A "Great" Anniversary
December 30, 2013 10:22 PM   Subscribe

I like to give myself literary new year's resolution and since this year will be the 100th anniversary of The Great War I think it would be fitting to read some literature and history of/from that era. I've read Guns of August and All Quiet On The Western Front. What else should I read?
posted by brookeb to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
A Farewell to Arms.

And Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, especially Big Two-Hearted River.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:36 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first thing that comes to mind is Henri Barbusse's novel Under Fire. There's also Ernst Juenger's Storm of Steel, which gives a rather more positive view of the war than most of the familiar literature.

As far as history goes, Alastair Horne's history of the Battle of Verdun, The Price of Glory is excellent, as is Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson's The Somme (which gives a rather different view of the Battle of the Somme than you'd get from popular culture).
posted by asterix at 10:37 PM on December 30, 2013

Specifically looking at the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Frederic Morton, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-14
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March and The Emperor's Tomb
Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
posted by scody at 10:38 PM on December 30, 2013

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
Pat Barker, Regeneration

another interesting effort to justify the Somme campaign is "Five Armies On The Somme", which argues, iirc, that something like this was inevitable as allied armies learned to fight a war of attrition, and that it did move the ball down the field
posted by thelonius at 10:39 PM on December 30, 2013

Oh, and another suggestion: Tim Travers, The Killing Ground, which tries to explain why the British Army fought the way it did (tl;dr: it's more complicated than "because the generals were morons").
posted by asterix at 10:46 PM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: Pat Barker's trilogy, which includes The Ghost Road, The Eye in the Door, as well as Regeneration.
Somme, by Lyn MacDonald-- also 1914.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:49 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is an excellent novel.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 10:53 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Print:

The Junius Pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg
The Zimmerwald Manifesto


Lawrence of Arabia

I love TJP so much I just have to quote some of it here:

"Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form."
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:01 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
posted by atlantica at 11:03 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've mentioned in other similar threads, since all of the media published during the war is pre-1923 and consequently public domain in the United States, it can be fun and edifying to go spelunking around the Hathi Trust or the Internet Archive or Google Books and read the magazines of the day. Especially if you do so chronologically so that you can see how the coverage and opinions develop and change. Primary sources for the win!

The same goes for newspapers in the Google News Archive, but for some reason searching has become annoying - you can't just go to the site because it leaves out archive results, instead you have to do a normal Google search and add "site:google.com/newspapers" to your keywords.

If you do this you should do a blog! It's like scrapbooking.
posted by XMLicious at 11:05 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also the equivalent to Google News Archive for Australian newspapers is the Trove.
posted by XMLicious at 11:09 PM on December 30, 2013

The recent extensive history Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson, provides an interesting contrast to what we know from the glamorous movie version. And speaking of famous movies about the war, The African Queen first appeared in 1935 as a C. S. Forester novel. Finally, a true classic (written from an Austro-Hungarian viewpoint) is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1923).
posted by LeLiLo at 11:19 PM on December 30, 2013

Also, poetry:

Dulce et Decorum Est
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:25 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well lookie here: World War I in popular culture
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:31 PM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: Goodbye to All That.
posted by Segundus at 11:47 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

As for fiction/literature, you may not do better than A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:48 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan, maybe?

Haven't read it yet, but gave a copy to a family member.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:51 PM on December 30, 2013

Not So Quiet, by Helen Zenna Smith, about female ambulance drivers at the front, based on her experiences.
posted by OolooKitty at 12:01 AM on December 31, 2013

Oh, also Enid Bagnold's A DIARY WITHOUT DATES, about her experiences as a VAD.
posted by OolooKitty at 12:11 AM on December 31, 2013

REFLECTIONS OF A NONPOLITICAL MAN, by Thomas Mann. The war as seen by a German, and published just before the 1918 armistice.
posted by Mister Bijou at 12:19 AM on December 31, 2013

For a Canadian take on it, try Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die In Bed, based on his experiences with the 244th Overseas Battalion, or Timothy Findley's moving 1977 novel, The Wars.
posted by ilana at 12:22 AM on December 31, 2013

Ford Maddox Ford's tetralogy (?) Parade's End.
posted by angrycat at 4:03 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has yet recommended Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth - it's the story of how she worked to nurse at the front, her experiences there and her resulting anti-war sentiments. It's pretty grueling, actually, but well worth the read.

