😀 😀 😀 🙂
In her short introduction to this collection of essays, Lavinia Greenlaw tells us that, a hundred years on from WW1, the contributors, all prominent writers, were asked to consider what it means to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict.
“They were asked to consider the loss of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it means to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations.”
The fundamental flaw is that, of course, none of the contributors’ artistic lives were affected by WW1. Some of them discuss aspects of that conflict, but without the ability to speak of any personal impact from it, while others have opted to discuss other more recent conflicts which have affected either them or their parents or grandparents. So from the beginning I fear the title looks like a rather shabby attempt to cash in on the centenary of the Great War, and some of the essays feel forced, as if the authors have been stretching to find ways to suggest that their own literary lives have been influenced by it.
As a concept, then, I feel the book fails. However some of the essays are still interesting, especially the ones from authors who chose to interpret the brief fairly broadly. On the other hand, some of them are pretty poor, and really contribute very little to the subject under discussion. For example, Ali Smith imagines herself in conversation with her dead father (also too young to have been in the war), remembers snatches of war poetry from school, and wallows in a level of bathos that must reach down to the bottom of the Atlantic; while Jeanette Winterson indulges herself in a little pro-Marxist polemic and an appeal for funding of the arts. NoViolet Bulawayo chooses to quote extensively from her own novel We Need New Names, which seemed a touch self-promotional, but perhaps she’s just not experienced enough yet to write in this format. I guess, having selected such big names, it may have been hard for the editor to exert some form of control, but the lack of it means the collection overall has no feeling of an over-arching structure.
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Let’s move swiftly on to some of the better contributions…
Kamila Shamsie in Goodbye to Some of That discusses her own childhood and adolescence growing up in Karachi under coups and military dictatorship. She muses on how she transformed her own early memories of that period into what she calls her personal ‘Origin Story’, and that this influenced her to write exclusively about Karachi in her early works. She then discusses the thrill and terror of her first experiences of writing about other places and events outwith her own personal experience. The essay is very well written and addresses the question of how Shamsie’s literary life was affected by her own experience of conflict.
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In A Visit to the Magician, Daniel Kehlmann tells of going to see a stage hypnotist (a subject that he had discussed in his book F: A Novel). While there, he realises that only those willing to be hypnotised can be, and finds himself suddenly comparing this to how people allow themselves to follow dictators. The essay is exceptionally well written – in a short space, he manages to say a lot about the German experience under Hitler (although Hitler is never mentioned),and more widely about a large proportion of humanity being keen to be like everyone else and to follow orders from those who set themselves up as leaders.
Now he’s sending the trio back into the audience, and he starts talking about freedom again. Anyone who can mould the world according to his own desires is free: he can see what he wants to see, hear what he wants to hear; his reality is the reality that suits him. Hypnosis thus teaches that you don’t have to be a slave to reality.
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In In Search of Untold Stories, Elif Shafak talks of how in Turkey, not long after the end of WW1, they changed their alphabet from Arabic to Latin, and that as a result later generations have largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history. Apparently, the government went further – excising Arabic and Persian words from the language, and in the process losing much of the language’s nuance. This was something I didn’t know about, and found this real politicizing of language fascinating and thought-provoking.
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Another who told me about a part of history I was unaware of is Xiaolu Guo in Coolies. She describes the recruitment of 100,000 Chinese coolies by the British and French to dig trenches during WW1. They were treated more or less as slave labour, given numbers by their masters who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) pronounce their names or distinguish them from each other, and thousands died, their graves marked with their number. While this is more a historical point than anything to do with literary impact, I found it interesting to see how WW1 is seen from a different perspective.
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The essay that touched me most was The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing by Erwin Mortier, a Belgian writer. This is a beautifully written and moving account of the silences in his family – about his grandmother and great-uncle who collaborated with the Nazis. He discusses how those silences shaped how he thought and felt about language. Silence, he suggests, does not lead to forgetting, it just prevents a resolution.
Writing, I have learnt, is not intended to solve riddles. It is speaking and silence at the same time, my way of dealing with the community of sealed lips. Not by breaking them open, but by giving them a farewell kiss and making their silences audible.
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While I think the collection failed in its aim overall, in fact failed to have a clearly defined aim, I’m glad to have read the essays I’ve highlighted, each of which individually would rate 4 or 5 stars from me. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the poorer ones brings my overall rating down to a rather more lukewarm 3½.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.