Even in the paroxysm of publishing around the centennial of the First World War last year, novels about the Second World War dominated, as they usually do, historical fiction about the 20th century. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, I binge-read a slew of books published in the past two years or so, most but not all of them in English, several of them sanctioned literary prizewinners, to see how the war was faring in contemporary fiction. As a historian I confess to an ulterior motive: I read historical novels to learn about history. I am a believer in the truths to be found in fiction, not one to dismiss films like The Imitation Game for “glaring inaccuracies” or worry that Slaughterhouse Five mistakes the number of casualties in the firebombing of Dresden. These truths not only purvey what some French scholars call “literary knowledge” of the past—it’s the way this knowledge is filtered through personal and collective memory that makes fiction a form of truth-telling about the present as well.
All the books in my stash of war novels revolve around the relation between the individual and history, a fitting concern for fiction, which can at least imagine what people might have felt and thought as they made their way through situations neither of their making nor amenable to their influence. The authors give their characters choices—flight or fight, go along or resist, cower or contend: in small ways or large, in words or in deeds, people make decisions that affect themselves and others. Still, the weight falls on the side of history, or sometimes on luck, which so often determines survival on the battlefield. In the Wolf’s Mouth, the title of Adam Foulds’s wartime novel, refers to an Italian proverb to which the response is “may the wolf die”—that is, you’ll live if you’re lucky. In The End of Days Jenny Erpenbeck describes how “processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature … can infiltrate a private face,” constituting a language that involves “a constant translation between far outside and deep within,” if with a different vocabulary for each person. Far outside is history, deep within is ourselves. To symbolize the ultimate outcome of that translation between history and the individual, Erpenbeck summons the image of a beetle, “emerging from nowhere, on the way to nowhere,” which passes the time by climbing to the top of a grass blade and then back down again. The blade of grass bends under its weight at the tip, “almost imperceptibly, since the beetle’s weight was so slight, but still it was something.” Once the beetle has climbed down, the grass stalk stands erect again, as if had never been bent at all. We are the beetles; history is the endless field of grass.
Perhaps things are not as bleak as they may seem. These novels work hard to imagine protagonists capable of affecting at least their individual fates, presented in genres as different as Holocaust fiction, military narratives, home-front accounts, and what I think of as 20th-century epics that inevitably include the Second World War and its travails. I’ll begin with The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis because Holocaust novels tend to ignite the most heated debate over the impropriety of treating history in fictional form. Although we are long past the time of Adorno’s remark, now a cliché, about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz, and largely beyond Elie Wiesel’s injunction that a novel about Auschwitz is either not a novel or not about Auschwitz, Amis has encountered latter-day extensions of this point of view. Since the “zone of interest” refers to the larger area around the infamous camp, he had indeed written a novel about Auschwitz. When his French and German publishers declined to handle the book, they called it “unconvincing,” editorial flim-flam for “uncomfortable.” (French and German translations will appear this year from other presses.)
Amis creates three fictional protagonists, a young German with Arctic eyes of cobalt blue who “went along” with the program of working Jews to death at the Buna synthetic rubber works but had second thoughts along the way; a buffoon of a camp commandant who identified himself as “a normal man with normal feelings” as he oversaw the selection of new arrivals for hard labor or the gas; and the Jewish Sonderkommando Szmul, by his own account among the “saddest men who ever lived,” forced to help other Jews to their deaths before meeting his own. Amis does not set out to reveal anything we didn’t know about the camps, but rather tries to present the not-so-banal evil in terms of the individuals involved in it.
