Classics Club Spin #28: The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

Dulce et decorum est…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As 1937 draws to a close, we are introduced to three young men, very different in terms of social background and beliefs, whom we will follow through to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Christian is German, drawn to the Nazis because they have restored a sense of pride to Germany following the defeat of WW1. He passively accepts the anti-Semitism at the heart of the regime as something that simply is. Noel is an American Jew, who is left alone when his father, his only relative in the US, dies. He has heard something of what is happening to the Jews in Europe and is concerned, but he is also falling in love with Hope and that takes up most of his emotions. Michael is a theatre producer, wealthy and surrounded by shallow, artsy types who don’t appear on the surface to care much about anything. But Michael is already a little guilty that he hasn’t, as some of his friends have, gone to Spain to fight the fascists. Oh, he’s raised money for the fight, but as the Nazi threat grows he feels he should do more.

There is so much in this book, both in terms of incident and depth, that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review, so I’m going to concentrate on the things that most stood out to me, and strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

First off, the writing is superb, and Shaw uses beautiful control in the timing so that the thoughtful passages, of which there are many, don’t get in the way of the action, and vice versa. The book starts slowly, taking time to ensure we know these three men as they are before war has become a reality for them, so that we see throughout how their experiences gradually change them. He manages to be very even-handed, which surprised me in a book first published in 1948, so soon after the war ended. I don’t mean even handed between the Nazis and the Allies – there is no doubt in the book about the evil of the Nazi regime. But Christian is shown sympathetically at first as a patriotic German rather than a Nazi zealot, as of course most Germans were. And the Americans are shown warts and all, with a good deal of criticism for the army and the way the war was run.

Book 81 of 90

Christian is in the war from the beginning in 1939, whereas the Americans only came in after Pearl Harbor and even then it was a long time before they set foot in Europe, so for Noah and Michael most of their war is spent in relative safety, and by the time they are facing action in France it is against a force that is already beaten but not yet ready to admit it. So although they all face danger Christian is the one who experiences most and we see him gradually coarsened by what he witnesses, still patriotic, but losing his moral integrity as he comes to behave in ways he could never have imagined when he started out so full of pride. It’s wonderfully done – this destruction of a fundamentally decent man, poisoned by the evil of the regime he serves. By the end, Christian is monstrous but, because Shaw made us care about him in the beginning, it’s hard to hate him even while abhorring what he does.

‘I see several soldiers among the congregation and I know they have a right to ask, What is love for a soldier? How does a soldier obey the word of Christ? How does a soldier love his enemy? I say it is this way – to kill sparingly and with a sense of sin and tragedy, sin that is yours equally with the sin of the man who falls at your hand. For was it not your indifference, your weakness of spirit, your greed, your deafness earlier in the day which armed him and drove him into the field to slay you? He struggled, he wept, he cried out to you, and you said, “I hear nothing. The voice does not carry across the water.” Then, in his despair, he picked up the rifle, and, then, finally, you said, “His voice is clear. Now let us kill him.”’

Michael and Noah, on the other hand, grow from their experiences and although they become hardened to an extent, they are on the winning side, and Shaw shows how different that is. As the German forces fall apart and Christian faces the shame and despair of going home defeated, the Americans develop the camaraderie of men fighting for good against evil, confident of victory and a glorious homecoming, if only they can survive. But Shaw shows that there were atrocities on the Allied side too, not to the same degree, of course, but it gives the message that the potential is there just as much in America or Britain or France for evil to thrive as in Germany, if the circumstances arise. And he also shows that civilians suffer as much or more than soldiers, especially with the new horror of air warfare, and its bastard offspring – collateral damage and “friendly fire”.

There are many horrors, as is to be expected – deaths, injuries, atrocities, betrayals, despair – but portrayed with authenticity and without gratuitousness, and there is humour and friendship along the way which prevents the tone from becoming too unrelievedly bleak. There is a wonderful scene in London of a theatre company relentlessly continuing with their opening night performance of Hamlet as the air raid sirens wail and bombs explode outside.

