Fly Away Peter, a 1982 novel (well… novella) by David Malouf. I read this today (it’s probably 40-50,000 words) and I am going to dash off a short review while I am working up to writing a review of Letters from a Lost Generation, which I am still crying a thousand tears over. Not kidding.
What to say about “Fly Away Peter”? First, a little background. I read this book in high school, as the compulsory “UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR FOREBEARS WENT THROUGH, CHILDREN” book (I understand a lot of kids are reading Somme Mud for this now – I pity them. It’s a better book, but a tough read). As I reread, I had some vague memories of bird symbolism, the juxtapositioning of Ashley and Jim, and some weird undertones to Jim’s relationship with elderly spinster Imogen, and I also recall that I was extremely snide about the “poetic language” which made passages of this really obscure to my seventeen-year-old self, who was reading it in between dinner and getting on MSN to IM with my friends. Do kids still use MSN? I feel old.
Undertones of War, a 1928 memoir by Edmund Blunden, based on his experiences in France and Belgium from late 1915 to early 1918. Does require some knowledge of the overall shape of the war to stitch together towns and battles, and I would hesitate to recommend it to a casual reader, because probably for the “human factor”, Good-bye to all That and All Quiet on the Western Front are justly more famous. However, Undertones of War is a lovely read, and provides more insight into the day-to-day lives and stresses of the company officers.
Cut for length.
The Secret Battle, a 1919 book by A. P. Herbert, available free at Project Gutenberg. It is fairly short, but very well worth it for the amazing descriptions of the struggles, both petty and major, experienced by junior officers in Gallipoli and France. It is written as a sort of fictional memoir from the point of view of a narrator, who is writing to set the record straight about his friend, Harry Penrose. The story is a protest against the mercilessness of the military machine, and does a very effective job of showing that Penrose has been failed by the system. Winston Churchill called it,
“One of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops … like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon [it] should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means.”
A. P. Herbert was probably partly inspired by the case of Edwin Dyett, whose fate apparently haunted him. It is difficult to talk about this story without spoiling the ending (and you may be able to guess what happens), but I’m going to try because I think knowing probably changes the way you read from the beginning. However, most reviews will discuss the ending of the story, so be warned – and if you’re willing to be spoiled, the Wikipedia page actually has excellent analysis of the inspiration for the story and its impacts as a piece of protest literature (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Battle).
Beneath Hill 60 by Will Davies, is a 2011 non-fiction account of the tunnelling activities of the war, with particular emphasis on the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, Captain Oliver Woodward, and the mining under the Messines Ridge, the detonation of which kicked off the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917. Will Davies edited Somme Mud, which I have previously reviewed, and was asked to prepare this book to tie in with the 2010 film Beneath Hill 60, which I have also reviewed.
This book is a very readable piece of nonfiction. It relies heavily on Woodward’s diaries, but situates them in the broader context of the war, tunnelling activities that the Germans and allies undertook, and the movements of the AIF generally. It also provides some technical details of tunnelling, which you can either focus on or skim according to your wont (I skimmed). Davies gives prominence to the bravery and engineering skill of other tunnellers, mostly on the allied side, including the tunnelling at Gallipoli, which I had never really considered, and famous explosions such as that at Hooge. He also talks about the various horrid ways the tunnellers could die, and the effects on the nerves of the men, both those in the mines, and those above it, who were constantly paranoid about the enemy tunnelling activities.
The narrative jumps around a bit in time, but is always anchored by Woodward’s path towards the Hill 60 mines and then his path away from it, which works well. Woodward’s diaries lend Beneath Hill 60 a really nice narrative and human element that keeps it quite engaging even through the drier technical details. He was one of only four Aussies to earn the MC three times during the war, and comes across as very courageous and also with humour and insight. Woodward was a successful mining supervisor in his late 20s when war broke out, and he did not join up because he felt that with the AIF currently just in training in Egypt, he could be of more use in the mines. When the tunnelling companies were established, he enlisted and was selected for officer training. He went across to France in late 1915, and was then in almost constant action until early 1919. His stress over the Hill 60 mines and his constant checking that they hadn’t been compromised come across very well, and his later actions are also included.
