1914 Goodbye to All That edited by Lavinia Greenlaw

1914 Goodbye to All ThatThe sum is less than its parts…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

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45 thoughts on “1914 Goodbye to All That edited by Lavinia Greenlaw

  1. I know exactly what you mean, FictionFan. If you’re going to collect essays or stories, it’s best if they have a solid unifying theme, where you can see the connection among them. I am glad you found a few essays to enjoy, though. Certainly sounds as though, as individual pieces, they’re worth a read.

    • Yes, several of them were well worth reading. It’s a pity that the theme wasn’t more clearly defined – the link to WW1 weakened the collection rather than unifying it. Oh well!

  2. So kind of you to NOT add to my TBR, even though the stories you picked out sound theoretically interesting. This might be one I pick up eventually from the library, and never do a review of……..

    • Yes, I thought at first that it was going to be better than it turned out to be, and some of the essays are definitely worth the read. But overall, I think there are better books that say more about either WW1 or personal experience of conflict rather than trying to do both…

  3. This is an unusual concept for a book, if the writers are not going to write directly about their own experiences of conflict, or the influences of conflict. There are many, many beautiful, brutal and extraordinary works in this field already. The ones you highlighted do sound rather good, it’s just a shame about the other more ‘forced’ ones.

    • Yes, the ones where the writers wrote about their own experiences and didn’t try to link back to WW1 were definitely the most effective. But the idea that WW1 is still influencing current writers is a bit of a stretch too far…

      • It is a bit of a stretch. As much as I believe it is important that we never allow society to forget WWI, trying to present it in that manner somehow lessens the impact. A worthy concept, nonetheless.

  4. So many good books written by people who were there, if anyone wants to know what WW1 was like. If one wants a collection of essays on experiences of conflict, why link it to WW1? I hear the ringing of cash registers!

    • Indeed! The ones where the authors talked about their own experiences of more modern conflicts were much more effective. A disappointment that the editor and publisher tried to cash in on the anniversary – especially considering the republication last year of so many writings of the time.

  5. As some may know (I didn’t until I happened upon the book), “Goodbye To All That” is a book written by Robert Graves about his experiences in the trenches of World War I. So Ms. Greenlaw has borrowed the title, for whatever reason, to collect essays which apparently have very little to do with WWI, or 1914, I have the Graves book on tape, read by the excellent Martin Jarvis; and the only thing which has kept me from listening to it yet, is that it is supposed to be very harrowing.

    It seems to me that if one wants to put together some essays on war itself, or try to have a “diverse” book full of different cultural experiences, one should not title the book, “1914,” and then take the rest of the title from someone else’s autobiographical account of fighting in that awful war. In some sense, it minimizes the purported subject. All wars are horrible, certainly in terms of the killing and maiming of people. World War I, the product of a century of cheerful political gamesmanship among the crowned heads and prime ministers of Europe, is so horrifying because ultimately it was a generation of young men who were forced to play out the implications of what had been a sort of freindly chess game among people who were literally related to one another. (For a great evocation of all of that, the series “Fall of Eagles,” on DVD, is very worthwhile). So then things were so intertwined that no one had the capacity or courage to avoid the war in which about 15 million people were killed. And they spent nost of the war fighting over six miles or so of “no man’s land,” as older jingoists on all sides kept throwing more and more young men into the carnage. And that is the essence of the horror of WWI, which this book seems to ignore, despite its showy title.

    • That’s exactly it – by choosing to title the book this way, the editor/publisher not only set up expectations in the mind of the readers but also seems to have inspired some of the authors to try too hard to make links with their own lives that don’t exist. There have been too many wars in between for WW1 to still be influencing writers, unless they are specifically choosing to write about that conflict from a historical perspective. The ones where the authors ignored the WW1 link and wrote instead about their own or their families’ experiences of later conflicts were much more effective, and moving. I felt it was rather cheap to try to cash in on the anniversary in this way. Especially since some great books were published last year – new histories, and lots of writing from the time. The surprise isn’t really that the collection failed, but that some of the authors managed to make excellent contributions despite the brief. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend the book just for those few essays…

    • I loved that entire essay – very insightful on how it affected the people who chose the ‘wrong side’, usually for motives of survival rather than any kind of agreement with the Nazi philosophy. Plus he wrote beautifully…

  6. This is another that fails to grab me, FF. I’m pretty sure you’re spot on in your observation that it sounds like an attempt to cash in on the anniversary of WWI. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of books available that better detail those sad years, so this one is superfluous. I’m glad you found some of the essays interesting — and even more glad you read this instead of me, ha!

