up. So, I did – and was somewhat surprised by what I found.

Not surprisingly, World War 1 was still fresh in people’s minds in the 1930s, and there were many opinions on how war should be written about. Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic All quiet on the Western Front was particularly controversial at the time and discussions about it provide some insight into those opinions. First published in 1928, it appeared in English in 1929 (translated, in fact, by an Australian, Arthur Wesley Wheen, himself a World War 1 soldier.)

“the most graphic picture I have had of the war” (Woman reader)

All quiet on the Western Front was a big hit, particularly with women readers. An article in the Port Adelaide News (14 March 1930) reports that “the popularity of the war novel is still maintained in England, where every girl typist seems to have read All quiet“. Apparently one Council Library system had bought a record number of 126 copies of the book, but they had 553 people on their waiting list. Unfortunately, the article said, “borrowers, strong in that possession which is nine ‘points of the law are lending All quiet to relatives and friends before returning it”. (Love it!)

Here in Australia All quiet was also popular with women, as The Herald (14 February 1930) reported in its article, “VC attacks war novels”. Captain W.D. Joynt V.C., speaking at a Legacy Club luncheon, denounced “recent war books” including All quiet. At the luncheon, Captain Peters, of booksellers, Robertson and Mullen’s, said that women “had been the largest buyers and readers of the book”. It had “achieved such success that it was affecting the sale of wholesome [my emph] English novels”. He continued that the boom of interest in war novels “had brought out some good war books, but not many, and unless the protest was made the women and young people would get a wrong impression of the soldiers”. A motion had been put “to deplore” such books, but it failed, not because attendees disagreed but because they feared the motion would increase interest in the book!

So, what was the problem? Wikipedia summarises the controversies in its article, but I’ll share some of what I found in Australian newspapers. The main concern seemed to be that its presentation of war denigrated the heroism of the soldiers. It had too much “muck”. One speaker at the luncheon said that “the book showed contempt for the men who served at the war, and brought grief to dependents of men who fell at the war” while another said that the phrase “give ’em muck” was applicable to the book. He said he had “read one or two chapters and refused to go further. It is full of Continental grossness. The coarse language is superfluous. This type of book should be banned.”

Interesting that women were reading this “muck”.

The writer in Freeman’s Journal (10 April 1930) comments on the new fashion for war novels, saying that for some time people had had their fill of war news but

Now it has come into its own again, and, perhaps under the influence of the peace movement, it concentrates on the most repulsive aspect of war, sometimes deliberately trucking to the appetite of so many readers for word-pictures of the evil aspects’ of human life. Many of these novels are as wide of the truth and as repulsive as Zola’s La Debacle, which professed to give a realist picture of the war of 1870, but was a horrible libel on the people of France, representing her young soldiers as mostly imbecile fools or blackguards. 

He goes on to describe another novel – not Remarque’s – that has, as its central figure, an utterly incapable Anglican chaplain. He says:

It was by self-sacrifice and earnest efforts to be helpful that they [Anglican and Non-conformist chaplains] won the respect of the men. It is an insult to their memory to write of them as this novelist does, as if they were either hopeless failures or self-seeking idlers.

Similarly, the Singleton Argus (28 April 1930) reports on one Rev. C. J. Macaulay, who was the principal speaker at the West Maitland Anzac Day service. Macauley made “a scathing attack … on salacious war novels”. He doesn’t name any, but said they “paint vile pictures, not so much of war, as of the men themselves”.

Interesting that women were apparently reading these “vile pictures”.

Were women seeing something different? Were women, like Lady Kitty’s woman reader, appreciative of “the grim reality” that its opponents wanted to hide? Lady Kitty writes that “it is remarkable what a vogue war novels are having now, especially among women. The type of immediate postwar sentimental romance has given way to simple narratives which reveal the common soldier’s point of view.”

Writing about war

JP McKinney, Crucible

Meanwhile, in 1934, Australia’s RSL instituted a war novel competition. It was “open to all men and women who served abroad during the war as members of the Australian army, navy or nursing services”. The novel had to “depict the life of an Australian soldier during the war, and his reactions to the various conditions and environment through which he passed. The sequence of the story and descriptive matter must be historically and geographically correct”. It was won by JP McKinney (who, alert readers among you may know, was Judith Wright’s husband, though much later.) His novel was published as The crucible, in 1935.

During my research, I came across a letter to the editor written by McKinney concerning his novel, and writing about war. He was responding to reviewers who seemed to criticise his novel for being “largely recollections cast in the form of fiction” or “more or less autobiographical”. (Helen Garner knows the feeling!) McKinney wanted to correct these misconceptions. He writes:

A writer of fiction is permitted, by the canons of his art, to draw for his material upon both his own and other peoples’ experience and upon his imagination, the only demand made of him being, if his work is to be judged as literature, that he keep within the bounds of probability. His accepted function is to illuminate life— or at least that aspect of it which he treats —from all angles. The greater the fidelity to life and actuality the greater his achievement. 

