Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: WWI

The Stranger’s Child: War Books [4/15]

I had been eagerly anticipating The Stranger’s Child and read it as soon as it came out in paperback. (Love the cover.) I’ve classified it as a war book for this reading project, although it isn’t a war book in the sense that my three previous books are. The story begins just before WWI and jumps forward in time. It is a novel about how history and family stories change over generations, and shows how times changed because of the war.

For the sake of clarity, the story is split up like this:

  • Part One: 1913 The main characters Daphne, George, and Cecil Valance
  • Part Two: 1920s Cecil is a war poet, the family live in a house called Corley
  • Part Three: 1960s/1970s Corley is a boarding school collecting items for a ‘museum’
  • Part Four: 1980s Characters from Part Three research a biography about the Valances
  • Part Five: 2008 Strangers are brought together for a conference/memorial

The first part of the book was definitely my favourite – I can’t get enough of this era at the moment! The way Hollinghurst writes about these grand country houses and bright young people is romanticised without being unreal, like nostalgia about childhood. It was a very atmospheric beginning to the book which would have been worth reading even if the rest of the book had been terrible (which it wasn’t). A frustrating, but unavoidable outcome of this book forever jumping forward in time is that you get really attached to characters who are dead in the next section and unfortunately the characters got less and less like-able down the generations.

I thought the different attitudes to the romantic relationship between Cecil and George were well written: Their relationship is obviously hidden at the time, but later revealed by the biographer. The differing reactions between family members and critics were amusing because everyone seemed to have their own agenda for their opinions, rather than the discovery of truth. An unavoidable aspect of humanity, really!

Reading this like a war book, I suppose the message would be that WWI stopped people in their tracks. The men who survived and the women at home carried on with lives when the war was over, but on a slightly different course. It was very much as though they sidestepped onto a path parallel to where they had gone if the war hadn’t happened. An interesting thought created by this book is that the people who are revered and celebrated for their deeds during the war can only have their stories told by other people. History is singing with lost voices.

All Quiet on the Western Front: War Books [3/15]

Now he is lying there – and for what reason? Everybody in the whole world ought to be made to walk past his bed and be told: ‘This is Franz Kemmerich, he’s nineteen and a half, and he doesn’t want to die! Don’t let him die!

All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that never loses force. Originally I was only going to read war books I hadn’t read before but why leave out the best? I have read this book before and am pleased to report that it is still just as devastating and worthwhile the second time around. I’m quite confident that by the end of this reading project I will still recommend this book as the one to read.

I won’t go into the plot, because I’m sure everyone knows the story: German soldier fighting on the Western front in WWI. The fact that the novel is about German soldiers highlights why we should commemorate all the soldiers who died in the war, not just the ones from our own country. The most important part of the book is that you could be reading about any soldier from either side. This post is heavy on the quotes because Remarque’s writing is somehow both horrific and beautiful, and puts into words what I couldn’t begin to articulate.

Paul Baumer is just about as experienced as you can manage to be for a front line soldier, which makes it easy to forget that he is only nineteen. During the battles he fights instinctively, acts compassionately, appears fearless. It isn’t until after the fighting stops that I remembered how young and destroyed he really is:

The trucks roll monotonously onwards, the shouts are monotonous , the falling rain is monotonous. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead men up at the front of the truck, on the body of the little recruit with a wound that is far too big for his hip, it’s falling on Kemmerich’s grave and it’s falling in our hearts.

That is the quote I remember best from reading this book a few years ago. It completely captures the sheer despair and futility of these soldiers prolonging their lives. Yes, they can survive one battle but in order to face what? Paul and his comrades occasionally talk about what they would do if the war finishes and the answers tend to revolve around satisfying the body; girls, food, alcohol, sleep. Any discussion beyond that is depressing; they are the lost generation and they know it.

We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; We believe in the war.

The absorption of young men’s lives into the war is something I don’t always consider when thinking about war novels. Yes, most of their time is taken up with fighting and whilst they get leave to see their families perhaps this isn’t the relief you might have thought it was. The soldiers think about home with nostalgia – firmly anchored in the past:

The [memories] are silent because that is something incomprehensible to us. There is no silence at the front and the spell of the front is so strong that we are never away from it. […] The quietness is the reason why all these images awaken in us not so much desire as sadness – a vast and inexplicable melancholy. These scenes existed once – but they will never return. They are gone, they are another world, a world that is in the past for us.

Surprisingly some of the most upsetting parts of the novel happen when Paul is at home on leave. The soldiers have an unspoken, unanimous decision to never reveal the reality of what happens at the front to their families. Consequently Paul has to see and do horrible things and never speak of them to anyone who cares about him, which makes for agonising reading. Is it better that his family didn’t know what his life had become? Does morale win wars or prolong them?

Can there ever be a novel that should be required for everyone to read? Are the World Wars a Western concern? Completely simplifying what could be a lengthy argument, my opinion is that war is war and everyone should know what it really costs.