Also, what about Robert Graves's slightly fictionalized in places memoir, Goodbye To All That? It's just excellent - if you're at all like me, you'll find yourself remembering little tags from it all the time.

Terry Castle also has a simply terrific essay on her speculations about why she (and women generally, and queer women) are drawn to the study of WWI - it appears in The Professor and Other Writings, and each of those other essays is also a gem.

In another medium - have you heard PJ Harvey's album from 2010, Let England Shake? It's about WWI, of course, although it's also about the decline of England under the Tories and New Labor - but it's well-researched, beautiful and really haunting. I would suggest not listening when you need to be focused on other things. Also the Pogues' album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash has a couple of songs about WWI on it that I found really...sad, actually.
posted by Frowner at 4:58 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you (and anyone else reading along looking for suggestions) happen to be a fan of dense, esoteric modernist literature (think T.S. Eliot or James Joyce), David Jones' epic poem In Parenthesis is, I think, a sadly neglected masterwork of the 20th century. I took a seminar on the literature of WWI in college, and it is the most powerful, moving work I read in the whole class.
posted by drlith at 5:26 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy, "Regeneration", "The Eye In the Door", and "The Ghost Road" are also good fictional accounts of Britain during WWI, although, having been written 80 years after the fact, carry some modern baggage.

Also "Paths of Glory", both the book and the Kubrick movie.
posted by hwestiii at 5:52 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Defintely read Niall Ferguson's Pity of War.

Don't worry about his politics; they're largely unmentioned and don't inform his anaylsis. The book upends a lot of the conventional wisdom of the war; and focuses more on political, economic and diplomatic aspects; military strategy and tactics are briefly discussed.

What I think will really fit into your stated goals however, is that Ferguson seeks to understand the choices various leaders thought they had in 1914. One of Ferguson's central ideas is that history is not strictly deterministic; and the war (at least a world war) was avoidable. Whether you agree with that or not, this means you'll get a rigorous attempt to re-create the political, social and military atmopshere of the time. You're not getting history based upon memoirs of defensive politicians in the 1920s.
posted by spaltavian at 6:21 AM on December 31, 2013

Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer bookends Goodbye to All That (Robert Graves even appears in Sassoon's book as 'David Cromlech'.)

Filmwise, there is Gallipoli and La Grande Illusion/Grand Illusion.
posted by gudrun at 6:28 AM on December 31, 2013

Rilla of Ingleside is about a Canadian girl who comes of age during WWI. She's Anne of Green Gables youngest daughter
posted by spunweb at 7:10 AM on December 31, 2013

Absolutely you should read Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That.

I'd like to make this the year I start reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel trilogy, which begins with August 1914. The textual history of the novel includes later expansion and editing, so you might want to look for the latter 2000 FSG edition if you're buying a copy.
posted by Jahaza at 7:39 AM on December 31, 2013

2nding Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, and yes, it's a tetralogy. I would give you permission to skip or skim the last of the books, "Last Post." Without giving it away, I read the whole last book hoping for something to happen. Finally, something did, which has been foreshadowed throughout the book, but the intervening wasteland was not redeemed thereby. The first three books are far superior.

I would also make a recommendation, rare for me, to watch the dramatization first - the BBC recently did an excellent mini-series (in which they completely omitted the 4th book). It's available on Netflix streaming, and stars the utter effing brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (famous for Sherlock, and being the latest ST movie villain), who just *is* Christopher Tietjens, the main character. While it naturally omits some things in the book which are well worth reading, I found reading the book (which I did before watching the show) a slog at times due to its fractured chronologies, etc.

For non-fiction, if you're up to a densely written, long history of it, there is Cataclysm by David Stevenson.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:45 AM on December 31, 2013

Three books that are not about war, but of the period.

Halifax explosion: Curse of the narrows
Spanish Flu epidemic: The Great Infuenza
Boston Molasses Explosion: Dark tide
posted by Gungho at 7:53 AM on December 31, 2013

The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook.
Also, thr Imperial War Museum has audio of interviews of soldiers from WWi, as well as photos, etc.. As I'm working on a doc about the Christmas Truce, I've been fascinated with the entire site.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:06 AM on December 31, 2013

Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:09 AM on December 31, 2013

Best answer: There's a narrative feature about the Christmas Truce, Joyeux Noel, that you might enjoy.