But, he says, people seem to see war fiction differently:

In the case of the war novelist, however, it appears to have become unconsciously assumed that he shall write only of what he knows from his own actual, personal experience; and he is either denied, or assumed not to have availed himself of, the privilege of his fellow craftsmen of ranging into the realm of what may be called created fact. 

So, he writes, “I granted myself the fiction writer’s full privilege, the only restriction I placed upon myself being that I make no sacrifice of truth to dramatic effect”. The characters are all created he said; they’re “types” not “persons”.

J.P. McKinney did go to war, but, some readers here may be interested to hear the words of T.C. Squire, editor of London Mercury (reported in Tasmania’s Advocate, 10 January 1930). He was critical of the current crop of war novels, like Remarque’s, suggesting that they came out of “hysteria” rather than from thinking, compassionate, “religious” men. He concluded his comments with

And it may be that the novel of this war (there is precedent for it) may come from some Tolstoi or Hardy of the future, who never saw a bullet fired and never looked in the face of the unnecessary dead.

And here, I’ll conclude with Henry Savage from The Port Adelaide Gazette (10 January 1930). He was, I think, a local businessman and religious official. He wrote about war novels:

There is a great difference between the horrors of war and reading of its horrors; between reality, that is to say, and the interpretation of reality in terms of art. Will the story of Eden ever stop simple Adam from being lured to his hurt by curious Eve? Will Hamlet make a man of action out of a dreamer and give him faith and resoluteness? Can it be done?

Ignoring Adam-and-Eve, I pass his question on to you!

Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites (#Commentary)

The topic for my local Jane Austen group’s March meeting was “Jane Austen in the trenches” which, I realise, sounds a bit anachronistic, given she died in 1817, nearly a century before the trenches we’re talking about. But, you see, Jane’s fame didn’t start in 1995 with Colin Firth and that wet shirt. No, her popularity took off around the late 19th century and has continued ever since, albeit with a huge spurt in the late 20th century. As Claire Harman states in Jane’s fame, she is the only writer “who is instantly recognisable by her first name”.

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Anyhow, into the trenches. Our discussion was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites”, first published in 1924. It’s a little tricky to read, being peppered with Cockney voices, but it’s worth the effort – and not just for Janeites. It is set in a London Masonic Lodge in 1920, during a weekly clean-up of the premises. There are three main characters – Brother Anthony, a veteran of army service in the Holy Land during World War I, now a taxi driver; Brother Humberstall, a hairdresser who is a veteran of artillery service in France and who suffers somewhat from shell-shock (now, PTSD); and the first-person narrator, ostensibly Kipling. Humberstall tells the others of his induction, during the war, into a secret society, the Janeites. He explains how he came to join this society, which included members from all ranks, and the tests he had to pass to do so. He tells how this society kept them sane during the war, and how it, in fact, saved him, when, after a terrible attack, he was his group’s only survivor:

… I walked a bit, an’ there was a hospital-train fillin’ up, an’ one of the Sisters—a grey-headed one—ran at me wavin’ ’er red ’ands an’ sayin’ there wasn’t room for a louse in it. I was past carin’. But she went on talkin’ and talkin’ about the war, an’ her pa in Ladbroke Grove, an’ ’ow strange for ’er at ’er time of life to be doin’ this work with a lot o’ men, an’ next war, ’ow the nurses ’ud ’ave to wear khaki breeches on account o’ the mud, like the Land Girls; an’ that reminded ’er, she’d boil me an egg if she could lay ’ands on one, for she’d run a chicken-farm once. You never ’eard anythin’ like it—outside o’ Jane. It set me off laughin’ again. Then a woman with a nose an’ teeth on ’er, marched up. “What’s all this?” she says. “What do you want?” “Nothing,” I says, “only make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die.” “Miss Bates?” she says. “What in ’Eaven’s name makes you call ’er that?” “Because she is,” I says. “D’you know what you’re sayin’?” she says, an’ slings her bony arm round me to get me off the ground. “’Course I do,” I says, “an’ if you knew Jane you’d know too.” “That’s enough,” says she. “You’re comin’ on this train if I have to kill a Brigadier for you,” an’ she an’ an ord’ly fair hove me into the train, on to a stretcher close to the cookers. That beef-tea went down well! Then she shook ’ands with me an’ said I’d hit off Sister Molyneux in one, an’ then she pinched me an extra blanket. It was ’er own ’ospital pretty much. I expect she was the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of the area.

Of course, you have to know your Jane Austen to get the Miss Bates reference … !