All in all, this is a quick, engaging read for anyone whose interest in the tunnelling activities of WWI has been whetted by the film Beneath Hill 60, or by Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong or its recent adaptation.
Her Privates We by Frederick Manning, originally published in limited release in 1929, then as an expurgated edition entitled The Middle Parts of Fortune in 1930. The unexpurgated version was not widely available until 1977. Commonly considered one of the best novels based on experiences of WWI, with fans such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and T. E. Lawrence. Reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Sherston Trilogy in that it centres on Richard Bourne, a character who serves mostly as a channel for Manning’s own wartime experiences. Like Sassoon, Manning wasn’t a wide-eyed teenager when he enlisted (he was in his early thirties); but like All Quiet, it reads as something of an exercise in nihilistic self-negation. Like Remarque, there’s a good dose of survivor’s guilt that comes across from Manning.
Cut for length, not spoilers.
The Awakening, a 2011 film set in 1921, starring Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, ghost hoax exposer, and Dominic West as Robert Mallory, a World War I veteran who is now history master at a “haunted” school. This wears all the trappings of a haunted house film, and the “horror” plot has been rightly criticised for being predictable and formulaic. However, I actually loved this film. WWI and the consequences of it pervaded the film and haunted both Cathcart and Mallory. This is foreshadowed in the title card:
Observation: Between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.
Conclusion: This is a time for ghosts
“Seeing Through Ghosts” Florence Cathcart
The film was quiet and mournful, and the characters were so well written that The Awakening was a pleasure to watch.
Some spoilers, although not for the ghost plot. I tried to keep them pretty light, because I really want people to read this review and then hunt down the film and watch it.
In Love and War, a 1996 film about Ernest Hemingway’s love affair with Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while he was recuperating from a leg injury in Italy. This film wasn’t really good or bad: it was just “eh”. The only thing that draws it up from being a turgid and not particularly interesting romantic drama is the knowledge that for whatever reason, this relationship haunted Ernest Hemingway for the rest of his life. In “A Very Short Story”, he wrote the end of his relationship with von Kurowsky more or less as it probably happened; in A Farewell to Arms, he rewrote their story as a grand passion that ended when tragedy tore them asunder. This historical perspective is interesting when watching In Love and War.
War Horse, a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpugo and a 2011 film adaptation of the book, directed by Stephen Spielberg. If I had only read the book or seen the film, I think my review of either would have been glowing, but having seen the film, reading the book somehow made me enjoy both less.
The story centres around Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse owned by a boy named Albert. The novel is narrated by Joey; the film gives the human characters and their stories a bit more prominence, for hopefully obvious reasons. At the outbreak of war, Joey is sold to a cavalry captain and taken to the front, against Albert’s wishes. Albert promises Joey that he will find him and bring him home. The story then follows his experience as a cavalry horse, pulling an ambulance, being cared for on a farm, and as an artillery horse, on both sides of the war.
Cut for length.
Leviathan, a 2009 novel Young Adult by Scott Westerfield, which recasts World War I as a conflict between “Darwinists”, who use genetically-engineered animals, and “Clankers”, who rely on giant mecha. Usually, I find YA an interesting and enjoyable read, but I struggled with this book.
The Winter of the World, a 2007 anthology of World War I poetry, edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions. When I bought this, I’d been toying with buying a WWI poetry anthology for a while, and this was just a flat-out cover-purchase, because I was tossing up between this and the Penguin Book of WWI Poetry, and this one just looked nicer.
Somme Mud, a memoir by E. F. Lynch, written in the 1920s, and published in 2006. This book has been repeatedly called the Australian All Quiet on the Western Front, and has apparently started to be included on school reading lists to try and make callow young school children understand What Their Forefathers Went Through. This book is an absolutely startling testament to the psyche of the soldiers. It will resonate with anyone who is interested in the ANZAC experience, but I think it has broader appeal as well.
