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The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul…
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The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)

by Paul Fussell

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Very enjoyable, very thought-provoking, but not necessarily very convincing, Fussell's sui-generis book is an extended literary criticism masquerading as social history – or perhaps the other way round. There are various arguments going on in here, but the main thrust is that much of how we think about the modern world – indeed our whole contemporary mindset – has its origin in ideas that came about as an attempt to respond to the unprecedented scale and irony of the 1914-18 conflict.

‘Irony’ is the crucial term. And a famously vague one; let me first, like a teenager giving a graduation speech, turn to the OED's third sense of the word:

A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.

For Fussell, ‘Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends’; and ‘the Great War was more ironic than any before or since’. Highlighting the insanity of trench warfare, and the ‘ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home’, Fussell first traces the various ways people responded to this grotesque irony, and then considers how it has affected language, culture and thought processes since.

Though he does look at some contemporary letters and diaries, his main sources of evidence are the great literary responses to the war, especially Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen, and David Jones, and he locates the source of all their techniques in ‘irony-assisted recall’.

I love this attention to irony as the defining quality of the war; but it also epitomises a sense I had that Fussell was claiming a special status for the First World War that it didn't really possess. After all, irony is hardly new. To me, it seems to be a central part of war literature almost as far back as you can go: Homeric irony is almost proverbial.

Similarly it seems quite a claim to say that 1914-18 was unusually marked by a ‘sense of adversary proceedings’, an ‘us against them’ mentality, since this is surely characteristic of the whole notion of what war is. If anything, the WWI literature I've read has been notable for its awareness that the other side was exactly the same as them; I think of the German and French soldiers trapped all night together in the shell-hole in All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance.

Just one more example to make my point. Fussell believes there is something unusually theatrical in the English conception of this war:

During the war, it was the British, rather than the French, the Americans, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Russians, or the Germans, who referred to trench raids as ‘shows’ or ‘stunts’ […] And it is English playwrights – or at least Anglo-Irish ones – like Wilde and Shaw who compose plays proclaiming at every point that they are plays.

But this is weird, not just because of the qualification he needed in that last sentence, but because when I think of deliberately artificial stagecraft I think of Brecht – a German – and the term used for this in modern theatre studies is a German one, Verfremdungseffekt. In general his idea of specifically national characteristics seems a bit strained (he uses Manning's Her Privates We as an example of how English writers were saturated with Shakespeare; but Frederic Manning was an Australian).

There are several more such quibbles I could adduce, but none of them stopped me enjoying Fussell's arguments, most of which are brilliantly constructed. He is especially convincing on the pervasive influence of the Oxford Book of Verse on contemporary patterns of speech and thought, and he has a fantastic ability to spot poetic echoes buried in the most unlikely places. When CE Montague writes of one destroyed battalion, ‘Seasons returned, but not to that battalion returned the spirit of delight in which it had first learnt to soldier together…’, perhaps it is not too difficult to discern the presence of Milton's ‘Thus with the year / Seasons return, but not to me returns / Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn…’. But Fussell also finds parallels to both Sassoon's ‘The Kiss’ and Owen's ‘Arms and the Boy’ in Bret Harte's ‘What the Bullet Sang’ – and there are other, even more obscure examples.

An American, he seems fascinated by the extent to which the idea of ‘English Literature’ was a part of daily life for so many British soldiers, and he gathers a great deal of evidence from letters and diaries showing how common this was among all ranks.

Carrington once felt ‘a studious fit’ and sent home for some Browning. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘I was mocked in the dugout as a highbrow for reading “The Ring and the Book”, but saying nothing I waited until one of the scoffers idly picked it up. In ten minutes he was absorbed, and in three days we were fighting for turns to read it, and talking of nothing else at meals.’

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the one about the homoeroticism of war writing, which examines certain tropes in First World War literature and traces them back to the influence of Housman, the Aesthetes and the Uranians, with their veneration of wounded or dying soldier ‘lads’, forever stripping off and bathing in handy streams. Here and elsewhere, Fussell follows the variations forward in time as well, to modern war literature, where he sees Heller's Catch 22 and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as especially representative. For him, this style of heavily ironised, conspiratorial writing has its roots in the Western Front: ‘Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama, which I take to be a primary mode in modern writing.’

Well, maybe. I enjoyed seeing the argument made even if I'm not sure I believe it.