A Farewell to Arms: War Books [2/15]

I picked A Farewell to Arms to follow Birdsong because I thought the two books would be quite different. Hemingway is writing in part from his own experiences as an American soldier in the Italian army who whilst fighting for the same side is likely to have faced different situations from an English soldier in France. There were great differences in the authors’ writing styles. Hemingway is cold and clinical with description whereas Faulks does not shy away from long descriptive passages. I thought both books were very moving, but for different reasons: I knew the characters in Birdsong, I was attached to them, and I was given a lot of sensory detail about their situations. A Farewell to Arms was completely different: The matter of fact way that Hemingway describes events makes reading them feel like you are being punched in the stomach.

What made this book stand out for me against other WWI novels was its portrayal of the relationship between Catherine and Henry. Unlike Stephen and Isabelle in Birdsong, romance was flesh and blood in this soldier’s life and not just a haunting memory. However, I’m struggling to work out what Hemingway means by writing women the way he does. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Catherine was the weak link in A Farewell to Arms and I think I’m inclined to agree. She seems to be slightly unnatural, maybe a bit one-dimensional. What is she really like? I’ve no idea.

The last thing I picked up on when I read A Farewell to Arms was how many soldiers died outside the battlefield. They were shot by superiors, caught the flu, starved, or succumbed to medical complications. Death takes on a completely different meaning during wartime and the grim reality of dying seems to spiral out of control.

What makes this such a worthy war novel is the ending.


Catherine and the baby dying hammers home the message that no good has come of this war. No new life, no regeneration – what has been destroyed by war will always have been destroyed. If Henry had gone on to live a happy life with wife and child the book wouldn’t have been the same at all – you can’t un-see things, you can’t undo war.

Birdsong: War Books [1/15]

The reading project has officially begun: I am reading the WWI books first, and have started with Birdsong  by Sebastian Faulks.

Birdsong  is written with three story lines that intertwine: It begins in 1910 with a love affair, travels underneath the trenches over 1916-1918, and ends with a granddaughter in the 1970s. From reading around, this book seems to be one that divides opinion. However, I loved it and think it is a very accomplished modern story about the war.

I was surprised when the book began with a budding relationship but I think it helped to understand the characters before they were thrown into some very extreme circumstances. Giving an insight into people’s lives before the war helped me to imagine the sort of thing men might have been fighting for and I liked how Faulks included the men’s letters home. What separates this novel from others I have read before was the focus on the tunnels underneath no man’s land. There were miners on the British and German sides tunneling towards each other with mines to plant. Reading these parts of the book was so uncomfortable – Faulks is really good at making you feel completely claustrophobic.

There is a really moving paragraph written about the aftermath of Battle of the Somme:

Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened, he could hear what Weir had meant: it was a low, continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for half a mile or more. As his ear became used to the absence of guns, Stephen could hear it more clearly: it sounded to him as though the earth itself was groaning.

‘Oh God, oh God.’ Weir began to cry. ‘What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it. We’ve done something terrible, we’ll never get back to how it was before.’

The book, like All Quiet on the Western Front, contrasts the fighting on the battlefields with elements of nature like the birds singing. I think this technique is so effective because it highlights war as an aberration in nature. It is these bits that stick in my mind as being particularly sad.

The only part of the book I wasn’t too keen on was the 1970s story. In it, Elizabeth is starting to learn about her family history around wartime. It seemed almost false, because Elizabeth seems to be pretty stupid – I mean, we learned about WWI at school, surely they did in the seventies as well? On the other hand, whilst I know bits about the war and have visited some of the battlefields in France and Belgium, I don’t know as much about what my own great grandparents did. This is something I would like to find out more about.

Next I am moving on to another WWI classic: A Farewell to Arms.

Now the Sun is Finally Shining, How About Some Books About War?

After my Tudor reading, I fancy a mini reading project based around War literature. There are obviously lots of brilliant books about a lot of wars around the world so I’ve narrowed my selection down to books written about WWI and WWII, as I find this period of history interesting.

I’ve picked eight books that are all on my Classics Club list. Two birds, one stone and all that, and this way I can also stick to my attempt to stop buying new books and read the ones I already have.

  • Faulks, Sebastian, Birdsong
  • Gibbons, Stella, Westwood
  • Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That
  • Grossman, Vasily, Life and Fate
  • Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms
  • Nemirovsky, Irene, Suite Française
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle
  • Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds

And will add to this list some novels written recently:

  • Beauman, Ned, Boxer Beetle 
  • Hollinghurst, Alan, The Stranger’s Child
  • Kerr, Philip, Berlin Noir
  • Littell, Jonathan, The Kindly Ones
  • Young, Louisa, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

So, thirteen books, six about the WWI and seven about WWII. I could read them chronologically, I could read the modern novels separately, I might read the two science fiction novels together. I’m not sure I’ll manage to read all of these in a row – I have an unspecified timeframe, but as you know I chop and change what my reading plans are whenever I feel like it. But if this works, I have similar lists for projects that I could start. I’m looking at you, gigantic stack of Edwardian novels…

The books have been moved to their new home – in an oppressive stack next to my bed. I’m feeling quite enthusiastic – it’ll be brilliant to have read all of these books. I am also quite curious to see if any of them will replace my current (I’m not sure ‘favourite’ is the right word) most admired war novel: All Quiet on the Western Front. If any of them even come close, I’ll be onto a winner because that book is truly astounding. Actually, make that fourteen books because I’ll have to re-read this one too.

Edit: I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of Regeneration by Pat Barker so now there are fifteen books!