On Five Books, Geoff Dyer was asked to give his opinion of five wonderful "unusual histories" and one of them he cited was The Beauty and the Sorrow. Here's the excerpt from the interview with him about that book:

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow is more conventionally history in the sense that it looks back, but it’s also unconventional in the sense that it’s deconstructing [the First World War] into individual experience – he even describes it as “anti-history” in his foreword.

This is a very recent book – it came out towards the end of 2011. He has uncovered and found out about the lives of 20 different people from different parts of the world – some are combatants, one is a doctor, there’s this cast of characters – and he narrates the war chronologically through their experiences of particular days. This gives a real sense both of people being at the mercy of history – they’re not major actors in what’s going on – but they’re also completely shaping our view of what’s going on. I should say also that each person’s experiences are narrated with novelist-like techniques. The prose is very like that which we encounter in fiction. He also quotes a lot from their diaries.

But then quite an interesting thing happens. We have in our heads a pretty well-defined narrative of the First World War, and there are certain events that are obviously key. But one of the interesting things about this book, and perhaps one of its shortcomings, is that for us the absolutely key day of the First World War is the 1st of July 1916 – the first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties – and in the context of this narrative it never happens, because coincidentally none of the people he’s chosen are there. It reconfigures the history of the First World War – it’s subtitled “An Intimate History” – and we’re very much at the mercy of these people’s experiences, but I think there is this slight problem with it.

It reminds me of those documentaries called things like “The Second World War in Colour”. Let’s take a series like “The World at War”, where you have the argument and then people will find the footage to illustrate the argument, the narrative. But when you’re doing a programme like “The Second World War in Colour”, the nature of the war is determined completely by what colour footage is available. Not surprisingly, therefore, since a lot of the Pacific war is filmed in colour by the Americans, that gets rather more emphasis. And some events completely drop out of history, because they’re not in colour.

He said that he wasn’t intending it to be a book about what World War One was, he was intending it to be a book about what World War One was like.

Indeed, that’s right. And there’s a lot of suspense to it as well, because we know the main narrative of the war – which is basically that Germany loses and Britain wins – but within that big narrative people’s individual experiences can often have no relation to it at all.

The book is structured with short chapters, turning the eye of the narrator between these 20 dramatis personae. And as you say, sometimes it feels like a novel in the way it’s written – it sort of exemplifies the tense historic present. Is that novelistic quality to it something which you admire?

I admire that aspect to it, but what I also admire is the way in which it’s not a novel. We can imagine that if it had been a novel, we’re quite familiar with this device where there are maybe six different narrative voices, they’re completely dispersed – one person is in Mesopotamia, the other is in the Arctic – and as the novel goes on we know that these disparate characters and different voices are all at some point going to converge. But that convergence never happens. They remain dispersed, disparate, separate people.

It seems to me that it’s not only a new way of doing history, it’s a new way of giving form to people’s lives without relying on the, I find, increasingly weary conventions of novelisation. But in terms of the prose, the visualisation of scenes and the imaginative rendering of documented events, it’s very novelistic.
posted by janey47 at 11:06 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The best general history of the war is now being written by Hew Strachan; I have his single-volume survey The First World War (Viking, 2004), which is superb, but eventually I want to read all the detail in The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms (Oxford, 2001) and its expected sequels.

> I'd like to make this the year I start reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel trilogy, which begins with August 1914.

I've read the first two volumes, which are powerful but very long and filled with Russia-specific detail that may be excessive for someone primarily interested in the war as such. For the Russian impact on the war, I can recommend The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin, which I'm reading now; it's essential for its correctly positioning Russia as at the center of both the war's origins and its development (Russia, for instance, was the moving force behind the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, which was intended to accomplish its main war aim, the seizure and occupation of Constantinople and the Straits, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement should really be called the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agreement), though I'm dubious about his blaming Russia more than Germany for the outbreak of war (I'm withholding judgment till I finish the book).

For poetry, I second drlith's recommendation of David Jones's In Parenthesis (and for more poetry, see this post).
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Johnny Got His Gun.. The movie is also good.
posted by Rash at 1:31 PM on December 31, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! Looking forward to digging into all these good books.
posted by brookeb at 9:02 PM on January 1, 2014

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