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Throughout the story Austen is only ever described as Jane, which bears out Harman’s comment above. There’s an entertaining description of Austen’s subject matter –

’Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ’em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’

– and some amusing references to various Austen characters, particularly Reverend Collins, Lady Catherine de Bugg (de Bourgh), General Tilney and Miss Bates. There’s also a comment that Austen did “leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son”, and that was Henry James. Fair enough. At one stage, Humberstall chalks their guns with the names of Austen characters. His Janeite superiors approve, though there is some discussion about whether he’d accorded the right name to the right gun. For example:

… they said I was wrong about General Tilney. ’Cordin’ to them, our Navy twelve-inch ought to ’ave been christened Miss Bates …

Of course, much has been written about this story, including its secret society setting, the Masons, and Kipling’s intentions about that – but these other issues are not my focus here.

What is of interest is Humberstall’s statement late in the story:

“… You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”

It is this that inspired our meeting because, while Kipling’s story is fiction, it is the case that Austen’s novels, among others, were provided to soldiers to read for morale. On the Kipling Society’s website is this:

In 1915, John Buchan and George Mackenzie-Brown, co-directors of Nelson, launched the highly successful Continental Library series, designed to be carried in soldiers’ pockets. Gassart [who wrote an article for the TLS in 2002] quotes the papers of W.B. Henderson, a Glaswegian schoolmaster attached to a Siege Battery in the Royal Garrison Artillery, in arguing that a book’s solace:

was its power to transport the infantryman from a world of “sergeants major and bayonet fighting, and trench digging and lorry cleaning and caterpillar greasing” into the fantasy of the novelist – and none was better at it than Jane Austen.

Her novels were also used during the war as part of therapy with shell-shock victims. Indeed, the above-mentioned Clare Harman says that three of Austen’s novels were “at the top of a graded Fever-Chart”. Academic Claire Lamont (in her paper, “Jane Austen and the nation”) suggests that this was because Austen’s “Englishness expresses itself as the standard of where and how one might live…”. Other critics have other ideas – though many of them are variations on this theme. One member of my group found a report that novels like Austen’s were used to gee-up damaged soldiers to get them back to the front! That shocked us somewhat. Bibliotherapy, it seems, is not a new thing.

Kipling, himself, was, not surprisingly, an Austen fan. As well as his story “The Janeites” (which term was coined by a critic back in the 1870s), he wrote a poem, whose final lines are used as an epigram for “The Janeites”:

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

OK, so it’s a bit sentimental I admit, but he wrote it and that’s my excuse for using it to close today’s little commentary!

Rudyard Kipling
“The Janeites”
First published: Hearst’s International, MacLean’s, and the Story-Teller Magazine, May 1924
Available: Online at UWYO

Monday musings on Australian literature: War-time reading tastes, World War 1

Rudyard Kipling, Sea warfare

First pub. 1916

For the longest time I’ve understood that during war-time people turn to lighter forms of entertainment, to musicals in film, for example, or to escapist books in their reading. However, the truth – of course – is more complex, as I discovered in Trove’s digitised newspapers. I was fascinated by how often the matter was, in fact, discussed in papers of the say – and so am sharing a very small selection of those discussions here, with you. Because …

I have, I admit, only done a brief search of Trove. There’s a lot of material there. However, I hope what I’ve found is representative of how it went … I have, at least, managed to represent the continent, reasonably well.

World War 1

During the war

In Melbourne’s The Argus in July 1915, the writer says that

Since the war begin the taste of the reading public has changed considerably and less attention is now given to works of fiction than formerly.

The evidence for this comes from “the annual report of the trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria”. This report said that “the demand for newspapers and periodicals dealing largely with war questions has been very great and several files of newspapers have had to be duplicated” but that there was, overall, a decrease in the number of borrowers and of books read, particularly in fiction. That puts paid to the entertainment theory doesn’t it – though this was early in the war. Perhaps things change when wars drag on?

Perhaps it did, because in February 1916, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, reported on reading stats from Melbourne’s Athenaeum, a public institution that included a subscription library. They found a significant increase in fiction borrowing in the previous year, while borrowing in “geography, voyages, travels, and descriptive works” was nearly halved – “a rather remarkable falling off”, the paper said – and there was a similar, near-halving, in “biography, speeches, and correspondence.”

Post-war

Ten years after the war, that is in January 1928, The Brisbane Courier had a short piece titled “Literary tastes”. It referred to wartime tastes, stating that “During the tragic years of warfare there was a “run” on light and breezy books evidently to distract the mind of the reader from the sterner realities of life.” In other words, tastes did seem to change when the war wasn’t over in a year!

Anyhow, after that, they say, tastes changed, turning to “books of a philosophical character” and then a little later again, to “books on travel.” However, in the Christmas just past, with “the poignancy of war privations having to some extent become atrophied through time’s healing influence”, there was a demand for “novels with a war-time background.”

