21st November 2012

Top 4 + 1 books in the field of war

Aidan Gregory charts his top war literature picks

Remembrance day has come and gone, the Palestine conflict escalates once more. Now is a good time to remind ourselves of war and its continuing impact, through some of its many literary representations

1.Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
‘The first time I read about Yossarian, I fell madly in love with him’. It was a tough one to call, but topping off this list is a chaotic, almost incoherent satire on life. Joseph Heller was part of a new generation of American writers who saw action in the Second World War, including Salinger, Gore Vidal, and Kurt Vonnegut. Set in the closing months of the conflict, Catch 22 follows the story of Captain John Yossarian – the ultimate anti-hero with a burning desire to be anywhere but combat missions. It’s written in an extremely unique style, with a rather upbeat and comical first half, and then things take an abruptly brutal turn as Yossarian’s friends are all killed off. Widely hailed by critics as a modern classic, the novel will make you laugh, cry and most importantly reflect on the nonsensical side of war.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
The devastation of the First World War paradoxically produced some of the most beautiful novels and poems ever written. At number two is the oldest book in the list; first published in 1929. It’s a novel that was banned by the Nazis, and one which reminds me why I wear a poppy each November. What makes it special is that it is written from the German perspective, which challenges the all-too-often partisan perspective we have on wars. Most crucially, the novel captures perfectly the brutal loss of innocence that occurs in war. The characters that populate the book are mostly students our own age, catapulted from their classrooms into the mud and smoke of the trenches. It’s heart-wrenching as one by one they are whittled down.

3.Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks (1993)

In spite of the fact that the book has become something of a cliché, no list of war books could be complete without Birdsong. It was butchered by a recent star-studded, historically inaccurate BBC adaptation in. No matter, Faulks’ harrowing 1993 masterpiece is still as emotional as ever. You can’t help but be sucked into the story of Stephen Raysford, the young officer cast into the horror of The Somme, haunted by the memory of a lost love. It features a number of graphic, but I think we can agree, ultimately well-written sex scenes, alongside gory details of causalities and above all the tragic heartbreak of Stephen’s life.

4.Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell (1938)
George Orwell, the most important writer of the 20th century (arguably), makes an appearance with his politically charged memoir. Orwell took up arms to fight on the Republican side against Franco’s rebellion in the 1930s. The book tells the story of his service, with lucid detail and more than a pinch of humour. Throughout history, war and conflict have inspired many of the greatest writers. Orwell is no exception. The Spanish Civil War stirred Orwell’s mind, and inspirations for his masterpiece 1984 are very much evident in the book. For instance, the trench rats that Orwell writes about in horror must be the same rats that Winston Smith faces in Room 101. Anyone with an interest in the man himself, the war, or even just excellent prose should give it a go.

Editor’s pick, Top 1 War Book written not by a man or a soldier:

1. The Diary of Anne Frank, (or The Diary of a Young Girl), Anne Frank (1947)
It’s ‘action’ doesn’t take place in the trenches, or on any battlefield, or inside a tank, but Anne Frank’s diary is possibly one of the most revealing books about war ever written by anyone (including a man). It documents the experience of war, as one not necessarily shaken by shrapnel every few seconds but nonetheless shaped by it; an experience in which fear sits squarely next to the quotidian, fear becomes the quotidian. And it is quietly, silently heartbreaking. Why? because it’s real tragedy takes place offstage, silenced by the reality of war that men keep fighting.

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