Coupled with his satiric tone, Amis’s account of German camp society counted, (for critics like Cynthia Ozick), as impermissibly humanizing the horror. He had, Ozick said, created “a veritable Middlemarch of Nazidom.” Unfair to George Eliot but also perhaps to Amis, at least in relation to his stated intentions. In an Afterword listing his historical sources, he confesses his own inability, after decades of reading, to comprehend what Primo Levi called the “why” of the Holocaust, but he also presents his work as an effort to resist the “no-entry sign demanded by the sphinxists, the anti-explainers” who insist on the incomprehensibility of the event, in all “its bloody-minded opacity.” One may question a novel that requires a bibliographic justification outside its fictional frame, but like Jonathan Littell in his much-read and often maligned account of the repellent Nazi Max Aue in The Kindly Ones, Amis has written a book that at least tries to imagine what Levi’s “counter-human” individuals might have been like in the flesh. One unwelcome answer, I’m afraid, is “like us.”
A different sort of horror forms the center of Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about the brutal experience of Allied POWs forced by the Japanese to build the Death Railway across Thailand to Burma in 1942-43. Perhaps the best-known episode of the war in Australia, it has attained a mythic status comparable to that of the Bataan Death March in the United States. The novel replaces (most of) the images from the 1957 film The Bridge Over the River Kwai with harrowing and graphic accounts of the almost unimaginable physical and psychic suffering as well as the dramatic death rate among the 60,000 Allied prisoners on “the Line.” The 200,000 Asian laborers, who died in far greater numbers, do not figure here or most anywhere else in these memories, whether fact or fiction.
In Flanagan’s story, the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is loosely based—as they say in such cases—on a legendary war hero who, like Evans, was a doctor in the POW camps. Unlike his historical counterpart, however, Evans remains efficiently unlikeable throughout, remaining alone in “an exhausted emptiness” to the end of his long life, which is where the novel begins. In addition to his fictional biography, interlaced with a fair amount of idealized Australian history, Flanagan attends to the enemy, following two somewhat stereotypically imagined Japanese officers responsible for the torture and brutality: one a poetry-quoting, emperor-worshipping but troubled Major, another a violent Colonel fixated on the suitability of POW necks for exercising his samurai sword. All bases are touched in an epic narrative of page-turning episodes, sprinkled with haiku, Tennyson, and an uncommon quantity of dust motes in the light, a metaphor for something, though what exactly is not altogether clear. Apart from the well-known and here unrelentingly depicted brutality of the camps, the truest story in the book is surely the redemptive memory of the Aussie POWs, who suffered several decades of national neglect before being publicly transformed from postwar failures into wartime heroes. The author’s father was one of them, and the novel is an homage to his experience and to Australia and its now entrenched idea of a masculinity of suffering during and after the war. Flanagan’s father died the night he finished the manuscript.
In less turbocharged but more evocative prose, the young British poet and novelist Adam Foulds presents a not unfamiliar military fable about the toll war takes on young soldiers, and the local population unfortunate enough to be in the way of battle. Set during the Allied fighting in North Africa and Sicily in 1942-43, In the Wolf’s Mouth features two fictional soldiers, a naive British intellectual who carries Lucretius and The Wind in the Willows in his kit and an Italian-American infantryman from “Little Italy, not big Italy” who dreams of becoming a screenwriter. These hapless figures from central casting lose their innocence amid the traumatic violence of war, which, based here on oral histories and wartime letters, is described in breathtakingly poetic rather than predictably cinematic images. Yet the costs of war are borne even more heavily by the Sicilians, as the local Mafioso who fled Mussolini in a coffin bound for New York in the 1920s returns in the employ of the Americans to “defascistify” (yes, that was the word) his hometown. Foulds’s point is that all war, however justified, leaves human wreckage in its wake. By focusing on the aftermath of liberation he aligns the long-ago “good war” of World War II with the not-at-all-good wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as traumatic for the local Sicilians, Afghans, and Iraqis as for many of the traumatized soldiers who “liberated” them—a message from the past that possesses emotive and moral power in the present.