Then, the next year, in June 1929, The West Australian had an article titled “Reading Tastes”. Booksellers, it said, were noticing that the public was moving a little away from novels to “general literature”, and particularly to “biographies and works of travel”. They reported three reasons that had been “advanced” for this change, the first being increased advertising for those types of works, and the third being changed pricing policies by publishers in which, reasonably soon after publishing “a substantial work … at a substantial price”, they issued it “at a popular price”. But, the second reason was,

the huge increase, in the size of the reading public following the war. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches, who in prewar days had taken little or no interest in literature, had received books from home, and had read them. What was at first merely a means of relieving the monotony of trench life had developed into a definite taste for reading. The habit contracted in time of war, remained when peace had come, and it was only natural that a considerable proportion of this vastly increased reading public should have an inclination for various kinds of literature besides fiction.

No evidence is provided for this, so it’s impossible to say whether it’s anecdotal from booksellers, or based on some sort of collected data, but there’s probably some truth to it. That said, I did like the fact that some of the reports I read, including some of those above, did use library borrowing data to support their claims …

I’d love to have spent more time exploring Trove, but even retired people seem to be time poor these days!

Hmm…

I initially intended to discuss both the World Wars in this post, but it started to get rather long, so you’ll have to wait until next week’s riveting instalment to find out about readers’ behaviour in World War 2. Were they different? Come back next week to see!

Meanwhile, any thoughts – or anecdotes of your own?

Wendy Scarfe, The day they shot Edward (#BookReview)

Wendy Scarfe, The day they shot EdwardThere’s something about novellas, about the way they can combine the tautness of the short story with the character development of a novel, and then hone in on an idea, undistracted by side-stories. This, in any case, is what Adelaide-writer Wendy Scarfe achieves in her book, The day they shot Edward.

Like her previous novel, Hunger town (my review), The day they shot Edward is a work of historical fiction. It’s set in Adelaide in 1916, in other words, half-way through World War One. Emotions run high, and 9-year old Matthew, through whose third-person perspective we see most of the events, is often uncertain, if not fearful. The plot is simple enough. We know from the title that Edward has died, and we know from the Prologue that Matthew is implicated in his death in some way, but was a child at the time. From the Prologue we move straight into a chronological narrative telling the story of Matthew, an only child who lives with his restless mother Margaret, his wise Gran (Sarah), and his father, the ironically named Victor, who is dying of tuberculosis on the sleep-out. There are three other main characters, the aforesaid Edward, who is an anarchist and whom Matthew idolises, an intimidating man in a cigar-brown suit, and Mr Werther, the German-born headmaster of Matthew’s school.

Matthew’s life is difficult. A sensitive lad, he is caught between his grounded, politically-aware, loving Gran and his self-centred, unhappy Mother. Gran, who approves of Edward’s activism on behalf of disadvantaged people, is constantly disappointed by her daughter’s readiness to put Matthew’s and anyone else’s interests behind her own desire for acceptance by the “better class”. Matthew himself is conscious of his mother’s self-centredness. Out with Gran and Mr Werther, for example, he feels included, part of “the special laughter and talk of Gran and Mr Werther”, but out with his Mother he feels “alone, beside her but separate” because although she sat with him

in reality she skipped out of her chair nodding, laughing, flirting and frolicking around the room. People always looked at her. She insisted that they did.

Complicating all this is that Edward is attracted to Margaret, and she’s happy to flirt with him but, “lost in her dream of social acceptance”, is unlikely to accept him when she does become free. However, lest you are now seeing Margaret as the villain of the piece, she deserves some sympathy. She had chosen poorly in marriage, and her lot is now doubly difficult in having to care for an ill man who hadn’t been a good husband in the first place. Her life is not easy, and her future not assured.

Anyhow, as if this wasn’t enough in Matthew’s life, there are the political tensions – Mr Werther is insulted by his students and is no longer welcomed amongst people who once socialised with him, and, worse, there are people wanting to trap Edward in the act of subversion. The net is closing in on Edward – as we knew it would from the Prologue.

We see these adult tensions and interactions through Matthew’s eyes – but we know the dangers lying behind the things that simply mystify (or, unsettle) him. I would call Matthew a naive narrator but I’m trying to recollect whether I’ve ever read a third-person naive narrator. Regardless, though, this is essentially what he is.

All this is to say that The day they shot Edward makes for great reading. Although we essentially know the end at the beginning, we do not know who the characters are, nor how or even why it happened. We don’t know, for example, who this Mr Wether is who is accompanying the now violin-playing grown-up Matthew in the Prologue. It is all told through a beautifully controlled narrative. There are recurring plot points – from the opening scene when Matthew decides to save the yabbies he’d caught to his ongoing concern about people liking to kill things, from Edward’s little box-gift for Margaret to the boxes of papers he asks them to store. There’s the quiet build-up of imagery, particularly the increasing references to red/blood/crimson colours. There’s the development of the characters through tight little scenes in the kitchen and living room, on the street and in the schoolyard, in cafes and at the beach. And there’s the language which is poetic, but never obscure.

Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story. Sure, it’s about politics – about how difficult times turn people to suspicion, intolerance and cruelty – and in this, it’s universal. We see it happening now. But it is also about a young boy surrounded by adults whom he doesn’t understand. He’s only 9 when it all comes to a head – young for a coming-of-age – but as he considers in the Prologue:

Had surprise ceased that tragic night? Or did his understanding as a man mark that moment as his step into awareness?

In this, it’s also universal. Matthew learns some difficult truths the night Edward died – but those truths include some positive ones, such as that love can continue after a person dies, that good choices can be made, and that not all people kill things. A lovely, warm, read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Badge 2018Wendy Scarfe
The day they shot Edward
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
124pp.
ISBN: 9781743055199

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Ellen N. La Motte, Alone (Review)

I decided to read Ellen N La Motte’s story “Alone” from recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings because it was a war story, but as I read LOA’s notes I became more and more intrigued. I hadn’t heard of La Motte (1873-1961) before, but she was an American nurse. Two years before the US formally joined the First World War in 1917, she offered to work at the American Hospital of Paris.

She wasn’t pleased by what she saw. Rather than a serious “warzone” she found a bunch of “alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers”. In an essay written at the time, “An American Nurse in Paris,” she described the workers, as follows:

nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.

Not surprisingly, La Motte decided to move on, and worked for a year in a military hospital in Rousbrugge outside Dunkirk. She was little prepared, LOA writes, for the horror she witnessed. She herself described it as “beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.”

Ellen N LaMotte, The backwash of warWhile working at the hospital, she wrote of her experiences, and upon her return in 1916 published a dozen or so sketches in The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse. However, it was withdrawn in 1918 by her publisher, due to government pressure. It was too “unpalatable”, and wasn’t published again until 1934!

“Alone” is one of the sketches in the book. It tells the story of injured soldier, Rochard, who has gas gangrene. It’s a straightforward story – story-wise, anyhow. Rochard is brought into the hospital within six hours of being injured, but his wounds are inoperable and all know he will die. All they can do is offer pain relief and nursing care to keep him as comfortable as possible. What impressed me about the piece was La Motte’s insight, her humanity, and her ability to write, all of which turn this sad story into something more powerful.

La Motte describes the doctors in the hospital as comprising, primarily, young recent graduates from medical schools, and old doctors who had graduated long ago. She writes that

all those young men who did not know much, and all those old men who had never known much, and had forgotten most of that, were up here at this field hospital, learning. … there were not enough good doctors to go round, so in order to care for the wounded at all, it was necessary to furbish up the immature and the senile.

Oh dear. She describes the initial treatment given to Rochard in rather gruesome detail – which I won’t share here – and then describes his dying. He is given morphia, which “gives a little relief, at times, from the pain of life, but it is only death that brings absolute relief”. She never mentions euthanasia but, from her description of Rochard’s horrendous pain, you sense she’d support it. His death is a long and painful one. She writes, after one trying night:

So when the day nurse came on in the morning, there was Rochard strong after a night of agony, strong after many picqures of strychnia, which kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, strong after many picqures of morphia which did not relieve his pain. Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.

As Rochard nears death, the screams of pain reduce and he becomes quiet. She writes that:

he had been decorated with the Médaille Militaire, conferred upon him, in extremis, by the General of the region. Upon one side of the medal, which was pinned to the wall at the head of the bed, were the words: Valeur et Discipline. Discipline had triumphed. He was very good and quiet now, very obedient and disciplined, and no longer disturbed the ward with his moanings.

Bitter, eh. The piece moves to its inevitable end – Rochard’s death – but the language La Motte uses to describe it and the way she controls the narrative to deliver a punch at the end, is impressive. This woman could have been a writer – well I suppose she was! – but her passion lay elsewhere, nursing and public health.

After the war La Motte, who wrote many books and articles on her nursing experiences, travelled in Asia and saw the devastation caused by opium addiction. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where her papers are stored, she became an authority on opium trafficking, and reported to the League of Nations. She was awarded the Lin Tse Hsu Memorial Medal by the Chinese government in 1930 and received the Order of Merit from the Japanese Red Cross.

But, she did more, too, so I’m going to conclude with the final paragraph from the American National Biography Online:

Ellen La Motte’s professional life was devoted to causes she analyzed through the lens of public health advocacy. Her efforts on behalf of the antituberculosis campaign, woman suffrage, and the anti-opium crusade emerged from a firm belief that promoting ways to improve the health of the larger community could create a more equal and just society for all.