Birdsong, the 2012 adaptation of the pretty silly 1991 book by Sebastian Faulks. I was no fan of the book. The miniseries took a relatively interventionist approach to adapting it, and therefore made it slightly better.
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of her youth, her time as a VAD, and her struggle to adapt to living on after the war when practically everyone she loved had died. I reviewed the miniseries of Testament of Youth some time ago, when I was lost in the wilderness and totally unable to put my hands on a copy of the book. The miniseries stands on its own, but the comparison between the two is interesting.
A Very Long Engagement, a 2004 film based on a 1991 book about a French girl named Mathilde, whose fiancé was declared MIA in WWI. The film opens with the last known movements of Manech, who, with four others has been convicted of self-mutilation to escape military service, and is to be sent “over the top” into No Man’s Land to find whatever death awaits him there. From early in the film we are told that all five perished in a subsequent battle, and although multiple witnesses confirm this, Mathilde keeps investigating and discovers that this may not be the case. This is a decent film, with a good cast, interesting characters, and a convoluted, clever mystery plot.
A 2007 telemovie based on a play, based on the true story of Rudyard Kipling’s family, particularly his son Jack, who fought in the first world war. Rudyard Kipling was a famous and well-established English poet by the outbreak of war, and along with various others, like Thomas Hardy, was heavily involved in the production of propaganda during the war. His son jack had very poor eyesight, and failed the medical for the Royal Navy before the war. Following the outbreak of war, he set his heart on a commission in an infantry regiment, and after failing a succession of medicals, Rudyard Kipling used his influence to get him a spot. John Kipling ships out to France before his eighteenth birthday – he has to have permission from his parents to go.
Beneath Hill 60, a 2010 film based on the diary of Captain Oliver Woodward, commander of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. This film is essentially formula WWI – the tunnelling aspect would provide a novel element, if Birdsong hadn’t done it first. That said, it isn’t a bad film: well-written, well-acted, and with less than the usual dose of maudlin What’s-the-Point-of-it-All? meandering.
ANZACs, a 1985 miniseries about a group of men who enlist in the 8th Battalion, AIF, in 1914 and follows them until 1919. Along the way, they are involved in the Gallipoli landing, the Somme offensive, particularly Pozieres, 3rd Ypres, and a bunch of other engagements.
This is a really excellent miniseries which has been praised for its historical accuracy, and which manages to cover off the touchpoints of the war without falling into the traps of being cliched or didactic. One might think that because I’m Australian I was bound to like it, but this fails to take account of Australians’ huge cultural cringe. I had some cringe-moments (mostly because of larrikin Bill Hogan), but I actually think this would appeal outside Australia as an interesting and fairly accurate depiction of the WWI experience.
Cut for length, not spoilers.
A 1993 book by Sebastian Faulks, about Stephen Wraysford, an orphan cum clothmerchant cum homewrecker cum infantry officer perpetually stationed in the line alongside a tunneling corps. Focuses primarily on the tunnelling corps and their activities, with the obligatory couple of trips ‘over the top’ for Wraysford.
No doubt everyone has heard of Project Gutenberg, a huge collection of free ebooks with expired copyright. Alongside Shakespeare and Austen, Gutenberg has an excellent collection of books about World War One (thoughtfully organised into a bookshelf, no less).
This collection includes diaries/memoirs and fiction, and was all written fairly close to the event (since otherwise the copyright won’t yet have expired). I am currently reading:
My interests were primarily medical, since there are plenty of easily accessible in-print books about the experiences of the infantry. However, Gutenberg also has a heap of infantry and other books available as well.
A really useful resource for ebook-ready WWIers.
So, I cracked 50,000 and won NaNoWriMo for the 4th year straight, but I didn’t make it to my personal goal of 60,000, nor did I finish Steadfast.
There was one very simple reason for this. On 12 November, my grandfather was hospitalised.
