Monday, 15 January 2018

Books: my emotional stepping stones to the past – by Rowena House

Before I could begin the story that became The Goose Road I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as shocking & sad as the First World War.
Now, after years of research, that seems odd. Today I feel on firm mental ground in WW1, eager in fact to return. But back then I felt presumptuous. Almost guilty. How could I possibly begin to imagine what it was like?
Yes, I did a ton of research in books and online, in lecture halls and museums. I had to get the facts right out of respect for the dead. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a deeper, more visceral connection. With hindsight, two types of research were critical to building that emotional bridge to the past.
First was place, by which I mean being there physically, walking through the cemetery-strewn fields of the Somme and the rolling hillsides of Verdun, or standing in a zigzag trench at Beaumont Hamel, or paying my respects to the broken & greying skulls of French and German soldiers, laid to rest together.
Second came a few, critical books.
Out of everything I’ve read about World War One, fiction and non-fiction, I now believe it was just five books that led me to a sufficient level of understanding that I finally felt I had the right to trespass into – and then to inhabit – the world of the Great War. They were stepping stones, and I’ll always treasure them.
The first, chronologically, was a venerable copy of The Complete Works of Wilfred Owen which I took with me to Étaples, the Channel port where I knew my story had to end. Owen (pictured above) himself spent time in this place. Like all British Empire infantrymen & officers, he passed through the huge reinforcement and hospital camp, which dominated Étaples’ old town, on his way to the Western Front. I’d been deeply upset by his war poems when we studied them at school. And here I was, a grown woman, weeping over them again.
The second book, The Price of GloryVerdun 1916, is a brilliant piece of narrative non-fiction by Alistair Horne. First published in 1962, he resurrects the dramatic personae of that gruelling battle with dexterity and detail, populating the horrific statistics of slaughter with living, breathing men.
The third book that opened unexpected doors in my mind was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, a German officer who survived the war. Dedicated to The Fallen, Jung gives an alternative perspective to the ‘pity of war’ that is deeply embedded in the British tradition of remembrance, thanks in part to the anti-war poets such as Owen. I brought Jung’s unapologetic account of courage and comradeship under fire in the bookshop at Thiepval, the Commonwealth war memorial to the missing of the Somme – that is, to soldiers whose bodies were so torn apart (evaporated even) by artillery bombardments that they were beyond identification as individual men.
The fourth & fifth books which stand out in my memory are both by Pat Baker, being the first and last in her Regeneration trilogy. If anyone asked me which single WW1 novel they should read, I would say The Ghost Road, the finale, every time. It may be that Owen is important here too, since he is a character in these stories, and his death vividly told. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon – at the time far better known than Owen – is central to the narrative as well. But I think it is the complexity of Dr Rivers that makes these novels so compelling, and the depth of the irony that, as a military psychiatrist, his job is to make officers who are suffering the most awful mental torment as a result of what they’ve seen and done in battle, well enough to go back to fight and kill and quite probably die, like millions upon millions of others.
Dear God, never again.
My own contribution to the stories inspired by this ‘war to end all wars’, The Goose Road, is a coming-of-age quest set in France in 1916. It will be published by Walker Books on April 5 and is available to pre-order on Amazon and from local bookshops now.
@houserowena (Twitter) @rowenahouse (Instagram)


Unknown said...

lovely blog Ro - really makes me want to re-read Bat Barker and Wilfred Owen - congrats and good luck! lucy

Unknown said...

lovely blog Ro - really makes me want to re-read Pat Barker and Wilfred Owen - congrats and good luck! lucy

Andrew Preston said...

Many of my views on war, and WW1, were influenced by the 1930 film "All Quiet On the Western Front" which was screened on TV when I was 12 or 13 years old. Also 'Testament of Youth' by Vera Brittain which I read in my teens. I read 'Regeneration' many years ago. I seem to recall that if Siegfried Sassoon had not been someone with good connections he would simply have been
charged with treason, and shot, for what he had been writing. Craiglockhart, and Dr Rivers, would not have been an option.

Enid Richemont said...

God, yes. But then makes me think of horrendously cruel and vicious Medieval battles, and even those that came before - what of those men? And then ask myself, as we all must, just why are we such a cruel and violent species? WW1 was particularly appalling, as it really wasn't about anything, and it brainwashed people into thinking it was. A whole generation of young men lost.

Rowena House said...

Well said, Enid. Looking back at one war is a lens to them all in a way. And you're so right, Andrew. Sassoon's "mental illness" purely political.

Unknown said...

Lovely post Rowena. Reminds me of my own visceral reaction to Wilfred Owen's poetry, 'Gas, gas, quick boys' (probably a misquote! Sorry) - it was terrifying just reading those lines. And we talked about The Ghost Road before and want to read. En route to a real library to hunt it down as I type. Anyway, sounds like a proper journey...look forward to reading it and the next one too!

Lynne Benton said...

Great, thoughtprovoking post, Rowena. Many thanks.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Having written and read extensively on WW1, I loved reading this post and look forward to your book!

Rowena House said...

Thanks Eden, Lynne & Sheena for your kind words. And I hope you found The Ghost Road, Eden. One of the greatest novels I've ever read.