Someone well worth knowing about … I’m glad I decided to read this LOA story.

Note: The backwash of war is available in entirety at Project Gutenberg.

Ellen L. La Motte
“Alone”
First published: The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the Battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse (1916)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindle (Review)

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAs I was reading Pierre Lemaitre’s literary page-turner, The great swindle, I started to wonder about the endings of books, what I look for, what I most appreciate. What I don’t look for is neat, happy conclusions. There are exceptions to this of course. Jane Austen, for example, but she was writing at a different time when the novel was in an earlier stage of development. In contemporary novels, I look for something a little challenging, something that suggests that life isn’t neatly wrapped up. Fiction isn’t life, I know, but its role, for me anyhow, is to reflect on, and thus make me think about, life. So, Lemaitre’s The great swindle? How does it end? I’m not going to tell you – it’s not the done thing in reviews – but I will say that it’s satisfying, even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed.

There, that’s an unusual opening for me, isn’t it, to start with the end? Where do I go now? Back to the beginning I think. The novel is divided into sections: 1918, November 1919, March 1920, and Epilogue. It starts in the trenches on 2 November 1918, just days before the First World War ends. One of our two main characters Albert Maillard is there, wanting a quiet, safe time until the war ends, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, has other ideas, setting off a series of events that reverberates through all their years.

This is, in fact, quite a plot-driven novel, despite having many strings to its bow. And you all probably know how much I hate describing plots, so I’m going to keep it simple. After a devastating opening which leaves soldier Édouard Péricourt with a severely damaged face and Albert, for good reasons, taking responsibility for his care, the novel focuses on life in Paris in the immediate aftermath of war. While our two soldiers struggle to survive, Pradelle has been demobbed a Captain, as he’d orchestrated, married a wealthy young woman, Madeleine, who happens to be Édouard’s sister, and is engaged in the business of providing coffins and burying soldiers in cemeteries around France – focusing more on the money he can make than on whether, say, the right soldier ends up in the right coffin. You getting the picture of this Pradelle by now?

There are several other characters – this is a big story that owes much to the 19th century novel – but I’ll just mention a couple more: Monsieur Péricourt, Madeleine and Édouard’s father, a tough businessman who had never had time for his artisitic, effeminate son, and Merlin, the dogged, bottom-rung, about-to-retire civil servant who is given the job of reporting on the cemetery project.

Finally, just two more things you should know before I leave the plot. One is that Édouard did not want to return home after the war, so in the military hospital Albert manages to swap his identity – in a swindle, you might say – with a dead soldier, resulting in Édouard Péricourt becoming Eugene Lariviere. His father and sister, therefore, do not know he is alive. The other is the war memorial swindle concocted by Édouard (Eugene), which he finally manages to convince the “even when well-intentioned, lying was not in his nature” Albert to support.

The novel, then, has a complex plot with a rather large cast of characters, but Lemaitre, who is apparently known for his crime novels, handles it all very well so you never feel lost. One of the ways he does this is through vivid characterisation. Every character, from the main “cast” (it’s to be filmed I hear) to the supporting characters, is so strikingly portrayed that you feel you are there in postwar France – there in the streets where poor, injured returned soldiers struggle to make a living, there in the houses of the well-to-do where money is king, there in the cemeteries where Pradelle’s exploited Arab, Chinese and Senegalese workers do what they can to survive.

Another is through the clever set pieces which illuminate the characters, such as Edouard/Eugene’s increasingly bizarre masks – from horse-head to budgerigar – which he creates and wears to cover his horrendously disfigured face. Or the more gruesome scenes in which the taciturn, not very agreeable, but diligent public servant Merlin tramps around cemeteries investigating coffins. Using these set pieces, many of which border on farce, alongside controlled doses of satire and irony, Lemaitre creates a tragicomic tone – but to what end?

“will this war never be over?”

Early postwar, concerning Pradelle’s cemetery plans, the (mostly omniscient) narrator says:

To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over.

War, then, is the over-riding theme – but war is a big canvas. Lemaitre’s focus is war’s aftermath. What does it mean for those who went and those who stayed, and for the new world they must forge, preferably together. At one point Albert, worn down by his cares and responsibilities, and facing yet another hurdle, wonders, “will this war never be over”. But, as ordinary citizens get back to life, the needs of the returned are forgotten:

ex-soldiers were all the same, forever banging about their war, forever giving little homilies, people had had just about enough of heroes. The true heroes were dead!

A ripe environment, in other words, for cemetery and war memorial scandals, for profiteering – particularly when you add that it was a time of great social change in France, one where the nouveau riche (represented by M. Péricourt) were getting the upper hand over the often money-short aristocracy (represented by Pradelle).

