London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.

The Mapping of Love and Death, by Jacqueline Winspear

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Like many readers, I enjoy books that are part of a series. The initial plunge into the story is easy because the main characters are familiar, as is the world of the story. Winspear’s series featuring Maisie Dobbs starts in 1929 when Maisie sets up in business as an inquiry agent in London.

I find her a a delightful person to spend time with: calm, resourceful, full of common sense. She, like most of her generation, bears wounds from the Great War even ten years after the Armistice, at the start of the series. Her physical scars from the bombing of the medical station in France where she served as a nurse have healed. But her beloved Simon, a doctor who was more seriously injured in the same bombing, remains alive in a nursing home but brain-dead.

The other effects of the trauma she endured in France are heightened by the evidence of the war’s damage around her: the veterans who litter the streets, maimed in mind or body or both, often unable to find work; the women left without prospect of marriage after the decimation of a generation of men; the economic hardship and social uncertainty of a nation still measuring the cost of what’s more a cessation than a victory.

She also occupies a peculiar spot in England’s class structure, which at the time is still rigid if beginning to fray. Born to working class, she was placed in domestic service at 13, not uncommon at the time. However, once her employer Lady Rowan discovered Maisie’s yearning for education, she began supporting the girl’s education, roping in Maurice Blanche, a family friend who eventually trained her as a detective. Equally at home downstairs and upstairs, Maisie went on to enter Girton College, before leaving to enlist as a nurse.

In this outing, the seventh in the series, Maisie is hired by a wealthy couple from Boston whose son was killed in the war. His remains have just been found, a farmer having accidentally uncovered the bunker where Michael’s unit died under bombardment. Letters that he had on him, safely wrapped against the elements, indicate that he’d been having an affair with a nurse, and Michael’s parents are eager to find her to learn anything more about their son.

Taking on the task, Maisie must navigate the past, calling forth echoes of her own ordeals, as well as the present, with all of its dangers. Someone does not want her to succeed. She and her assistant Billy Beale are kept busy tracing out the various tentacles of the investigation while dealing with their own personal challenges.

The challenge for the writer of a series is that each book must show development of the main characters while at the same time ensure it can stand alone. There must be enough information from past books so the new reader is not lost, but little enough that the dedicated reader is not bored.

Winspear is adept at working in nuggets of explanation just when they are needed. I’m also becoming more appreciative of the character arc of Maisie across the series, as well as that of other characters, such as Billy Beale and his family, Lady Rowan and her family, Maurice Blanche, Maisie’s contacts at the police, and her one close friend Priscilla Partridge.

I started reading the series when it first came out, but lost track of it for awhile. Now I’ve started at the beginning and am reading straight through: a writer’s worst nightmare! Reading them in quick succession instead of waiting a year or more between them should make me quick to spot inconsistencies and be bored by duplicated information.

Instead, I have to marvel at the author’s artistry. I find Maisie’s development as a person even more fascinating than the cases she’s investigating—though there’s no lack of suspense and puzzles there. The real puzzle lies in us, the way each of us navigates our lives. This book, like the others in the series, demonstrates deep psychological insight combined with thorough research into the time period.

I admit it was my fascination with the Great War that first led me to these books, and they continue to add color to my own studies. But it is Maisie Dobbs who keeps me coming back.

Is there a series of books that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

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I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. As I’ve described in an earlier blog post, it seemed to me the moment when everything changed for western civilization. Of course the more I read about earlier eras, the more I see that such cataclysms were nothing new. Yet, there is something peculiarly wrenching for me when I think of the ranks of young men, blinded by visions of patriotic glory, being mown down into the mud of the Somme and Ypres.

What I haven’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead.

Vera Brittain’s memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became. Brittain generously quotes from her journals and letters, both her own and those received, to give us the genuine flavor of the time. She also includes a few poems written at the time by her and by her fiancé, Roland. I think it was the poems that moved me the most, with their distillation of emotion.

While the book is a daunting 600+ pages, I was irresistibly drawn forward by this mix of voices.