    • Haha! Yes, I’m afraid I was disappointed in it overall. I read quite a lot about WW1 last year as books were coming out for the anniversary, and some of them were excellent. But they were directly about the war instead of trying to stretch it in this false kind of way. The Telegraph Book of WW1 was a collection of writing from journalists at the time, and was much more effective in shedding light on the impact of the war both on writing and on life in general than this one was…

  7. I agree with your assessment of this collection as an overall project but I did find some essays particularly moving. I concur with you on the Ali Smith but did not care much for the Kamila Shamsie contribution. I was aware that Bulyawalo was writing about her novel and if that was promotion I was sold and have moved her novel higher on my TBR. Having happily discovered Erwin Mortier this year I also rated his essay as one of my favourites but, although he does not specify, the story he tells is the factual background to his debut novel Marcel.

    What I did appreciate was the range of reflections that these authors offered inspired by, but not restricted to the anniversary of the start of WWI. After all wars are still with us, sadly.

    • I loved Bulawayo’s book but felt the essay was a bit pretentous to be honest. On the other hand, I added Shamsie to my TBR as a result of her essay! Ha! Just shows how individual reactions always are to this kind of thing. I’d like to read more of Mortier too sometime – I found that one very moving.

      Yes, I thought the authors who interpreted the brief to look at more recent conflicts worked better on the whole. And of the ones that dealt directly with WW1, Toibin’s was the pick of the bunch for me – he at least addressed the question of literary impact directly. A lot of good stuff in it, but just didn’t quite work for me overall.

      • I suppose with such a range of essays there is something for everyone here but as a whole it falls short. I did however read it on a long flight and it was a good varied read for that type of setting even if inconsistent.

  8. Not unusual, is it, for writers who’ve somehow been personally touched by an event to write more movingly about it. Sounds like this collection was a stretch, in some ways trying to educate without the authenticity of true personal experience. My son’s school invites people who were interned at Japanese internment camps in California to speak to kids at school. It makes a deep impression on the kids, so different from having their teacher lectured about how unjust it was. This book sounds short on experience, long on lesson.

    • Yes, I think trying to link it to WW1 was the real error. Had the “1914” been dropped from the title then the authors could all have done what the best of them did do – examine any conflict that had impacted directly on them or their families. WW1 is too long ago now for this kind of personal essay-writing, I think. Even WW2 will soon be too long ago, but at least a lot of work has been done in gathering personal testimony for video and audio – not quite as powerful as face to face, but still more impact than reading history books…

    • Happily, I’ve decided not to make you read this one! Interesting in parts, but not overall…

      But there were loads of them! How could I choose? Especially since it was 2.30 in the morning before I finished writing the review!

          • You absolutely did! So it’s sweet. Yes, I think books do that on purpose, just so they can’t receive a full ripping.

            Now I’m most interested. What is it? I should get a hint–and my beanie.

            • I know – it’s annoying. I haven’t had a proper 1-star ripio for ages…

              Oh, I don’t mean the book – just the author pic! It’s… the head shape… (though I must hastily point out that he’s one who might well pop in to the blog to read the review – he’s been here before. And he’s going to feel bad enough about the review… *laughs guiltily*) No beanie for you, o Dancing Professor – I ripped it out and gave the wool to Tuppence…

            • Time to read a Twain!

              *laughing lots* Hope he doesn’t see your comment! So, is that your way of saying, I mustn’t say anything vicious? Rats and a heifer. Dancing professor? Is this because the end of PG’s story? Dadblameit. My poor beanie.

            • *laughs* Not even to please you!

              So do I – but I’ve found most authors are completely self-obsessed, so I doubt he’d be interested in a review of someone else’s book. And now you’ve done a song specially for her too! Lucky PorterGirl! She owes you a beanie, for sure.

    • Yes, I did too – but the brief was so poorly designed that it left a lot of the authors stretching to try to meet it. Pity! But some of the essays are still very much worth reading.

  9. This sounds interesting, in the ones you’ve highlighted as being worth reading. But as you say, if the book is being classed as edited by, then you want it to be edited in a way that there is that feeling of cohesion. I’m glad you did get something out of it though.

    • Yes, some of the individual essays were very good, but the overall effect took away from the impact rather than adding to it. Pity – if the editor had given the brief in a slightly different way it could have been a much better collection.

  10. hmm this book would have lost me because of the appearance of cashing in on WWI – it sounds as though there are some interesting contributions though… especially that by the Belgium writer who spoke about the silence – that I would enjoy.

    • Yes, it had that effect on me too. I read a few books abotu WW1 last year with the centenary, but this is the only ine I felt was cashing in. Pity, because there are some good contributions, even if they weren’t really about WW1 at all, most of them…

  11. You know, even though I have a very strong feeling I would not enjoy the book I might just want to have it around me. Some of the essays sound interesting and I wouldn’t mind picking it every couple of months when I need to kill time

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