Commemorating the First World War in Fiction

We will remember them. Commemorating the First World War in fiction.


Memory and storytelling, the art of bringing past events alive, are arguably among the most powerful drivers of historical fiction. Recent novels written about the First World War are no exception, conjuring up stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home — stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism. As we mark this year’s centenary, many readers will also return to classics, such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy,2 as well as Sebastian Faulks’sBirdsong (1993). The damaging effects of war, affecting both the minds and bodies of those at the Front and the equally destructive forces faced by their loved ones and families at home, are the focus of all of these stories, old and new.3

The LieIn The Lie (Windmill Books, 2014) by Helen Dunmore, the violent effects of war are prolonged by an innocent lie. Its fatal consequences form the subject of this haunting and disturbing tale of fresh emotional damage, not on the battlefield but in a small Cornish community. With extraordinary deftness Dunmore dissects the psychological damage of the war and its effects on Daniel Branwell, a former gardener’s boy with an astonishing gift for memorising poetry. Some shared themes appear, particularly the parallel emotional responses to loss: Daniel’s to his childhood friend and “blood brother,” Frederick Dennis, whose life he almost saves, and Felicia’s to the husband she barely knew. Beyond loss, the author exposes the petty jealousies of a small community amidst post-war social change. When death comes, it appears as a relief, a reunion, while the living are left to grieve once more.

WakeIn Wake (Doubleday, 2014) Anna Hope uses a temporal constraint as the guiding thread: the story is set in November 1920, over the five days leading up to the first ever national British commemoration of the “Unknown Warrior,” an anonymous corpse retrieved from France. Hope uses this brilliant conceit to weave together the stories of three women dealing with the aftershocks of war: Ada, the grieving mother; Hettie, too young to have been directly involved but old enough to see the effects of war all around her; and Evelyn, who may finally allow hope to return to her embittered life. How each story touches on the others is wholly unexpected and revealing, and although set three years after the war, the overwhelming theme of loss is still strong, analysed through the parallel bonds of mother–son, sister–brother, lovers.

Au Revoir la-hautPierre Lemaitre won the prestigious Prix Goncourt withAu revoir là-haut (Editions Albin Michel, 2013). This raw novel paints a gritty picture of postwar French society, focused on its fallen heroes and ignoring or even trying to get rid of cumbersome soldiers who barely made it. The story opens just before the Armistice and concludes a year after the end of the war. In between, the reader follows Albert and Édouard, two unforgettable characters fighting once more for life, friendship, love, and a decent future. But their efforts are threatened by the shadow of Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pardelle, a character à la Javert. More common themes emerge through the waste of millions of butchered lives, the pain and ugliness of emotional and physical injury (as in Édouard’s half-destroyed face), and the greed and corruption of military leaders. The scandalous traffic of corpses and graves is historically documented, although it was covered up by the French government in 1922. An English translation will be published by MacLehose Press in 2015.

The Russian TapestryReading a WWI novel — The Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh Serov (Hachette Australia, 2013) — from the Russian viewpoint is a refreshing experience, and a tapestry is a suitable metaphor for the story that unfolds with characters from the wide diversity of Russian society woven together in war and revolution. After war is declared, it becomes clear that Russian generals cling to outdated military tactics and technologies, and that supply lines cannot cope with the distances involved. To make matters worse, outdated factories cause massive shortages of guns and ammunition. Although the Russian army wins some battles, most successes are quickly overthrown. Then, as workers strike and protesters take to the streets, the plot shifts to actions taken by the Bolshevik party to gain power and end the war. Although this multi-stranded plotting occasionally confuses, the ending is very satisfying.