Bringing the battlefield home seems a common theme in recent novels about World War II, perhaps because it allows the rest of society, women and children in particular, into the picture of what was after all a total war. Although the US firebombing that destroyed the city of Saint-Malo in August 1944 is the central event in Anthony Doerr’s best-selling All the Light We Cannot See, the book is as much a homefront novel, at least for the French half of his two parallel protagonists. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl who flees the Nazi occupation of Paris with her father to the seeming safety of Brittany and, with access to a hidden radio, survives the bombing after aiding the resistance and being otherwise resourceful. Her counterpart Werner is a German orphan boy whose technical skill with radios—the radio is itself a protagonist in many a story of World War II—lands him in a special Nazi school, then the Wehrmacht, and finally (where else?) in Saint-Malo at the time of the bombing. His sister, assigned the anti-Nazi role, survives the war while he, after “ten thousand small betrayals” of his principles, does not.
What is war if not a matter of life and death, and what is history but a sequence of lives and deaths, a translation between the far outside and the deep within?
Based in part on considerable research into what Doerr claimed to be a new and unfamiliar aspect of the post D-Day events (it is scarcely a secret in France), the story speaks to American readers who can be relied on, he says, to know about the Holocaust, which he could just let “live underneath the sentences and trust our public schools” to convey that aspect of the war. With relentless alternation between the two stories in 187 short “chapterettes,” as he calls them, often of only one to two pages, the French girl and German boy are imagined in a jumpy chronology with carefully detailed description and lots of nature and science, where mists, seashells, and electromagnetic waves—all the light we cannot see—take the place of dust motes as recurrent images. What we can see is lit for the movies, the characters ready to go on set and play their parts on opposing sides of a conflict miniaturized for sentimental effect. The true, and to this day sobering, historical fact taken for granted here is that it was Allied bombardments that flattened the cities and killed thousands of civilians, a less heroic aspect of the D-Day invasion that has loomed large in French memory since the 1990s but, unlike the Holocaust, seldom figures in American memories of the war.
A different and genuinely magical thinking pervades Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, published in Germany in 2012, and in English translation in 2014. The book follows the historical arc of the 20th century from 1902 to 1992 in Eastern Europe, where war and politics took a different course again from that of the Australian or Western European experience. A single protagonist, a half-Jewish woman born in Galicia in 1902 in the time of pogroms and poverty in the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives and dies five separate lives and deaths in a stunning fictional evocation not of parallel worlds but of alternative destinies, each determined by chance along the gossamer thread that separates life from death. As an infant she dies in Galicia, or lives because her mother thinks to soothe her with snow; as a love-struck teenager in a starving Vienna during the First World War she impulsively commits suicide, or she doesn’t; she lives to become a communist, marry, and move to Moscow in 1933, where she either dies in the Gulag in 1941, or, if she missed the turn of the first letter of her name when the Secret Police arrived, survives Soviet exile. As a postwar émigré to East Berlin, she becomes a famous writer and worker on behalf of peace and Socialism only to die from a fall at the age of 60, or she doesn’t; she ends up in a nursing home in a Germany reunified in 1990 where she dies a day after her 90th birthday. There is no doubt that “some death or other will eventually be her death,” and yet, “a day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
Throughout, a set of Goethe’s works ties the lives together across the century, a culturally concrete and reverberant image stronger than any dust mote or electromagnetic wave. With cues from her grandmother’s life, and the general but palpable historical atmosphere of prejudice, hardship, idealism, and cruel caprice in large swaths of Eastern Europe, Erpenbeck has turned a literary device from the mechanical sequence of alternate lives in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life into a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of historical and eternal time, putting war into its largest and most affecting context. What is war if not a matter of life and death, and what is history but a sequence of lives and deaths, a translation between the far outside and the deep within?
Erpenbeck and the other authors in my sample are all consciously engaged in memory work. It’s no accident, then, that they often rely on flashback and retrospection. Doerr ends his book in 2014, when “every hour, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.” Foulds ends with the Italian-American soldier, in the form of a debriefing, encouraged to tell his story “from the beginning.” Flanagan has his protagonist refer to Kipling’s lines, “all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” to underline how easy it is to forget “Nineveh, Tyre, a God-forsaken railway in Siam,” against which Flanagan has written his epic account. Patrick Modiano, newly Nobel prized, recurs to the memory of occupied France in nearly every book; W. G. Sebald called memory “the moral backbone of literature,” which it certainly is of his work; and so on, not to speak of Holocaust fiction. Most novels about World War II consecrate the ground of memory, “lest we forget,” a phrase Kipling repeated twice at the end of his stanza.