Continue Reading →
Continue Reading →
Ned: on trial
Arabella: in support
Me: don’t ask
Wordcount:: 52,201 (ending w/c for Nanowrimo 2011)
At the end of the third day, Bobby walks out of the court beside her. They don’t speak, but Arabella feels both relieved and unworthy of Bobby’s sympathetic silence. He’s a scrappy schoolboy, about to matriculate, but here he sits beside his disgraced brother’s fallen sweetheart, day after day. She wishes she could find a way to thank him for that, but only Ned has ever been that good at understanding her, and he isn’t here to interpret.
Bobby breaks the silence by saying, “You must really love Ned.”
Arabella: Onoes, Robert is injured!
Me: As expected, the last five days of the month are going to be messy. Glad I got my 50k, not sure I’ll get to 60…
Then there comes the patient she recognises. He’s older than she remembers, and his pallid face and hair standing up on end from days of lying down mean she has to snatch at the tag attached to his button to be sure. She reads Corporal Robert Reid, North Penland Guards, shrapnel on lung – high risk of infection, and takes her hand in his. “Robert,” she says, “Bobby.”
His eyes open, and he squeezes her hand weakly. “Hullo Arabella,” he says. “Damn, Ned would be chuffed to know I’ve wound up with you.”
Ned: well-thought-of by his CO…?
Arabella: alternating between the ambulance train and the hospital, fretting
Me: WINNER – VALIDATED, MOFOs. o/ Also, cribbing most of Arabella’s experiences from the fascinating (and free!) Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915
Wordcount: 50,112 according to the NaNoWriMo validator; slightly more according to yWriter
The first time Arabella is detailed to the train, it rolls up to the station at the village of Septacre, less than two miles behind the front. The sector is not all that hot, so the train takes on a few walking wounded from the clearing station, then waits while casualties trickle in. The noise of the fighting, loud but dulled by distance, keeps her awake the first couple of nights, before she gets used to it. The wounded soldiers, sitting up in their bunks, can name each mortar or gun from the sound of its explosion.
Arabella: making friends, being deployed
Me: really didn’t feel like writing today. –;
Arabella strolls from her house to the theatre district just as the sun is sinking towards the horizon. Most of the playhouses, or at least those which haven’t been requisitioned, are still open and playing shows with appropriately patriotic and sentimental themes. The crowds in the dining rooms and coffee shops around the theatres are different though: it is impossible not to notice the lack of men in their prime. Women escort children and grandparents. The occasional soldier on leave wears his uniform and his wounded spirit with pride. The army gives out medallions to men who volunteered but were declared medically unfit. Arabella sees a few of these around people’s necks as well.
Ned: worried about Robert and looking for Arabella
Arabella: looking in on Robert daily
Me: it’s all coming together… *steeples fingers*
The nurse takes him through one room and into another, where he immediately sees two figures sitting by the bed of a third. “Thank you,” he says.
Ned recognises Katrin and Fish immediately. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the bed; Katrin’s back is to him. He considers coming back, but he has no idea what Robert’s condition is like. Straightening his shoulders, he crosses the room. Fish looks up as he approaches, his expression enigmatic.
Ned: being judgy and meeting Katrin Anluen
Arabella: at the hospital in Bayetteville
Me: yay, another female character!
Fish doesn’t come after him then, but he does come to find him later, when Ned’s washing up one of the large stew pots so that it can be used to boil water for coffee.
“What are you and she doing?” Ned asks him, not looking up from his task.
Fish crouches next to the washing basin and says, “She wants to go and see Robert.”
Ned: on the train to the front
Arabella: relieved she’s not pregnant
Me: struggling with this section.
There is a rumour among the other nurse trainees that she has a sweetheart. That was inevitable; the way she was mooning around the last few months. To them, a twenty-six year old spinster is a curiosity. They are clearly of the view that her man should be pushed into matrimony as quickly as possible, before her charms wither and he is beguiled by a girl less perilously close to being on the shelf.