Tales of the Interwar

Jan Mieszkowski

Today, the once-provocative suggestion that we live in an age of interminable warfare has become a truism. The claim often takes the form of an observation about the post-9/11 syndrome that drives an endless War on Terror. Alternatively, it can become a description of our era as yet another chapter in the history of the military-industrial complex, or a wholesale condemnation of capitalist imperialism and the destruction it has visited upon the planet for half a millennium.

At the same time, the very self-evidence of war’s tireless march invites further reflection. What if the violence of modern conflicts cannot be fully explained by a notion of ceaseless strife or with a simple opposition between clashing armies and the cessation of hostilities?

In Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form, Paul K. Saint-Amour argues that the ideas of “permanent” and “total” war are part of the ideological program of the Western nation-state. For centuries, Saint-Amour maintains, governments have sought to monopolize violence—the right to exercise it and the right to explain what it means—by dictating which conflicts are worthy of the name “war” and how militarism’s impact on individual and collective experience is to be understood.

Focusing on Western Europe between the First and Second World Wars, Saint-Amour begins by noting that analyses of war’s psychological consequences have largely concentrated on memory, the proverbial nightmare of the past weighing upon the present. His provocative proposal is that trauma may equally be a product of the conflicts of the future. “Violence anticipated,” he writes, “is already violence unleashed.”

From this perspective, Tense Future describes the forms of collective injury, foreboding, and dread that shaped the interwar European populace’s relationship to both the cataclysms it had endured between 1914 and 1918 and the even worse conflicts looming on the horizon. Having unsettled the very distinction between being “at” war and being “between” wars, Saint-Amour enjoins us to move beyond the total-war paradigm and explore a notion of perpetual interwar, an overtly paradoxical concept that disrupts any linear model of historical development.

Suggesting that critiques of hegemonic social and cultural forces emerge most powerfully when the future is most uncertain, Saint-Amour allies his project with contemporary theoretical discourses that have embraced “dissident temporalities,” including nuclear criticism, queer theory, and the burgeoning field of ecocriticism. Such “critical futurities” work to demonstrate that the control of the present is predicated on controlling expectations for—and fears of—the future. Optimism, pessimism, and fatalism are themselves ideological constructs whose accounts of the relationships between past, present, and future must be resisted.

One of the central claims of Tense Future is that the novels of the interwar generation offer an alternative to the nation-state’s own vision of the thoroughgoing militarization of social and historical experience. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford take center stage here, but Saint-Amour stresses that many of their contemporaries, including Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and Italo Svevo, could be part of this discussion as well. If this is the case, we should hope that a second volume of Tense Future is in the works, because Saint-Amour’s readings are sterling examples of exacting analysis.

Woolf, who is known for her opposition to suspense narratives, is shown to be a full-fledged anatomist of apprehension. Invoking a memorable line near the start of Mrs. Dalloway—“The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?”—Saint-Amour argues that such remarks index the foreboding transmitted between the novel’s characters, a process that comes to define their capacity to relate to one another as they communally anticipate imminent shock. In this vein, Woolf’s pacifist sympathies manifest themselves not only in her overt statements against war, but also in more subtle reflections on “the prospect of new collectivities, intimacies, and forms of expression [that emerge] under threat.”

Rejecting the standard classification of Joyce’s Ulysses and Ford’s four-volume Parade’s End as epics (or anti-epics), Saint-Amour declares these works to be “encyclopedic,” a term he understands in a very precise way. While epics proclaim their own monumentality and permanence, these novels betray an awareness of their own limits. They are encyclopedic not because they are comprehensive inventories of all extant information and wisdom, but because they stage the production of knowledge via competing systems of thought, all without any guarantee that the project can be completed or that the resulting insights will be accurate, much less coherent. One can readily see how this could be the case with Ulysses, which has long been celebrated for the unique ways in which it experiments with—and abandons—different epistemological paradigms. Saint-Amour goes further, however, and shows that Joyce’s text offers a more radical depiction of colonial space as the nation-state’s testing ground for new forms of violence.

Ford’s tetralogy explicitly thematizes the precarious relationship between interwar life and the archive. The protagonist occupies himself by compiling errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, only to have to rely on this very reference work to aid his failing memory when he is beset by traumatic amnesia during the First World War. This irony is emblematic of the clash in Ford between realist and experimental paradigms, neither of which ever gains the upper hand. In the end, the very ambition to document the past may be more a threat than an aid to future survival.

If the premise of total war is that the military has everyone and everything in its sights, Ulysses and Parade’s End repeatedly remind us that the sum of their gazes is partial. They strive to archive what must be grasped outside of rather than within established categories of knowledge; they are encyclopedias of the contingent, the hypothetical, or the impossible as much as the actual or the necessary.