Efforts against forgetting run across generations. Flanagan and Amis both belong to the generation who did not experience the war but grew up in its aftermath, but Erpenbeck, Foulds, and Doerr were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the so-called third generation of writers who now produce a steady stream of books about the war and the Holocaust. There are too many to list, but they include David Foenkino’s 2014 prizewinning French novel Charlotte about the young Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon killed in Auschwitz in 1943, as well as two novels by Finnish women writers in their thirties: Sofie Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared, about the rift between freedom fighters and collaborators in wartime and postwar Estonia, and Katja Kettu’s Wild-eye (now in German translation, but not yet in English) about an affair between a Finnish woman and an SS officer in wartime Lapland, topics long thought to be taboo in Finland. Currently, a crowd-sourced online project called Grossväterland (Grandfatherland), spearheaded by Germans born in the 1970s, is collecting oral histories and firsthand accounts for a graphic novel of Germany during World War II. These writers are heirs not so much of “postmemory” as of history; they are translating between the far outside and the deep within of a past they themselves did not know and did not personally survive. Doerr says, for example, that his next work will be on the Panama Canal, the fur trade in Idaho, or medieval Byzantium; he is not obsessed by the war. Others use the war as a set piece in novels that have other themes in mind: Dunkirk in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the Blitz in Atkinson’s Life After Life, German-Americans in Amy Bloom’s recent Lucky Us explore but are not impelled by memory of the Second World War.
Historians are not allowed to invent anything … novelists cannot possibly invent everything.
One curious commonality among these recent war novels is formal: they resort to fragments, multiple protagonists, and parallel worlds, cutting back and forth across time, space, and characters, with prequels and sequels, intermezzos and restarts, often with tenuous connections between the bits and pieces. One critic called it “exploded form,” as if the fictional structure of the novel had self-destructed. He was speaking of Flanagan’s multiple biographies and time-jumps, although Doerr’s 187 chapterettes, mechanically alternating between the French and German stories, might have been easier to take in installments, or some form of giant tweets. With the exception of Erpenbeck, and to some extent Foulds, none of these war novels is of lasting literary value. All the Light We Cannot See has won a Pulitzer and remains high on the best-seller lists, but so does Unbroken, which, though not a novel, attracts a similarly large segment of readers, both World War II buffs and others. The Flanagan, Doerr, and Amis books all feature what is advertised as a “love story,” the less said about which the better. When Flanagan received one (excellent) negative review by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann (who also slammed Martin Amis), the chair of the Man Booker prize committee wrote an insulting letter to the editors of the London Review of Books. Far be it from me to judge a Man Booker judge, but, really, the book is a bit of a potboiler, even if it isn’t what in German is called Geschichtskitsch.
And yet I learned from it, as I did from the others. I learned from the details, descriptions, dilemmas, and decisions of people caught up in, or catching others up in, war and destruction; from the atmospherics of a Sicilian village, a French town, a Japanese POW camp; and, above all, from the “translation between far outside and deep within,” between war as History with a capital H and war as experienced by individuals. Could I have done the same or better from straightforward history books? I doubt it. It’s the difference between the constraints of historians, who are not allowed to invent anything, and the situation of novelists, who cannot possibly invent everything. And what they don’t invent is historical writing by any other name. Then there’s the harvest of memory: these books are all of our time, now, and so the past looks different in them. You have only to compare earlier novels on the Death Railway or young German soldiers to see the differences, one of which is the recent trend to treat perpetrators in the same hand as victims. 70 years since 1945, it turns out, is a long time, and although World War II is passing from living memory, it is vividly alive with an appropriately contemporary twist in its present fictional form. The translation continues.