A Novel of the Great War

I’ve been largely absent from these pages over the last year, in part because of work and family commitments, but also because a writing project has been eating up a great deal of my time which might otherwise be spent blogging. That project is now in the open, so I’m hoping to contribute here a little more often. I also thought that the project itself might be of interest to some here, since one of the things that TAC is generally strong on is military history.

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Some years ago, I asked my co-blogger here Donald McClarey to recommend a good history of the Spanish Civil War. He recommended several, but he said that to his mind the best book to read was a novel, The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella. I read it, as well as some actual history books on the period, and he was right. Yes, the history books gave me more in terms of dates and numbers and places. But Gironella’s massive novel gave a real sense of why people on both sides fought the war and how it changed them. Reading it helped me understand what the war meant in human terms. The novel was not just set during the Spanish Civil War, telling about some specific characters’ experiences during it. It took on the war itself as a character and sought to bring the reader to an understanding of it.

The genesis for this project goes back far enough that I’m unable to put a precise date on it. I first became fascinated with World War One in high school, when I read the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, and although my interest waxed and waned over the years it’s always had a draw for me. It’s hardly a unique insight to say that the 20th Century was forged in the furnace of the Great War, but I don’t think it’s any less true for being commonplace. The idea of a big novel, or a series of novels, that dealt with the war, with characters on all sides, started to grow on me, and as I read more books on the topic I started putting in post-its and taking down notes for what turned out to be this project.

As my characters and their stories began to take shape, I quickly realized that the problem was not finding enough material to make a good novel, but rather limiting my material to make it even vaguely manageable.

First off, I decided that this would deal only with the European war in the narrowest sense. The Italian Front, which has been written about by authors ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Mark Helprin, makes no appearance in this novel. I’ve also left out Gallipoli and the Middle East, and even the Balkans in which the conflict began. My canvas is restricted to the Western Front in France and Belgium, and the Eastern Front in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

My second major choice was to leave the English speaking peoples almost entirely out. This isn’t a matter of interest or significance. The British war writers are justly famous, and without the contribution of British, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi and eventually American troops, the war would have gone very differently. But because the British war experience, or at least a certain interpretation of it, is so well known to English speaking readers, I wanted to focus on less familiar territory. Soldiers from the English speaking powers will be seen in the novel, but I don’t have any among my main characters.

The novel centers on four sets of characters:

Henri and Philomene live in a small town in northern France. When Henri is called up as a reserve officer, the family becomes divided by the German occupation of northern France.

Walter works in a Berlin bicycle factory. An offer of a foreman’s job seems poised to lift him to a higher level, while putting him in conflict with his union agitator friends, when war breaks out.

Natalie is a Polish/Russian girl raised in a French convent school for the education of the “natural daughters” of gentlemen. She has just returned to her homeland to work as a governess when the war breaks out.

Jozef is studying for the Austro-Hungarian civil service when the war with Serbia seems to offer an escape from his mother’s domination.

The novel is being published as a serial, with two sections being put up per week. You can read the first installment here. All four installments published thus far can be accessed via the table of contents on this page, and further installments can be seen there, or via the project’s Facebook page.

Here’s the opening of the first section:

It was the summer of 1914, and Philomene sensed that family peace was threatened by her husband’s mustache.

Henri stood, hunched slightly forward, before his shaving table. He had finished with his razor, splashed his face with the aftershave whose scent she liked so much, and now he was plying a small bristle brush in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, shaping the mustache which he was growing back before joining his reserve regiment for summer maneuvers. His suspenders hung empty at his sides, and she could see the outline of his shoulder blades through his summer undershirt. She tried to judge if those shoulders were tense, if he was still angry. She wanted to go to him, to run a hand over those shoulders, to pull him close and say, “I love you, Henri. I do want you. I do, but–”

It was that but which hung between them, making the two paces between his shaving table and her dressing table seem a gulf.

That morning, as the sun of a summer morning had streamed in through the lace summer curtains of the bedroom, Philomene had lain awake, looking at her husband’s sleeping face, and thinking of the past. She was intensely glad that she was no longer an officer’s wife. No more long, lonely days in small lodgings in some depot town far from home. No more slights toward her accent or her religion from other officer’s wives. And yet, seeing the mustache again, Philomene felt herself drawn back twelve years: Mademoiselle Philomene Mertens on an easter-season visit to Paris, and the army officer with his mustache and crisp blue and red uniform who had approached her as she sipped coffee in a cafe and bowed to her with a smile she never after that moment forgot.

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  1. Very much looking forward to reading this. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Sassoon, a fictionalized account of his own experiences in the War, began my taste for WWI novels! I have always regretted that neither CS Lewis nor Tolkien tried their hand at a WW I novel, but I think for many veterans too much pain was involved in remembering things they would much rather forget.

  2. My favourite WWI novel is Les silences du colonel Bramble by André Maurois. There is a good English translation by Thurfrida Wake (The Silence of Colonel Bramble)

    Maurois, like the novel’s protagonist, Aurelle, had served as a liason officer with the British army and the novel is a masterpiece of wit and of affectionate, but not uncritical, observation of the British character from a French perspective. Maurois could depict the comédie humaine, even amid the horrors of the Western Front.

  3. I’ll have to take a look for Silence of Colonel Bramble.

    Up until I got going on this project, I’d only ever read English novels about WW1 (starting with Sassoon’s war trilogy), so one of the interesting experiences was reading French, German and Austrian novels dealing with the war.

    The most interesting one I read, though the writing style is definitely dated, is Invasion by French author Maxence Van Der Meersch. Van Der Meersch, as his name suggests, is from the very northern corner of France, in Lille, near the Belgian border. Invasion deals with the lives of a huge number of intersecting characters in occupied Northern France. Published in 1937, it was also written as the second war loomed. All around a fascinating read.

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