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22nd February 2014

WWI novels: A retrospective

To mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Books Editor Esmé Clifford Astbury encourages readers to tuck into one of these novels

Often lauded as the greatest of all the novels set during the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), also made into an Oscar-winning film in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, documents the stress undergone by German soldiers during the war and their struggles integrating back into civilian life. It is a powerful evocation of the horrors of the war.

Ernest Hemingway set A Farewell to Arms (1929) in the Italian campaign of WWI. It tells the story of the American Frederic Henry, who is serving as a lieutenant in the Italian army, and of his love affair with Catherine Barkley. Hemingway based his novel on his own experiences in Italy and his real-life relationship with a nurse who looked after him in a hospital in Milan after he was wounded. A Farewell to Arms has been the subject of a number of films.

For my money, the most fascinating contemporary novels about WWI are those by Pat Barker, author of The Regeneration Trilogy. Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) explore the psychological damage caused by trench warfare and the treatment of ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh by the renowned psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers. The Regeneration Trilogy features fictional characters as well as historical figures, including the poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Barker deals with questions about homosexuality, masculinity, madness and entrapment.

Vera Brittain, mother of British politician and academic Shirley Williams, published a memoir entitled Testament of Youth in 1933, which spanned the first quarter of the 20th century. Her brother, Edward, and her fiancé, Roland Leighton, were both killed in the First World War. The most moving part of Testament of Youth is the pact Brittain made with Roland that if he died, he would attempt to contact her. Of course, in later years, she had to admit that no such contact had been made.

No discussion of WWI fiction would be complete without mentioning Birdsong (1993), a novel by Sebastian Faulks. Told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, it documents Stephen Wraysford’s relationship with Isabelle Azaire, a woman he meets while working for her husband before the outbreak of war. Birdsong was adapted for television in 2012 and, though perhaps not Faulks’ greatest achievement, it is definitely worth a read.

My final pick – and my personal favourite – is A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot. It follows Mathilde Donnay, a determined and unique young woman, as she searches for her fiancé Manek, convicted of self-mutilation alongside four other soldiers and believed to have been killed during the Battle of the Somme. In 2004, A Very Long Engagement was made into a terrific film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou.

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