Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Do Mention the War . . . but differently

This is a postscript to the Ian McEwan/On Chesil Beach/Atonement blog a few weeks ago.

I said I was fed up with the same middle-class characters and their wartime lives, but I am very interested in 1940s Britain, perhaps more about the Home Front than the battlefield these days. If the battles/theatres of operation are less well known, however, I can get very involved.

I was greatly looking forward to Sarah Waters' The Night Watch. I'd found Fingersmith interesting and enjoyable, but not totally gripping. The Night Watch promised to be about the kinds of characters and experiences that intrigue me. I did have problems reading it -- simply finding long periods when I could concentrate. Unfortunately, because of its reverse narrative structure, this meant I didn't really appreciate what she was trying to do in structural terms. However, unlike with the McEwan (and unlike several of Amazon's reviewers) I did find the characters interesting and there were many times when I was both emotionally involved and intellectually challenged to understand the conditions in wartime London. The abortion scene was realistic and moving to the extent that I was looking for the literary equivalent of watching the cinema screen with my hands over my eyes -- unfortunately there is no equivalent of just listening to the soundtrack, so I had to skip a few pages. Waters lists all her research sources and what a fascinating list it is. The highest praise I can think of is to say that the abortion scene shocked me as much as the one in the film version of Alfie (1965) and that the general evocation of London in the 1940s was as vivid as in the contemporary 1940s novels of Nigel Balchin such as A Sort of Traitors (1949) and in particular the film adaptation of The Small Back Room (book 1945). I got hints of Iris Murdoch's Under The Net (1954) (the sequence by the Thames) and of Orwell's 1930s novels such as Coming Up For Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Of course, when I looked at those novels again, the style was completely different, but they all painted the same kinds of pictures in my imagination.

My partner's book club also discussed The Night Watch and someone suggested that it would be the perfect book to read again. I must remember that and go back to it when I can do it justice.

As for other theatres of war, I've just finished Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast, a Norwegian thriller with a plot involving an elderly fascist assassin who as a 20 year-old had been in the Norwegian division of the Waffen SS fighting on the Eastern Front in 1943-4. The extent of Norwegian collaboration with the Nazis and the involvement of young fascists in the fighting was a revelation to me and sent me off to learn more about similar units from other countries. I'd known vaguely about this, but not in this kind of detail or with this kind of interpretation (i.e. again a complex and humanist account, suggesting a range of motivations for joining the German army). This also tied in with my growing awareness of the history of fascism and Nazi sympathisers in Sweden courtesy of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander crime thrillers/detective/procedurals. Film adaptations of these novels would be good, but I guess they are more likely to be made for Swedish/Norwegian television. Thinking I must research this, I discovered a link to Slavoj Zizek's website to find a typically infuriating but fascinating critique of Mankell's work.

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