words to inspire before you expire

Tag: World War I


Hello again, class.

World War I and World War II are often lumped together as a collective global stain of history. They are so linked that WWII is usually seen as an extension of WWI, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other. It’s easy to forget that at the time, WWI was its own devastating conflict, worse than anything that had come before it and unimaginably tragic on its own.

That seems to be the driving motive behind author Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. In lumping together both World Wars, the identity of the first Great War gets lost in the past—Birdsong is about bringing that past to the forefront, lending focus to the social and cultural atmosphere at the time of WWI. The story is in its own way about uncovering history, using it to guide our present and plan our future while appreciating it for what it is, regardless of what happens next.

Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

Faulks wouldn’t be able to accomplish this without a supportive story, and good characters to populate it. It’s safe to say that Stephen Wraysford is Birdsong‘s main character—he is a man with a complicated upbringing coupled with a melodramatic love affair in his early 20s, who is thrust into the Great War. His relationships with other men in the war help to humanize the conflict, though with all the violence he sees, he is always questioning humanity and its destiny. He seems fairly determined to hide his past, though he isn’t ashamed of it, and his love affair plays an important role in his future.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where we meet a woman who is presumably his granddaughter—Elizabeth Benson, who shares some of the responsibility as main character. This 38-year old woman, having an affair of her own, is contemplating her place in life and decides to unearth her ancestral history. The novel jumps back and forth between Stephen’s perspective and Elizabeth’s, merging both points of view to appropriately assess the events of the war.

Author Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is historical fiction—not a dramatization of real events. A based-on-a-true-story approach might have worked just as well for the sake of realism, but Faulks isn’t interested in detailing who did what where. He created fictional characters to fill them with the spirit of the people involved. Birdsong is a human drama, not a war epic or a nonfiction account—those things would be about the war itself, which is just another conflict in our history. Birdsong instead tells a story about individuals, who bear the weight of a larger catastrophe and question their place in it all.

If it were boiled down to one thing, Birdsong is a story about the best and worst of human nature. Stephen constantly asks himself how far the people in this war are willing to go, and nothing he sees lets him rest easy. But humanity has its moments of redemption in the way individuals treat each other: the way soldiers treat fellow soldiers, the way Stephen treats those he loves, and the way Elizabeth is able to find love amidst the war of her past. Humanity can be a cannibalistic hunger, a vain and selfish ambition that threatens its own existence, but it can also be warm and compassionate, full of love and hope. Birdsong makes the list for portraying humanity at its ugliest and at its most beautiful.

I liked reading Birdsong a lot, which has maybe contributed to my distaste for the next book on the list—a novel by Martin Amis called Money: A Suicide Note. I know why it made the list, but all the same I haven’t enjoyed it at all . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“At first he thought the war could be fought and concluded swiftly in a traditional way. Then he watched the machine gunners pouring bullets into the lines of advancing German infantry as though there was no longer any value accorded to a mere human life. He saw half his platoon die under the shells of the enemy’s opening bombardment. He grew used to the sight and smell of torn human flesh. He watched the men harden to the mechanical slaughter. There seemed to him a great breach of nature which no one had the power to stop.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“None of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did were beyond the boundaries of human behavior. You would not believe, Jack thought, that the fellow with his cap pushed back, joking with his friend at the window of the butcher’s shop, had seen his other mate dying in a shell-hole, gas frothing in his lungs. No one told; and Jack too joined the unspoken conspiracy that all was well, that no natural order had been violated.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The Diary of Anne Frank

Hello again, class.

This isn’t a review or a critique of Anne Frank’s Diary—that’s not something I would consider appropriate for a book like this. The private journal entries of a teenager are a certain kind of sacred. There are parts about her Diary I don’t like, but they are a part of Anne Frank’s tragically cut-short life and deserve to be cherished.

The reason a book like this is published is not for something like literary merit or artistic value (though, miraculously, it has both anyway). The reason a book like this is published is to imprint the tragedies of history into the minds of as many people as possible, and to cherish the memory of a collective and personal loss. That also happens to be why it makes the list of 50 books to read before you die—not for the value of its content or structure, but for its universal need for recognition.

