NOVEMBER 15, 2018
Since its conclusion 100 years ago this month, World War I has spawned innumerable books bent on sorting through the facts. The trouble is that facts cool quickly. In the end, we can only enter history through the imagination.
The narrator of Stefan Hertmans’s exquisite “War and Turpentine” is reluctant to add to the Great War’s expository mountain. As the conflict’s 100th anniversary approaches, however, his grandfather’s unopened notebooks weigh on him. He sets out, finally, to tell the story of Urbain Martien, a would-be artist swept into the fighting.
“War and Turpentine” is presented as a novel, but its blend of memoir, history, and imaginative reconstruction recalls the form-fracturing work of W. G. Sebald. Martien’s experiences fighting on the Belgian front (presumably based on the notebooks) make up the book’s central section.
A well-regarded Flemish poet, Hertmans deploys his powers to memorable effect. We learn firsthand what it is like to be roused on an August morning and ordered into uniform before breakfast; to encounter, not long afterward, the terrifying din of German armaments.
Confusion, hunger, and exhaustion almost immediately take hold. The first week passes with a surreal air of inescapability, even as swallows throng the sky, and farmers work their fields. By Day Seven, two Belgian regiments have been reduced to one.
In the narrator’s view, not only lives were obliterated in the years from 1914 to 1918. The 19th century values embodied by his grandfather (pride, honor, self-discipline) were mown down by mechanized warfare and the demoralizing rot of the trenches.
Hertmans moves beyond the standard questions raised by war to ask how we might know our own history, given how quickly the evidence is erased. More urgently, he asks how we might truly know those we love best. “War and Turpentine” pays radiant tribute to a man whose endurance transcended unfathomable loss.
Like Hertmans, the novelist Mark Helprin filters his imaginative reckoning with the war through a grandfatherly figure, Alessandro Giuliani. In “A Soldier of the Great War,”Giuliani relates the story of his life to a young stranger encountered on a journey to an Italian village. Harrowing military experiences turn Giuliani into a hardened survivor. He fights
against the Austrians on the northern front and against deserters in Sicily. Readers fascinated by World War I infantry life will find plenty to absorb them. Most, though, will just be carried away by this redemptive saga, one of Helprin’s best.
For those who would chase the November mists from historical memory, Robert Graves’s memoir “Goodbye to All That” repays revisiting. The author moves irreverently from his class-bound upbringing in England to his decision to join in the fighting (mostly, to delay matriculation at Oxford).
Like many English citizens then, Graves was part German. Despite this, anti-German sentiment quickly ran high. (Paul Fussell, one of the war’s foremost chroniclers, notes that dachshunds were stoned in the streets.) One of Graves’s first assignments as a commissioned officer was to help oversee an internment camp for suspect waiters and shopkeepers.
Soon enough, he was sent to France. His insouciance does not quite desert him (it was fun, he wrote home in 1915, to see the poplars lopped down like tulips by German shells), but eventually horrors accumulated, and he took dutiful note.
A cricket match not far from the front line is broken up by machine gun fire. Graves replaces a platoon commander who correctly predicted his own death. One night, wriggling along the ground in no man’s land, the author plants his hand on a decaying corpse.
First published in 1929, Graves’s unvarnished report outraged readers, including many friends, who found his tone unforgivably disrespectful. Nevertheless, the public’s appetite for firsthand accounts was great in the war’s immediate aftermath. Today, in part because of the centenary, it is again.
In a new introduction to “The First World War,” historian Hew Strachan writes that contemporary readers tend to view the Great War in terms of personal experience. Yet the war’s reshaping of the international order — a reshaping that its participants scarcely could have grasped — importantly remains with us.
Published in 2003, and frequently ranked as among the best of recent histories, Strachan’s book complements any bottom-up tale to be found. (We learn, for instance, how Belgium was forced to abandon neutrality, and young men such as Urbain Martien consequently
forced to fight.) Strachan patiently works the Rubik’s Cube of the war’s causes, presenting the significant players in all their strengths and limitations.
A war that should have been between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Serbia instead engulfed much of the world. For the why, we have Strahan. For the nightmare, we have Graves, and countless others, who at no point believed the war would last more than another year. That it not only did, but went on to seed a second conflagration, was beyond imagining.