Some thoughts on writing a story for Walker Books’ anthology The Great War. This piece first appeared in Carousel magazine.
In 2005 I published a novel set during the First World War; The Foreshadowing. Set in 1916, the denouement of the novel takes places during an engagement of the Battle of the Somme. This, and the novel in general, required me to do a lot of research, but about halfway through this period of reading and travelling and learning about the war, I had a sudden crisis: I don’t know exactly what brought it on, but I know when and where it happened. I was staying the night in a converted monastery in a small town in Picardy, having gone to scout the locations in the novel, when I had a nightmare. In the dream, the souls of the dead from the war rose up and were angry with me: how dare you turn our suffering into your pale fictions?! We were those who died; you will now profit from it! They railed at me and shouted curses; it was a truly disturbing dream.
Awake, the next day, I realised what it meant – I’d been feeling uneasy for some time about what is, after all, the essential act of a writer: to take truths, and make lies of them. Paradoxically, we do that to use those lies to tell truths, truths about life, but in the case of writing about the war, I felt anxious over the way as a writer of war fiction I had immersed myself in an ocean of awful things. As you read about war, it’s so easy to get swept along in the pornography of horror: as you learn about this horrendous battle, or some specific death, as you shudder from the comfort of your armchair about gas attacks, and lice, and amputations, and drowning in mud, it’s easy to become addicted to finding out just one more awful, awful thing.
I finished that book, however. It was too late to do otherwise, and I just tried my best not to glorify any aspect of war, at all, in any way. I also swore that I would not write on the war ever again. I was also immediately distrustful of novels that ‘use’ the Holocaust as a way of engendering absolute bad into the story. What worse horror can there be than the Holocaust? How easy then to give your book the power it might otherwise lack? This is a big subject and I have limited space here; let me just acknowledge that this is a complicated issue, but one that I feel strongly and very uneasy about.
I turned down three other requests to write a story about the First World War for publication in 2014. I finally agreed to Walker’s invitation, thinking it sounded a bit different from other more obvious projects, but even then, I was on the verge of picking up the phone two or three times to pull out.
The essence of the problem, in addition to the easy pornography of horror that I describe above, is this: war is senseless. Episodes of conflict do not have neat beginnings, trajectories, and endings. In short, they are not stories. But to make them work as a story you have to give them all those things. Francois Truffaut, the great French director, famously said, ‘you can’t make an anti-war film.’ What he meant is that any attempt to ‘storify’ a war turns it into something that it isn’t: neat, satisfying, conclusive, even if it’s saturated in horror and anti-war rhetoric. There are perhaps a couple of exceptions; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is almost without plot. It doesn’t follow a narrative arc; it does as close as job as possible to catching the senselessness of war.
Deciding I had left it too late to let Walker down, the challenge remained of how to write a war story when war is not a story. My solution was to find a way to talk about all these things but still, I hope, have a story that captured the reader.
It’s very important, when discussing such potent subjects, that we don’t get dragged into simplistic and divisive arguments – these are complex issues and complex arguments must be given space. It’s my fear that certain quarters of the media and of government are already using the centenary with relish to foist jingoistic emotions onto us. Feelings that should have died a hundred years ago as the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas got stuck in the mud of France and Belgium. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember. We absolutely must remember. But how we remember is vital, and that’s why I chose the title of my story for this anthology: Don’t Call It Glory.