There is very little of the major story within the Diary, because that story happens mostly before and after Anne Frank’s writings—the text itself fills in the details of a story that’s already in place. I’m not taking any chances here—since we live in a world of Neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and “fake news,” I’m going to recap the moments in history that The Diary of Anne Frank is a concrete part of.

Anne’s story is about a Jewish family that goes into hiding because of the Nazi regime, a radical political party, spreading from Germany. The Nazis declared that Jewish people were responsible for German failures in WWI and were an inferior race, leading to the hunt for and capture of Jewish people. What started as a political movement became the systematic racial genocide known today as the Holocaust.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father (1968)

The Frank family hid in a small set of rooms behind a bookcase in a warehouse, along with four other individuals. They hid there successfully for two years, but before the end of WWII, the Franks were captured and sent to concentration camps. All but Anne’s father Otto died in these camps, and after regaining his freedom, he found the contents of his daughter’s diary. He decided to have the contents published.

The book serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the very human lives lost to history, despite the inhumanity with which those lives were portrayed by the Nazi party.

Which brings us to the Diary. Anne gets the blank diary as a birthday present in 1942, and she begins writing her everyday thoughts and feelings. Not long after, the family goes into hiding—most of her writings are various forms of cabin fever from the perspective of a teenager, which is equal parts boring, frightening, and inspiring. Anne is an amazing writer and an insightful (though never unbiased) person. She seems to always write with a purpose and represents childhood and youth in her own way. Even when the entry is dull, the writing is not.

I review her writing (like I said I wouldn’t earlier) because it was purposefully well-written. She writes about being a writer and about a future in journalism, and the Diary has stood the test of time partly because she wrote so well. This diary was her chance to practice her craft, and her craft is worth reviewing. She writes about her feuds with those hiding with her, her desires for romance, her thoughts on humanity, her daily routine, and her fears and doubts. Reading her diary is watching her transform over the course of two years in hiding.

And then the Diary ends, unceremoniously. The inhabitants of the “Secret Annexe” (as it’s known in English) were captured in 1944, and the writings of a young girl were ignored and left behind. The nature of the book’s ending forces a return to the historical facts of the end of Anne’s life. You’re reading it knowing that eventually, she will die—and then the book ends as incompletely as her life. The ending reshapes the Diary back into a historical artifact, along with the reports of her life in the concentration camp and the details known of her death.

The Diary itself doesn’t tell the story of Anne’s life as much as it reflects the vignettes that make up her experience—that of a teenager in hiding (which is special enough). But the statistics of her life and death, while telling a story, are heartless. Anne’s humanity is more alive in her own writing, which gives a voice to the millions of victims of the Holocaust that could only tell stories with the statistics of their lives and deaths. The picture on the cover of The Diary of Anne Frank becomes the face of this period in history.

And as important as that is, it tends to limit all that the Diary can be. The reason to pick up the Diary and start reading is because it represents one of the darkest moments in human history, and the book itself has a tendency to belong to that part of history. But it isn’t as dark as that—this book is one of the bright spots in an era of horror. The reason to continue reading it, once you’ve picked it up, isn’t to remember the Holocaust or the death of a child. The reason to continue reading it is to witness the unabridged beauty of a young girl’s voice.

The time I have put in to reading these books and writing these posts can feel unnecessary at times. Some of the books I’ve trudged through have felt like a bit of a waste. But The Diary of Anne Frank is one of those that restored me—I read it once in seventh grade, and it left very little impact at the time, so I’ve been willing to chalk it up as nothing more than an important piece of history. But reading it again helped me realize what I missed, and how important was. I’m happy I read it, and I’m happier I read it a second time.

Next up, I’m jumping backwards to read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I’ve always liked the story for exactly what it is, even if it was never that special to me, but its effects can be seen everywhere in our society today. I’m excited about diving into it again.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: To the Lighthouse

Welcome back, class.

I’ll start with the concerning fact that Virginia Woolf doesn’t have a single work on the list. And, to follow up: out of 50 titles on the list, ten are composed by women. So today is about Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf is one of those hallmark authors who stand out by reputation alone, regardless of sex as a qualifier, while still being one of the clearer representatives of feminism known in literature. The fact that she has no novel on the 50-books list highlights the fact that so many other women are left off of it, too.