Opposing this almost obsessive focus on money is a sense of resignation. It can be seen in Madeleine who marries the execrable Pradelle. “We each settle down as best we can”, comments our narrator. For many, there is a sense of “emptiness”, this word appearing several times in the novel. They were tough times – the time of “the lost generation” or what the French called “the génération au feu” – for which society was not equipped to cope. So, in the end, what Lemaitre has painted is a picture of a society under stress, a picture which is conveyed most directly through our “everyman”, our struggling returned solider Albert who just wants to make a life for himself but who is also loyal to those who need him:

War had been a lonely business, but it was nothing compared to the period since demobilisation that was beginning to seem a veritable descent into hell …

The novel, as you will have gathered, is replete with swindles, but the greatest of all, Lemaitre is saying, was the abominable treatment, upon their return, of the ordinary soldier.

This is one of those novels which uses a light touch to tell a heavy story. No wonder it won France’s main literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed this book.

Pierre Lemaitre
The great swindle
(trans. by Frank Wynne)
London: MacLehose Press, 2015
ISBN (eBook): 9781848665804

Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)

According to Keirsey, Edith Wharton may have b...

Edith Wharton (Presumed Public Domain via Wikipedia)

“Writing a war story” is quite different to the Edith Whartons I’ve read to date, and it was clear from the opening sentence – “Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war”. It was the comic tone that did it. All the previous works of hers I’ve read, several novels and novellas, plus a couple of short stories, have been serious, if not downright tragic. However, Wharton was a prolific writer, so I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact, I was rather thrilled to have come across this story via the Library of America (a few months ago now).

I haven’t yet read the highly recommended biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee, but I’ve heard enough about her life to know that she lived in France during the First World War, and that she contributed significantly to the war effort. As LOA’s notes tell us, she stayed in France when the war started while others fled. She raised money, visited the front, established refugee hostels and homes for children. She was admired widely but she, herself, apparently underplayed her role, believing, writes LOA, “that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families”. Her story, “Writing a war story” satirises both this role and the idea of writing stories for soldiers, for the war effort.

The plot is simple. Ivy Spang, who had published, to minimal recognition, a book of verse, is asked to contribute a short story to a new magazine, The Man-at-Arms, aimed at convalescent soldiers. Flattered, she accepts, and, due for leave from her volunteer work of “pouring tea once a week” for soldiers in a hospital, she sets off “to a quiet corner of Brittany”, because

devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

But, the task proves harder than she’d imagined. She struggles to find “Inspiration”, her mind being full of the one serious but unfortunately pretentious and condescending review, by the editor of Zig-Zag, of her published verse collection. She tells her companion, Madsy, that “people don’t bother with plots nowadays” and that “subject’s nothing”. Eventually, in desperation, she accepts Madsy’s offer to use/collaborate on one of the “stories” Madsy had jotted down from her hospital volunteer work. They agreed that Ivy would take the basic story but add her literary “treatment”. You can probably guess the outcome, but you should read the story to see just how it comes out. There’s a photo and a famous novelist involved too. In addition to the satire on “literature” and war volunteer work, there’s also a gender dig.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the story was its satire of literary pretensions, and how easy it is for an unconfident writer to be derailed by the wrong sort of praise, as Ivy is by Mr Zig-Zag!

In the story’s conclusion, a novelist laughs at her story, before he realises she’s the author. When he realises, and she asks for feedback:

He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer—it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject; and that’s the main thing, of course—”
Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”
“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”
“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

Poor Ivy! I liked the fact that Wharton’s satire is subtle, not over the top. We readers can see what’s coming but Ivy isn’t ridiculed. We feel for her aspirations but we can see that her lack of confidence has laid her open to influence. And there’s irony here because that very influence, that editor of Zig-Zag, had warned her of “not allowing one’s self to be ‘influenced'”, of the importance of “jealously guarding” her “originality”.

There’s more to this story, particularly for people interested in Edith Wharton’s biography. My point is that whatever your interest – literature, war literature, Edith Wharton herself – this story has something to offer, as well as being a good read (with a subject, or two!)

Edith Wharton
“Writing a war story”
The Library of America
Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion, 1919
Available: Online

Monday musings on Australian literature: World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture

A couple of weeks ago, while I was having coffee with Australian Women Writers’ Challenge team member, Yvonne (of Stumbling Through the Past), she mentioned a project at the AustLit website, World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture. Given this year is the centenary – have you heard?! – of the start of the First World War, and given I’ve done nothing to date to recognise this, I thought I could salve my conscience by telling you about this project.

Coincidentally, author Annabel Smith (whose book, The ark, I reviewed recently), wrote a post just last week on war novels. War, she wrote, is one of the topics she tends to avoid reading, though she names a few war novels she does admire. My response was that I don’t avoid war books. Indeed, I’m often drawn to them – not to war genre adventure stories but to, I suppose, “literary war”. My reason is that in wars we can see the very best and very worst of people, and everything in between. Good writers can do so much with this. Then, on the weekend, I read a beautiful essay by Tim Winton in The Guardian about hospitals. I related to his comment that:

Wars and hospitals*; it’s a surprise we write about anything else. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves …

I like his reasoning, and would argue that wars too represent “chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves”.