Today, haunted as we are by past and future wars, Saint-Amour’s notion of perpetual interwar appears to have considerable explanatory power. Does this mean that contemporary novels follow their modernist forerunners in offering sites of resistance to the militarism of the state? While Saint-Amour’s discussion ends with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), reading it as a novelistic antecedent to Tense Future itself, we would be well served in our efforts to answer this question by turning to two novels published in English in the past year.

OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM, AND FATALISM ARE THEMSELVES IDEOLOGICAL CONSTRUCTS WHOSE ACCOUNTS OF THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE MUST BE RESISTED.

Set during and after the Second World War, Helen Humphreys’s The Evening Chorus tells the story of James Hunter, an English airman struggling to survive in a German POW camp while his wife, Rose, and his sister, Enid, endure the trials and deprivations of the home front. While the wartime disruption of the social order holds out the possibility of new freedoms for women—the same kind of opportunities that Woolf saw emerging during the First World War—the social mores of the status quo quickly reimpose themselves when the fighting draws to a close. Rose will later reflect that this period of unparalleled human suffering was a uniquely joyous time in her life: “Who would have thought that she would long for the war years, that they would be the height of happiness for her?”

Juxtaposing terrifying violence that appears and vanishes in a single sentence with the sustained anticipation of something equally terrible that never actually occurs, the novel presents us with a world in which the future is the source of all significance and yet something to which one may nonetheless have no relationship. While James and the other POWs are treated reasonably well, their sense of quasi-security is periodically shattered by horrible events, as when a prisoner named Carmichael annoys everyone around him with his whistling until “a German guard who is standing against the wall of the bunkhouse not twenty feet away unbuttons the holster of his Luger, walks up to Carmichael, and shoots him through the temple.” There is no description of how the witnesses react. The scene ends, and we move immediately to the following morning when James fears—unnecessarily, as it turns out—that the execution of his comrade is about to be repeated, this time with him as the victim.

James’s response to these horrors is to become obsessed with a family of birds called redstarts. He records their behavior meticulously, work that ultimately becomes a book as well as the basis for his postwar career. In 1950, we find him writing a second book about ocean birds, which he observes from a hut by the sea where he lives as a hermit, but the success of his particular brand of escapism is tempered by the sense that he has merely traded one prison for another.

Intriguingly, his sister confronts the challenges of the war by embarking on a similar project. Having sought refuge from Blitz-ravaged London at James and Rose’s home in the countryside, Enid passes her time gathering samples of native flowers and ferns and recording the names of the birds and animals she encounters. The result is anything but a dry compendium of information. Each entry in her text is a miniature essay that goes well beyond a naturalist’s standard purview in order to explore etymologies, describe the role of various flora or fauna in fairy tales, and link individual motifs to the details of her own life, as if fashioning a personal mythology.

Whereas James’s quest to document every last feature of the birds’ lives represents a totalizing approach to the natural world, his sister resembles one of Saint-Amour’s encyclopedists, weaving together different—and potentially quite disparate—discourses. The internal cross-referencing of Enid’s work is mirrored by the internal organization of the novel itself, with each chapter named for a natural figure that will play a role in it (“Rabbit,” “Dragonfly,” “Arctic Tern”).

<i>Bomb Damage in London during the Second World War</i>. Wikimedia Commons

As Tense Future would predict, however, there is no sense that the parts coalesce into a whole, and the significance of each sibling’s engagement with the natural world remains ambiguous. If they try to take solace in natural forces that lie outside the influence of human beings and their wars, their prospects for success are never confirmed. Even before birds have been introduced as a key element of the plot, avian motifs proliferate in the language of the text, muddling its graceful tone. In one of the first scenes from the prison camp, the Kommandant struts up and down during morning roll call, “his chest puffed out like a winter robin’s.” Similar formulations continue well after birds have become a focus of the narrative, as when the laughter of James’s guards “spools like birdsong through the air towards him.” It is hard to decide whether we should attribute the profusion of such similes to an overly precious style, the interpenetration of military and naturalist thinking, or even self-parody.

In the end, the texts that this brother and sister write about the natural world may be as much allegories of loss and death as chapters in the book of life. When James begins to fill his letters to his wife with detailed observations about the redstarts, she finds them unreadable, and the last vestiges of their marriage start to dissolve. When the truth of one of the novel’s most tragic events is communicated solely by the appearance of a “lucky” rabbit’s foot, Enid’s notebook is retrospectively revealed to be neither a memorial to the past nor a monument to a timeless natural present, but rather a collection of fossils from a dead future.