So either the creators of this list actually tried and failed to find an appropriate amount of female authors, which hints at incompetence (hence, my Missing From the List posts); or, even worse, they deliberately chose all books by male authors and decided in retrospect to throw a bone toward diversity, and the female authors they did choose are featured simply to meet a diversity quotient (and that’s just considering female authors—for authors of racial and other minorities, you’ll have to hear this rant in a separate post).

Either way, the misogyny is strong with this one.

After such a rant, though, I have to admit I’ve only read one of Woolf’s works—but it was really good! To the Lighthouse is a beautiful work of modernist fiction that is special not because of the story, but because of its meaning and the way it’s told. For more on what modernism is, look at my previous post on it.

The Isle of Skye, where the action of To the Lighthouse takes place.

The novel is separated into three parts. Part 1, “The Window,” takes place on one evening in 1910, while the Ramsay family visits their vacation home on the Isle of Skye. We meet the characters and understand their complicated dynamics. Then there’s part 2, “Time Passes,” which is a fluid and ambiguous portrayal of ten years of time, encompassing World War I and the deaths of many major characters in the family. Finally, part 3, “The Lighthouse,” takes place on another evening in 1920, when the family returns to their vacation home as almost completely new people.

The story’s strength is it’s symbolism. The lighthouse represents an unreachable goal, and the terrible weather is the natural world that attacks and hinders humanity’s endeavors. The link between the two evenings, separated by ten years of time, is portrayed through the painting one character works on for those ten years, incomplete without the passage of time—just like the novel itself, incomplete without the strangeness of part 2, loosely stringing together the beginning and the end of Woolf’s novel. Through such symbolism, To the Lighthouse is careful, artistic, experimental, and wonderfully strange, and belongs on the list simply because of what it’s able to do.

Something I tend to forget about modernism is its obsession with time. Novelists from this period liked to portray the unreliability of time by reorganizing chronological order, speeding up and slowing down the story, and confusing a single moment with an eternity. Virginia Woolf fit right in with these modernists—entire chapters in parts 1 and 3 of To the Lighthouse take place in seconds, while part 2 speeds through ten years in no time at all. The action of parts 1 and 3 is also mostly internal, letting stream-of-consciousness explain characters and their motivations—something modernism all but invented.

Which brings me to a complicated point. In a lot of ways, this novel reminds me of Ulysses—need I remind you, one of my favorite novels ever. To the Lighthouse may never match Ulysses in my eyes, but it comes closer than most novels because it does everything Ulysses does (challenges convention, scrambles time, uses stream-of-consciousness to tell a better story, etc.), to the point that if I wanted someone to try Ulysses, I might have them read To the Lighthouse first.

And if To the Lighthouse accomplishes what Ulysses does, and it’s easier on the brain to boot, maybe To the Lighthouse should be on the list INSTEAD of Ulysses (which hurts me to write, I assure you). I’m noticing that there are works on the list that shouldn’t be read—studied or made aware of, absolutely, but not “cozy-up-with-on-the-couch” read. The BibleThe Divine ComedyThe Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses are each books on the list that make more sense as references and less sense as cover-to-cover reading challenges.

Author Virginia Woolf

On a list called “50 Books to Read Before You Die,” there should be books that readers can gain something from. Books like Ulysses fly a little to close to the sun for readers to enjoy, whereas a book like To the Lighthouse (while in no way an easy novel) allows readers the chance to fly as well.

To bring it back to feminism, and the lack of it featured on the list, here’s a post I made back in March (National Women’s History Month) on the great women writers I know.

Part of the reason To the Lighthouse should be on the list, even in place of Ulysses, is because it’s more accessible. But more importantly, Virginia Woolf’s lifetime statement on behalf of female authors allows To the Lighthouse to have something Ulysses only hopes to have: the voice of the female artist. This is more than the idea of a diversity quotient. This is about representation of female authors, and how statements of all kinds—novels, plays, poems, paintings, stories—when represented mostly by one kind of person, are incomplete statements.

I am still reading A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, another representative of modernism and of a minority—but more on that next class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey