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Journey to a War (1939)

by W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood (Author)

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I bought this book, after seeing it mentioned on LT, because I was taken by the idea of Auden (one of my favorite poets) and Isherwood as war correspondents. In 1938, they were commissioned by British and US publishers to travel to China, which had been invaded by Japan the previous year, and to report on what they saw. The book is written in prose by Isherwood, apparently based on both of their diaries, and the prose is preceded and followed by poetry by Auden (largely sonnets, and one long, "preachy" (Auden's word) "Commentary").

Everywhere they went (and I gave up searching on Google for the locations of the cities and towns they visited -- a map would have been a huge plus for this book), they were greeted as honored guests, even when in several cases the Chinese people they met tried every means, utterly politely, of dissuading them from visiting the front. They met Agnes Smedley and even the Generalissimo (Chiang Kai-Shek) and Madame Chiang, and multitudes of other local leaders, missionaries and religious leaders, military leaders, train workers, hotel owners, "coolies" (such was the language of the time) who pulled rickshaws and carried packages and luggage and even people, interpreters, and many others, both British and Chinese. They describe towns devastated by the Japanese invasion, breathtakingly beautiful scenery, charming hotels and not so charming ones, train trips delayed by Japanese bombing, the way the Chinese welcomed them so wholeheartedly but seemed unprepared for the war, their unsuccessful efforts to visit the Communist Eighth Route Army (the Communists were collaborating in the defense of China at the time), propaganda and army songs, Chinese opera, food and drink (lots of drink), life in the international concessions of otherwise occupied Shanghai, scary trips over mountain passes, the still almost colonial attitude of the British in China, and much more.

All of this is told in a understated but witty way. Even the impact of the war is understated, and I know from other reading how cruel the Japanese invasion of China was. But this is a story of their journey, not of the war itself. Early in their stay, they were told about the German invasion of Austria, and they were to return to a Britain that was soon to be plunged into a war of its own.
11 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 13, 2014 |
Commissioned by their publishers to write a travel book, Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden traveled to China in 1938 to observe the Sino-Japanese War. The writers make only brief mentions of their interviews with Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Chou En-Lai, unaware of the crucial roles their subjects would play in the postwar world. But the errors and evils of 19th-Century European policy toward China are summarized in Isherwood's devastating account of the artificial splendor of the foreign enclave in Shanghai, separated by an unbridgeable social gap from the harsh realities of the occupied city.
 
Mr Isherwood writes a smooth and accurate kind of demotic language which is adequate for his needs; he never goes butterfly-hunting for a fine phrase. It is no fault of his technique that Journey to a War is rather flat; he is relating a flat experience, for he is far too individual an artist to be a satisfactory reporter. The essence of a journalist is enthusiasm; news must be something which excites him, not merely something he believes will excite someone else. Mr Isherwood - all honour to him for it -has no news sense...

Mr Auden contributes some good photographs and some verses...His work is awkward and dull, but it is no fault of his that he has become a public bore.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe Spectator, Evelyn Waugh (Mar 24, 1939)
 

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Auden, W. H.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Isherwood, ChristopherAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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