PEN World Voices 2014: Literature of the Great War

By Nadia Kalman

7 pm, Wednesday, April 30
The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square
Participants: Geoff Dyer, Justin Go, & Liesl Schillinger
Moderator: Janne Teller
Co-sponsored by Cooper Union, Melville House, and New York Review Books Classics.

 

 

When someone in the ticket line compared navigating tonight's rainy weather to trench warfare, I knew I was in the right place: the "Literature of the Great War" session of this year's PEN World Voices Festival.

Janne Teller, an award-winning Danish novelist of Austrian-German descent, moderated the panel. The panelists included the British novelist, biographer, and critic Geoff Dyer, the American literary critic Liesl Schillinger, and first-time novelist Justin Go.

What drew these disparate authors to World War I? Their reasons included personal connections to the war—Janne Teller's grandfather served in the German army; Geoff Dyer's childhood friend's grandfather, an Allied veteran, often dropped his trousers to display his shrapnel wounds—as well as connections through literature. As a child of nine, Liesl Schillinger read a book of American poetry and was struck by, "In Flanders Field." The poem is clichéd, she said, but, then, "Wars are fought for clichés." Justin Go's interest also stemmed from an early reading—in his case, of All Quiet on the Western Front, at age thirteen.

In fact, Schillinger pointed out, the richness of literature around the Great War is a result, in part, of the unusual number of poets and writers who enlisted in the war, having themselves been inspired by literature. In 1914, the most recent European and US wars were several generations removed; prior to enlisting, many soldiers' closest connection to the war was through reading. They read Horace, Rupert Brooke's poems describing the "cleansing" power of battle, and the propagandistic British letter-essay, "The Little Mother." As Teller pointed out, they were drawn in by the mythology of the war.

And then, of course, they were shocked by its actuality—which is why the literature of the Great War is, in large part, the literature of disillusionment: the poems of Wilfred Owens, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, and Gabriel Chevallier's Fear, forthcoming from NYRB. Some authors, like Owens, were able to immediately translate their experiences into literature; others required time for the trauma of the war to "settle into the soul," in Teller's phrase.

The disillusionment within those authors' works, perhaps, one of the great gifts of literature of the Great War. Perhaps, as a result of that literature, some of the members of the generations after WWI were less prone to wartime myths and propaganda. Perhaps some prospective soldiers decided, instead, "I think I'll dodge that bullet," as Dyer said—if, that is, they had a choice.


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