A Star for Mrs BlakeIn A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith (Random House, 2014), Cora Blake and a group of American Gold Star Mothers cross the Atlantic to visit their sons’ graves. We follow Cora, Bobbie, Katie, Wilhelmina, and Minnie along with their ‘handlers,’ a young lieutenant and a nurse on contract to the army. Smith rounds out the cast with General Perkins, a taskmaster, and Grif Reed, a former journalist severely wounded during the war. While early chapters are slow, the pace accelerates when the women arrive in New York, and bits of humour add zest to the story. Verdun is where reality bites, where “instantly they were in a war zone, hardly changed since the battle of 1916″ and each woman imagines her son in similar circumstances. At the end, Cora confronts General Perkins: “Wrongs cannot be righted by blood. Happiness can never be the result of senseless deaths. We mothers know.”

Paradise LostMartin Sutton won the 2013 Historical Novel Society International Award for his novel, Paradise Lost. With memorable characters and a fabulous choice of setting — the Heligan Gardens owned by the Tremayne family in Cornwall — this is a great read. Sutton has captured the detail of everyday life, whether at home — seen through the eyes of William Pascoe, the gardener, or Diane Luxton, Jack Tremayne’s niece — or on the battlefront. The disparity of experience on the Front is also brilliantly evoked: the horror of raids, the humour and boredom, even the ghost villages behind the line where William finds unexpected fulfilment as a talented writer. The dominating themes of class, the role of women and profound friendship are artfully incorporated in this extraordinary love story.

StarshineWith a father and six uncles surviving the Great War, John Wilcox grew up with WWI hanging over his head “like a thundercloud.” His novel, Starshine (Allison & Busby, 2012), centers on two pals: Jim, who earns a DCM for his heroic efforts, and Bertie, who struggles with fear and the slaughter that surrounds them. Both men love the same woman. Beyond the notion of what enables a man to serve with courage, in Starshine Wilcox exposes the futility of so many WWI actions, the routine of trench duty, the nitty-gritty of war, and the way friendships and love kept men going. The novel is a soldier’s perspective on WWI with significant focus on battlefield strategies and tactics and the ‘human machine’ deployed against the enemy. Although some descriptions waver between fiction and nonfiction, the story propels us forward until its emotional and gripping climax.

The Storms of WarThe Storms of War (Orion, 2014), Kate Williams’s 657-page novel, creates a unique perspective on WWI, that of a well-to-do family living in England and the persecution they suffer because the father, Rudolf de Witt, is German. The story explores class tensions, the suffragette movement, shell shock, war conditions, the hatred of all things German, the nature of courage, attributes of those who excel at war, pacifist activities, homosexuality, and coming of age. While many scenes are very well written,The Storms of War spans too many plot lines and points of view to truly engage.

Jacqueline Winspear’s compelling and moving novel, The Care and Management of Lies (Allison & Busby UK, Harper Collins US, 2014), centers on four characters — Kezia, Thea, Tom, and Edmund — bound together by friendship, marriage and war. In June 1914 Kezia marries her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom, and comes to live on the Brissenden farm, which borders Edmund’s sprawling property. Tom enlists with his friends and neighbours, Edmund becomes an officer, and Thea, the suffragette and pacifist, goes overseas as an ambulance driver. Kezia, left to manage the farm, writes poignant letters to Tom sharing imaginary meals with him based on recipes fromThe Woman’s Book. Lies are central to Winspear’s story. Tom lies to Kezia about conditions; Edmund lies to encourage his men; Thea lies about her pacifist exploits; the brutal Sergeant Knowles lies about Tom sleeping on sentry duty, an offense punishable by death. Amidst the unrelenting horror of war what comforts Edmund, Tom, and others in their unit are Kezia’s letters embodying the taste of love and home.

Heroes' WelcomeLouisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome (The Borough Press, 2014) spans a period of almost ten years, but the story is firmly anchored in the events of WWI and its aftermath. The title sets up parallels between the women who welcome and the heroes who are welcomed. Nadine and Rose possess the empathy and sensitivity to welcome and love, in the truest sense, those who return, while beautiful Julia cannot see beyond her own needs. Riley rebuilds his life, breaking through the barriers of horrific facial disfigurement and class prejudice, while Peter cannot “just slot back in,” instead reliving his own wartime horrors night and day, an Odysseus on a becalmed ship. The Heroes’ Welcome focuses on change — the physical reconstruction of Riley’s face and Julia’s emotional growth — yet below society’s superficial changes, its “architecture” remains the same.