Fussell himself fought in Europe the Second World War and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart; in a certain sense this book is personal, and it has to do with exploring the gap between ideas of war and the reality. The way he reacted to the fighting in Alsace was in some sense (so at least he seems to be arguing) pre-moulded by society's experience of the Somme and Paschendaele. And indeed, like many other writers I've encountered recently, Fussell notes that one can easily ‘conceive of the events running from 1914 to 1945 as another Thirty Years' War and the two world wars as virtually a single historical episode.’ ( )
  Widsith | Sep 9, 2014 |
He wanders a bit and sometimes has a clever ( perhaps he would call it ironic) tone that seems frivolous in light of what he deals with, but ultimately the book delivers. A view of how these second rank authors (Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, et al)! Have a power and importance because of what they lived through. I sometimes questioned whether WW1 was really so different, so epoch-changing - after all Sherman had called war hell half a century before,, the 100 years War was grisly and long too, but WW1 combines scale, destructive power and at least some sense of random pointlessness in its own unique way. Intriguing points include: dawn and sunset only feature as objects of admiration and poetising from the mid 19th century, scarcely appear in shakespeare ( i had to google check that and it seems true); 1914 was a unique high point in the valuing of Eng Lit, both the upper classes steeped in it and the lower classes seeing it as a road to self-improvement. The critical apparatus mainly Northrop Frye, seems irrelevant and i was glad to see him agreeing with me in his afterword- itself one of the best parts of the book. His scholarly knowledge of the texts including changes in different editions could be pedantic but is in fact revealing and throws light on the changing cultural attitudes of our times, esp towards homosexuality. The section on the homoerotic is disturbing and nuanced - the vulnerability of male flesh! ( )
2 vote vguy | Jul 7, 2014 |
With the 100 year anniversary of World War One upon us, there has been an outpouring of new books on the war. Some of these are very good indeed, but reading a few new ones drew me back to this classic. I think it may be the best book I have ever read on the War, for two reasons.

First, while the book is mostly about the war in literature and memory, Fussell captures and shows the actual day-to-day experience of the soldiers in the trenches more vividly than anything else I have read. He was in combat in Europe World War II, so he knew things in visceral terms that non- combatants don't know (and, as he points out, very often did not and do not want to know). Also, while much of his research was literary, the rest of it was about as immediate as you can get: he spent three months in a room at the Imperial War Museum, reading the Museum's (unsorted) archive of papers of the British troops in World War I. In so doing, he says, "For three months I lived in the trenches with the British soldiery, accompanying them on raids on the German trenches across the way, consoling myself with their rum, pursuing and crunching lice in my trouser seams, and affecting British phlegm as they jumped the bags and dashed directly into machine gun fire."

The day to day experience he conveys is horrible, claustrophobic, and increasingly pointless. Soldiers on both sides began to believe that the war would never end; "the war", indeed, begins to seem a great pitiless machine that chews up rank after rank of men, and spits out corpses. This is not a new thought -- no one who has read much about the War is going to believe that trench life was fun. But Fussell conveys more strongly than anyone else I have read just how awful, and endless, it was. He intended his description to make war look horrible, and it does.

Second, Fussell's most important literary observation, it seems to me, is less about literature per se than about a way of thinking -- the modern way of thinking, if you will. He goes through key themes as they appeared in the writings of several major authors of the War. What emerges overall, however, is a sense that for many the ability to believe in ideals was killed in the war, shifting the postwar world to an attitude of pessimism and irony. Many have criticized Fussell's focus on a small group of British writers, but I think his point is still valid. The First World War made it impossible for thinking people to believe in human progress, or in the basic goodness of humankind. In the century since then, it has been too easy to remain disillusioned.

This is a terrific book, for those whose interests are primarily historical, as well as for those who have literary inclinations. Read it. ( )
1 vote annbury | Feb 16, 2014 |
Introduced by Lyn Macdonald
  narbgr01 | Feb 16, 2014 |
Hatley Park, Sandy, Beds ( )
  onesmallhole | Jan 22, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195133323, Paperback)

The year 2000 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Great War and Modern Memory, winner of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and recently named by the Modern Library one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books. Fussell's landmark study of WWI remains as original and gripping today as ever before: a literate, literary, and illuminating account of the Great War, the one that changed a generation, ushered in the modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world. Exploring the work of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen, Fussell supplies contexts, both actual and literary, for those writers who most effectively memorialized WWI as an historical experience with conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning.

For this special edition, the author has prepared a new afterword and a suggested further reading list. As this classic work draws upon several disciplines--among them literary studies, military history, cultural criticism, and historical inquiry--it will continue to appeal to students, scholars, and general readers of various backgrounds.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:44 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"The year 2000 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Great War and Modern Memory, winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and recently named by the Modern Library one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books. Fussell's landmark study of World War I remains as original and gripping today as ever before: a literate, literary, and illuminating account of the Great War, the war that changed a generation, ushered in the modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world. Exploring the work of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen, Fussell presents those writers who most effectively memorialized World War I as a historical experience with conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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