So, back to AustLit. They introduce this part of their site by saying that it is

an AustLit research project expanding our coverage of the way the 1914-1918 war has appeared in literature, film, and other forms of storytelling from the conflict’s beginning to the present.

They have been working on it since 2012, and now have 5,000 records in the project encompassing a wide range of forms including “poetry, short stories, novels, plays, films, popular songs, children’s literature, biographies and personal accounts …” The main way they present these is through “curated exhibitions”, which are located in the sidebar as a randomly organised rather eclectic list of topics for exploration, such as Anzac Field Theatres, Sumner Locke: War Romances, Indigenous Diggers, Soldier and Nurse Writers, and Women Writing Women’s Roles. These pages provide links to further pages related to that topic. The site says that more of these “curated collections of data” will be added.

Through these “curated exhibitions” I discovered Sumner Locke, mother of well-known Australian writer, Sumner Locke Elliott, and unbeknownst to me, a prolific writer herself. She wrote plays, short stories and novels – with most of her output being “contemporary romance”, including war romances. AustLit tells us that:

When World War I broke out, Locke’s stories changed sharply.

She still wrote bright, fashionable romances and stories of selection life–but from November 1914, they were war stories and they were, more often than not, about women: wives coercing their husbands to enlist, wives convincing their husbands not to enlist, mothers struggling with the enlistments of their sons, women keeping rural communities running in the absence of men, sweethearts convincing their wounded lovers to marry them even in the absence of limbs or sight.

In all of them, Locke’s ironic tone shines through.

Sounds intriguing! And worth checking out methinks. Some stories can be found in Trove, either via the AustLit page or a search in Trove itself.

Now if, like me, you want to find a list of war novels, the way to do it is not apparently obvious, but I got there by clicking on another link in the sidebar titled Search and Explore the Data. This page provides a link to three “lists” (generated via pre-set search parameters so presumably the results list will grow as records are added to the database):

  • Women Writers and the War
  • Gallipoli Poetry
  • Novels of World War 1

Clicking on links in the above pages should take you to a list of relevant works, but unfortunately there’s a bug which I’d hoped would be fixed by now**. Parts of the AustLit site is only accessible by subscribers. However, I believe this project is supposed to be accessible to all, so, if you are interested and can’t access it via a subscribing organisation, just keep trying.

If (or when) you can click the Novels link you will find a list of over 200 novels. You can sort it by various parameters, including date, reverse date, author. I was surprised to find that David Malouf’s Fly away Peter does not appear in the Novels of World War 1 because it is a novella. The novella is a unique form – and I love the fact that they specifically index that – but I think that most people looking at a list of novels about the First World War would expect to find Malouf there.

However, it is an excellent resource, providing a comprehensive survey of a centenary of First World War literature. If you hover your mouse over a title, an abstract may pop up, though this is not universal. On the admittedly rare occasion where AustLit has located an online version of a novel – such as in Trove or Project Gutenberg – they provide a link. One example is Scottish writer RW Campbell’s The Kangaroo Marines, published in 1915. Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 2:

Sam Killem, Commanding Officer of the Kangaroo Marines, sat in his Recruiting Office chewing a cigar in the usual Australian style. Now and again he looked at his recruiting figures and smiled. “Five hundred men in three days,” he mused. “Not bad for you, Sam; and good stuff at that”–for Sam was a judge of men. He was a squatter and as rich as Croesus. His big, bony frame spoke of strength, while his eye and face told the tale of shrewdness and resource. He was forty, and successful. Three hundred miles of land was chartered as his own. His sheep were counted in thousands, and his brand as familiar as a postage stamp. Yet, in all his struggles for success, Sam had found time to be a patriot. He had served as a Tommy in the African War, and since then had commanded a corps of mounted men in the back of beyond. He was the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force. A man who disobeyed his orders always received a knock-out blow, for Sam boxed like a pro, and hit like a hammer.

Hmm … “the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force”. There’s some alliteration run amok! Campbell says in his preface that he wanted “to write deep in the annals of our literature and military history this supreme devotion, this noble heroism” of the ANZACS. It’s not an official history, but his attempt to picture the war. “The cloak of fiction”, he says, “has here and there been wound round temperamental things as well as around some glorious facts.”

Even if I don’t read more of this book, I love that AustLit has enabled me to dip into it. I do hope they keep producing projects like this and BlackWords (on which I’ve posted before).

* You never know, but you may see a post in the future on Australian hospital literature!
** I notified “the bug” over a week ago.