(from a letter to Roland) “One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation–with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”

No sudden gift of second sight showed me the future months in which I should not only contemplate and hold, but dress unaided and without emotion, the quivering stump of a newly amputated limb–than which a more pitiable spectacle hardly exists on this side of death.

For contrast, she gives us a bit of her early life, growing up in Macclesfield and Buxton. Desperate to escape the provinces and have a career, she resists the strong pressure of family and neighbors to leave school and marry young. Instead she sits for admission to Oxford, although by the time she gets in, the war has started; her fiancé and beloved younger brother have enlisted; and Oxford no longer seems relevant.

She becomes a nurse, and it is through the lense of her nursing career in London, Malta and France that we experience the war. In 1918 soldiers from the front tell her of seeing their mates who’d died on the Somme in 1916, saying “‘And it’s our belief they’re fightin’ with us still.'” She responds:


But at the time I merely felt cold and rather sick, and when I had finished the dressing I put down my tray and stood for a moment at the open door of the hut. I saw the Sisters in their white overalls hurrying between the wards, the tired orderlies toiling along the paths with their loaded stretchers, the usual crowd of Red Cross ambulances outside the reception hut, and I recognised my world for a kingdom of death, in which the poor ghosts of the victims had no power to help their comrades by breaking nature’s laws.

After the war, stunned by grief, going mechanically through her days, she finds meaning in working for peace, both as a journalist and for the League of Nations. She calls this the terrible responsibility of the survivors.


Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.

In this strong memoir, Brittain fulfills that goal. I look forward to finding the two sequels to it.

What book have you read that might teach our children to take the courage that has in the past been dedicated to war instead devote it to peace?

World War One: History in an Hour, by Rupert Colley

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the first Battle of the Marne on 5 September 1914, I want to mention this excellent introduction to WWI. Colley has written a number of these History in an Hour books intended to give you basic information about a subject in an easily digestible form. At only 60 pages and illustrated by photographs, this ebook provides an accessible and accurate primer on the war, from Sarajevo to the Paris Peace Conference. Appendices identify key people and provide a timeline for easy reference.

I've long been interested in this war and have three shelves of books on the subject to prove it. As Colley says in his Introduction:

This, the first ‘world' war, was not just about armies winning and losing battles, but whole populations mobilized for war, at the mercy of the enemy, civilians starved and bombed. It was an industrial war where a country's whole economic output was geared to war; a war of empires that pulled in combatants from nations across the globe. It was a war of land, air and sea, a war of politics, espionage, and also the Home Front. For the first time in history, this was total war.

For me, immersed in the literature of England as I have been all my life, August 1914 was when the world changed. It spelled the end of the British and Ottoman Empires, but more importantly it was when the long enlightenment ended and the modern era began, when notions of duty and honor were replaced by cynicism and disillusionment. At the outbreak of the war, Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, said, “ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Aside from facts memorised in school, I first came to the war through its poets: Rupert Brooke who died before he could lose his idealism, Wilfred Owen who learned to write a new kind of poetry in the trenches and mental hospitals, Siegfried Sassoon whose satiric poetry reflected his disenchantment, and others, all of whom seemed to know each other.

In “The Send-Off”, Owen wrote:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
. . .

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Once I started going to Europe and visiting the sites, I began reading more widely, memoirs, histories, even a modern guide to the war's locations. I became fascinated by the role played by supply chain logistics, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Russian Revolution, and the much-delayed entry of the U.S. Reading Timothy Findley's book The Wars brought home to me what wrestling with the mud must have been like. As Colley says of the Battle of Passchendaele, “guns disappeared into it, tanks sunk in it, a quarter of the men killed at Passchendaele drowned in it.” I began to understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s remark that the Dead Marshes where Frodo and Sam saw the faces of the dead looming up at them through the mud and water had their source in the Battle of the Somme.

And of course, the war was not won. It ended with an armistice, which as it turned out, only provided a breathing space until the war resumed as what we now call World War II.

With all I have read, I still found it good to come back and review the facts of the war in this short book.

Which WWI poets have you read?