Irwin Shaw

However, the thing I will remember most from the book is Shaw’s depiction of anti-Semitism, horrible enough when it’s coming from the Nazis, but so much worse when it’s perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be on the right side. Noah is victimised wherever he goes – in civvy street, by the men in his company, by hotel owners who won’t allow him and his wife to have a room on the rare occasions he gets a weekend pass. Shaw was an American Jew himself, and sadly this makes it all feel even more authentic. The Holocaust may have been exclusive to the Nazis, but again Shaw gets home the message that anti-Semitism is pretty much universal. I spent much of my time tear-drenched while reading this book, but there is one scene which I doubt I’ll ever forget when, on the Allies liberating a concentration camp – not one of the big ones, just a little local one – a Rabbi asks to hold a service for the Jewish dead, and other prisoners object. Even there, even after all they’ve been through together, they still hate the Jews.

A truly wonderful book, harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written, this one gets my highest recommendation. Thank you, Classics Club Gods, for making me read it!

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48 thoughts on “Classics Club Spin #28: The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

  1. I’m pretty sure my parents had this one one their bookshelves long, long ago. It sounds well worth seeking out. I remember being shocked at the level of post-war anti-Semitism in this country after reading a compliation of Mass Observation contributions.

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  2. I do appreciate it, FIctionFan, when an author presents characters and events in an even-handed way. It’s not easy to do that, especially in stories like this one, where it would have been very easy to depict Christian as an evil person from the beginning. The same goes for the Allied side; it would have been a lot easier to portray the Americans as simply brave, rescuing angels with no faults. That’s not how it was, though, and I’m glad Shaw does the era justice. And there’s nothing like a book that flows well!

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    • I was really expecting it to be Germans-bad/Americans-good given how soon after the war it was written and had geared myself up to accept that. So it was great to see him give a much more nuanced portrait of Christian – yes, he ended up doing evil things but we were shown why his character became so degraded, and also saw the effects of war on the Americans to a lesser degree. I didn’t know anything about this book – just picked it from various list of American classics, and I’m so glad I did!

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  3. I’m putting this directly on my TBR. I’ve heard of it vaguely before but never knew what it was about. I’m interested particularly in how good people slowly become able to do increasingly evil things because I think that’s something we see around us still.

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    • I hadn’t heard of it and picked it purely because it often appears on lists of American classics, and I’m so glad I did. While the Americans were both interesting characters too, Christian’s descent from patriotic pride to evil was brilliantly done, and yes, very much a reminder and a warning that basically good people can easily go bad if circumstances lead them that way.

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    • I only came across it on various lists of American classics, and stuck it on my CC list more or less at random. I was horrified to then discover it was over 800 pages long! But I’m glad now – it’s worth every one of those pages. 😀 Yes, sadly, anti-Semitism never seems to go away, even after we’ve all seen what it can lead to.

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  4. Thanks for your review FF, the outline of this book with its three perspectives had interested me and I’m pleased to find out it is so well written. It’s not been easy to find a copy to read, but think I will be able to access an ebook copy once I make the time for this long book. It’s absolutely a must-read for me. I like that it was written at the end of the war and its balanced perspectives. I’m really drawn to your comment about the “destruction of a fundamentally decent man” as I’ve long sought to get keep deepening my understanding of the idea of good people doing wrong in Nazi Germany. Thank you, this is not a book I was aware of before you mentioned it.

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    • I had trouble getting hold of this one too and ended up having to hunt down a second-hand copy. Seems odd, given its classic status. I only came across it myself when I was looking at lists of American classics for my first Classics Club list, and I’m glad I did – really one of the highlights for me! Although the American characters and their war are excellent too, it was Christian who stood out most – I loved the way Shaw let his moral decline show through his actions rather than pontificating about it. He felt very understandable and almost sympathetic even at the end, and that in itself is quite chilling. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, but be warned – have a plentiful supply of tissues handy throughout! 😉

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  5. So glad that this book turned out to be such a good read for you. Shaw isn’t an author I’ve read since I was a teen, but I can see his work may be worth exploring again. Your description also makes me curious about how this book was received here when it was first published.

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    • I’ve never come across him before – his books are hard to find over here. I simply stumbled across this one on lists of American classics when putting my first Classics Club list together, and I’m glad I did – definitely one of the highlights for me. I also wondered about how it would have been received. I expect ex-soldiers, especially conscripts, would have enjoyed the honest faults and all picture of army life, but I wondered about the rest of society who I feel might have wanted the heroes and villains to be more clear-cut so soon after the war. And I wondered how American readers would have felt about the depiction of their society as deeply anti-Semitic…

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    • I hadn’t heard of him either – it was one I picked purely because it turned up on a few Best American Classics lists. It really is well worth hunting down – hope you can find a copy when you get to it! (I’ll have to start planning my third list now that my second list is written in stone… 😉 )

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      • My library only have it as an eBook so I’ll keep an eye out at the Op Shops. Failing that, I’ll order it.
        No judgement here! I’m obviously from the same school of thought as you as my second Classics list is nearly filled but I’m still reading through the first.

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        • It’s fun though, and a great way to stop all the books that appeal over the years from getting forgotten next time. I had about twenty left over when I made up my second list, so they immediately went on to the third… 😉

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    • It’s well worth it, though the sheer size of it can make it feel a bit daunting. However once I got into it, I found I was quite happy to spend a long time with these characters, even Christian! Hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime. 😀

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    • I found it a bit daunting because of the sheer size, but it’s actually so well written that once I was into it I was quite happy to spend a long time with the characters. And while it is harrowing it’s never gratuitous. I had to get a second hand copy – no idea why a book as good as this should be so hard to get hold of!

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  6. I read this book years and years ago, so long ago in fact that I’ve forgotten many of the details. I do remember, however, that I liked it quite a bit. Although Irwin Shaw was hugely successful as a novelist, I think that his renown has faded with the years (common I think for many commercially successful writers) and this excellent novel isn’t now as widely read as it probably deserves to be. It’s nice to see that it still can be appreciated!
    On a different note, did you know there’s a movie version from the late 1950s/early 1960s? Again, I think it was very successful.

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    • I feel it’s a pity he’s drifted into relative obscurity, since I enjoyed this much more than several American classics which are still much better known. And I must say a lot of the themes seemed only too relevant to our contemporary problems! Yes, I had actually intended to do a Film of the Book comparison, but when I settled down to watch it, they had made so many quite significant changes even in the very beginning that I couldn’t bring myself to stick with it. I might try it again once the book isn’t so fresh in my mind and I can appreciate the film without spending the whole time annoyed at the changes! ;0

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      • I totally understand your reaction, as I usually feel the same way when I watch something that’s been “adapted” for movies or TV. I recently watched a BBC miniseries based on China Miéville’s The City and the City and bored Mr. Janakay a great deal by enumerating the (considerable) changes inflicted on the story. Sometimes I can understand the logic behind the changes but all too often so many of them seem pointless and distracting. Like you, I generally prefer to wait until the impact of the written work isn’t so fresh in my mind.
        I think the movie version of Young Lions was, like so many films of the times, primarily a star vehicle, which probably didn’t help matters.

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        • Sometimes it doesn’t bother me too much, but other times it makes the film almost unwatchable. I think it depends on how much I enjoyed the book, or how much I feel the changes affect the author’s underlying meaning. Ha, when I was young I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest several times because I loved it so much, and then tried to read the book and hated it! It took me decades before I could read the book unprejudiced by the film – but eventually I loved it too. So similar and yet entirely different!

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    • 1948, I think from memory, so he must have started writing it as soon as the war was over. I wish it was on the curriculum too, although it is very lengthy. But it would be a great way to let kids see the impact of anti-Semitism on the people it’s aimed at, among lots of other themes.

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