A Great War Reading List at PEN World Voices Festival
July is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, but publishers got a major jump on the anniversary last year. Christopher Clark’s“The Sleepwalkers,” Margaret Macmillan’s “The War That Ended Peace,” Max Hastings’s “Catastrophe 1914” and Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914” were just four of the hundreds of books to mark the moment a year early. The deluge continues in 2014, with, well, “The Deluge” by Adam Tooze (coming in November), David Reynolds’s “The Long Shadow” and many more.
In the face of this surfeit — not to mention the previous century of notable books about the conflict — Wednesday night’s panel at Cooper Union about the literature of the Great War, part of the PEN World Voices Festival, served as a live recommended-reading engine.
The novelist and nonfiction polymath Geoff Dyer, born in 1958, said that in books, comics and TV shows, “it seemed the Second World War was being replayed fictitiously throughout my childhood.” But behind those stories was the “geological presence” of the First World War, a subject he wrote about in “The Missing of the Somme,” an elliptical book about remembrance.
The author and critic Liesl Schillinger, a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, recalled being moved by “In Flanders Fields” when she was 9. Justin Go, whose debut novel “The Steady Running of the Hour” unfolds partly against the war, said he had a “persistent fascination” with the war, beginning when he read “All Quiet on the Western Front” at 13.
The participants spent much of the night talking about writers who have become synonymous with the war, including Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. (Mr. Go’s novel takes its title from a line in Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting.”) Mr. Go read Owen’s last letter to his mother, written just days before he was killed. “There is no danger down here,” he wrote home, “or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.”
Mr. Dyer and Ms. Schillinger both praised and read brief excerpts from “Fear,” a novel by the French soldier Gabriel Chevallier being reissued this month by New York Review Books Classics. (Mr. Dyer’s enthusiasm was such that he jokingly assured the crowd he was not being paid to promote the novel.) Chevallier’s frank depictions of the war’s terrors caused the book to be suppressed during and after World War II over worries that it would demoralize citizens and troops.
Mr. Dyer singled out two more recent books for their formally inventive approaches: “1913: The Year Before the Storm,” by Florian Illies, an impressionistic, month-by-month account of the prewar world, and Peter Englund’s “The Beauty and the Sorrow,” a mosaic telling of the war years that draws on the letters and journals of average participants and onlookers.
The event’s moderator, the Danish writer Janne Teller, suggested that some of the victors of the Great War had published books that painted it in a more heroic light. The panelists strongly disagreed. Mr. Dyer said, “For Britain and France, it was a victory that was all but indistinguishable from defeat. Just being able to endure it was seen as heroic.” Mr. Go said the literature that lasted and shaped our view of the war “is the literature in which everyone lost.”
Near the end of the night, Ms. Schillinger read excerpts from Vera Brittain’s classic 1933 memoir “Testament of Youth,” about her decision to contribute to the war effort as a nurse, her experiences while serving and the losses she suffered: her brother, fiancé and two close friends were killed in battle. Ms. Schillinger was twice moved to tears while reading the passages. “I wanted very badly to be heroic,” Brittain wrote, “or at any rate to seem heroic to myself.”