Far Outside and Deep Within: More Novels on World War II

by Carol Gluck – May 1, 2015

Public Books

Even in the paroxysm of publishing around the centennial of the First World War last year, novels about the Second World War dominated, as they usually do, historical fiction about the 20th century. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, I binge-read a slew of books published in the past two years or so, most but not all of them in English, several of them sanctioned literary prizewinners, to see how the war was faring in contemporary fiction. As a historian I confess to an ulterior motive: I read historical novels to learn about history. I am a believer in the truths to be found in fiction, not one to dismiss films like The Imitation Game for “glaring inaccuracies” or worry that Slaughterhouse Five mistakes the number of casualties in the firebombing of Dresden. These truths not only purvey what some French scholars call “literary knowledge” of the past—it’s the way this knowledge is filtered through personal and collective memory that makes fiction a form of truth-telling about the present as well.

All the books in my stash of war novels revolve around the relation between the individual and history, a fitting concern for fiction, which can at least imagine what people might have felt and thought as they made their way through situations neither of their making nor amenable to their influence. The authors give their characters choices—flight or fight, go along or resist, cower or contend: in small ways or large, in words or in deeds, people make decisions that affect themselves and others. Still, the weight falls on the side of history, or sometimes on luck, which so often determines survival on the battlefield. In the Wolf’s Mouth, the title of Adam Foulds’s wartime novel, refers to an Italian proverb to which the response is “may the wolf die”—that is, you’ll live if you’re lucky. In The End of Days Jenny Erpenbeck describes how “processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature … can infiltrate a private face,” constituting a language that involves “a constant translation between far outside and deep within,” if with a different vocabulary for each person. Far outside is history, deep within is ourselves. To symbolize the ultimate outcome of that translation between history and the individual, Erpenbeck summons the image of a beetle, “emerging from nowhere, on the way to nowhere,” which passes the time by climbing to the top of a grass blade and then back down again. The blade of grass bends under its weight at the tip, “almost imperceptibly, since the beetle’s weight was so slight, but still it was something.” Once the beetle has climbed down, the grass stalk stands erect again, as if had never been bent at all. We are the beetles; history is the endless field of grass.

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