In tone and style, Alexandra Chreiteh’s Ali and His Russian Mother is a very different book. In this first-person narrative, an unnamed female university student describes her flight from Lebanon in July 2006 at the start of the 34-day “Israel-Hezbollah” War. En route to Moscow via Syria, she reconnects with Ali, an old schoolmate whose family has marked similarities to her own: both are the children of Slavic mothers who married Lebanese men. As we quickly see, they primarily experience the totalizing reach of war not as the threat of missiles that can target anyone anywhere, but as the shocks of postcolonialism and globalization.

the wartime disruption of the social order holds out the possibility of new freedoms for women.

In the course of Chreiteh’s short novel, we encounter poignant ruminations on sexual mores, the changing status of religion, and strife between different ethnic and national groups. These themes, however, remain oddly abstract, even when they directly involve the principal characters. Although in due course we learn that Ali is gay and Jewish, these revelations are foreshadowed to such a degree that one has little sense of gaining insight into the psychological and historical forces at work when the information is finally made explicit. The book’s closing scene—in which Ali violently denounces Israel in front of journalists—feels at once predictable and out of place, underscoring the extent to which both he and the narrator remain somewhat schematic figures.

Some of the elusiveness of Chreiteh’s main characters has to do with the casualness, even flippancy, of the narrator herself. Her snide, at times mocking posture keeps us slightly off balance, never entirely sure where her real concerns lie. In her Translator’s Note, Michelle Hartman stresses the difficulty of rendering the text in English. The book was written in Modern Standard Arabic, creating a disjunction between its formal style and the often glaringly informal content, material that would typically be discussed in colloquial Lebanese Arabic. Hartman’s translation is successful in producing the “gently snarky tone” for which she aims, and there are undoubtedly funny moments in the story. Nonetheless, she seems uncertain how to characterize the comedy she is trying to impart to the English-language audience, in the space of two sentences deeming it to be both “dryly subtle humor” and “a devastatingly humorous take” on the characters.

The question of what is and isn’t a joke is complicated by the narrator’s frequent reminders of just how macabre the psychopathology of life in a warzone can be. In an almost gratuitous juxtaposition of the horrific and the mundane, we are told that “the picture of a little girl’s mutilated corpse flashed across the [television] screen, and I spun around, opened the refrigerator behind me, and took out another package of cheese.” As with the prisoner Carmichael’s execution in The Evening Chorus, the next sentence immediately moves on to a new incident. But whereas in Humphreys’s narrative the killing creates a direct threat to the protagonist, there is no intimation that Chreiteh’s heroine is fated to become a corpse on TV herself.

A similar mingling of the consequential and the quotidian occurs when the narrator resolves to leave for Russia right after having mistaken the sound of fireworks at a wedding for Israeli bombs. Though her decision to depart is unquestionably a crucial element of the plot, it has a curious air of insignificance, as if from the beginning there was never any possibility that the story might be a tragedy. This is not wartime as perpetual anxiety about what may soon befall us, but wartime as everydayness.

<i>Refugees in South Lebanon, July 27, 2006</i>. Photograph by Masser / Flickr

In her Author’s Afterword, Chreiteh addresses the degree to which her novel is autobiographical, a question that permits of no easy answer. The writing here is more intense and dynamic than in the first part of the book. In addition to reflecting on her fictional story, she offers a rich discussion of the challenges facing people whose experience of sectarianism and immigration is shaped by their status as multiethnic, multinational, and multilingual.

Chreiteh paints a compelling picture of the way in which “the line between war and peace in Lebanon is weaved by the smoke of guns.” Noting that the Lebanese survivors of the 15-year civil war—which she is too young to remember—live on “a diet of bitterness and PTSD tucked under the glossy cover of collective amnesia,” she relates that when the 2006 war came, she knew instinctively what to do, as if she had absorbed the relevant skills via osmosis. “Under the bombs,” she says, in a line that testifies to the abiding influence of the concerns that preoccupy Saint-Amour, “I saw my future before me, reflected in the lusterless eyes of the past’s embodied ghosts.” This section of the book could well have been expanded into a full-fledged essay.

What would it mean, asks Saint-Amour, to stop waging interwar? The fear that we are fated to fight endlessly with the ghosts of conflicts past and future haunts both novels. While Humphreys’s book tentatively delineates a form of interwar life that is more than a living death, Chreiteh shows how difficult it is to survive in a thoroughly militarized environment without allowing the significance of one’s experiences to be defined by the clichés of conventional war stories.

In the last decade, visions of humanity’s fate have grown ever more frightening as a steady stream of new books about war has been complemented by fictional and nonfictional reflections on planet-wide ecological disaster. The anticipation of global annihilation recalls the height of the Cold War—indeed, today’s fatalism may be even more acute. As we have seen, Saint-Amour maintains that it is precisely when the future appears most uncertain that new kinds of emancipatory thinking become possible. If these two novels do not show us the way out of interwar, they remind us why it is important to affirm that its power may one day wane.