Eleven British-based novelists and historians listed in the best-seller lists during the past two decades recently contributed a few lines each to a round-up in The Guardian to herald the centenary of the start of the Great War in 1914.
Here are the subjects they covered between them: British lies and propaganda to hush up a successful German coup at sea at the start of the Great War; the wickedness of the Great War so far as horses were concerned; the futility of the Great War symbolised in one soldier’s pathetic death; how politicians and diplomats bungled the formal declaration of war; the need for a comic response to the stupidity of the Great War; memories of a grandfather who never talked about his Great War; the work of cosmetic surgeons in re-shaping the maimed of the Great War; Australians being led a merry dance by Germans in New Guinea during the Great War; the war of movement on the Western Front in 1914; the rightness of Britain fighting Germany alongside France; the duping of young men into thinking of the Great War as a game.
Welcome, gentle reader, to a literary theme park bereft of new themes. There are plenty of old ones hanging about that can still be put to good use. Stand by for a deluge of earnest, provocative or contrarian re-imaginings of previously rendered facts and fictions camouflaged as fresh discoveries and revelatory insights. As one of the above writers modestly explained: ‘It has fallen to later generations to try to interpret the disaster that befell – then shaped – our world’.
No wonder some of us are yawning at the prospect and turning instead to proper Great War books written by the men and women who faced it, fought it and survived to shape our world, writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, Eric Maria Remarque, Mary Borden, Ernest Hemingway, Gaston Riou, Vera Brittain, Paul Alverdes, Winston Churchill, Paulo Monelli, Robert Graves, Andreas Latzko, Fritz Von Unruh, Compton Mackenzie, Enid Bagnold, John Dos Passos, Henri Barbusse, John Maynard Keynes, Willa Cather, Edward Thomas, Joseph Roth … I could go on …