These ten novels commemorating the centennial of WWI remind us of the inhumanity and folly of that ‘war to end all wars.

1. Lawrence Binyon’s well-known poem, “The Fallen,” was published in The Times on 21 September 1914.
2. The trilogy appeared in the 1990s: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
3. This selection of recent books and their themes are briefly examined in alphabetical order, by author.

About the contributors: Visit LUCINDA BYATT at A World of Words, M.K. TOD blogs about all aspects of historical fiction at A Writer of History,, and her second novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France. EMMA CAZABONNE blogs at Words and Peace, www.wordsandpeace.comand on Twitter, @wordsandpeace.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 69, August 2014

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Translating for Publication: Non-fiction.

I was delighted to be asked to give a paper at the Summer Meeting of the ITI Scottish Network, held in “sunny” Dumfries this past weekend.  In a room full of translators, including many who are highly experienced in technical and other areas of translation, this might have been daunting, but the “Scotnetters” are extremely friendly and welcoming (also I am an insider, as it were, having been a member of the network for several years, albeit not always present at meetings!).

A panel of four literary translators had been lined up and, despite minimal even zero forward planning, our talks neatly interlinked, moving from Ingrid Price-Gschlössl on the advantages of a scholarship/bursary when starting out as a literary translator, to my own paper on non-fiction (more below). Then, after an excellent lunch eaten al fresco on the manicured lawns of the Crichton Estate, we enjoyed Beth Fowler‘s presentation on “getting started” – in her case, by winning the Harvill Secker Young Translator’s Prize in 2010 – and a fascinating insight into translating Nordic crime by Kari Dickson.

The four of us were joined at a closing roundtable by Nathalie Chalmers, Kim Sanderson and Renate FitzRoy. They all had experience of literary translation in one form or other, which made for a lively discussion.

I hope this may well mark the start of more regular workshops on literary translation around Scotland, and not only south of the border!

For the record here are some excerpts from the introduction to my own paper:


I read an article while I was preparing this whose title was “YAWN NO MORE. Americans and the Market for Foreign Fiction”. It’s an optimistic piece based on the outcome of the Global Market Forum at BEA, Books Expo America, held in the last week of May, which suggested that at long last the US too has woken up to the fact that translation can offer an extraordinary wealth of experience to US readers. Or, to use the words of Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, who was talking about America’s long-standing aversion to reading in translation: “It’s a first world problem that inhibits us from understanding the rest of the world.”

That aversion produced a famous, largely anecdotal statistic, namely that only 3% of all books published in the US (in English) were works in translation. It became so well known that a trend-setting website was named after it (Three Percent), founded by Chad Post at Rochester University. Chad and many other campaigning voices, in America and elsewhere, but above all here in the UK (Maureen Freely, Ros Schwartz, Daniel Hahn, just to name a few), have ensured that this figure is gradually increasing – only slightly in numerically terms – but, more importantly, literary translation is now a KEY feature on the publishing scene, at fairs and festivals. Perceptions are definitely changing. These are exciting times to be a literary translator!

There is certainly no room for complacency, though, and particularly – and this turns more towards my own field, non-fiction – when you add into the mix another ingredient, which is that broadly held misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction.

As a historian, as well as a translator, I find it intriguing how our understanding of literary translation has developed over the centuries.  Religious texts are a whole different field, of course, but we could start by mentioning the forty-seven-strong team of translators who worked on the King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary we celebrated in 2007. But in general, from the Elizabethans and Jacobeans onwards, we continue to find a strong presence of what we might call now “non-fiction” translations: religious, political and courtly tracts were popular subjects for translation in seventeenth century England.  Machiavelli’s Art of War was translated as early as 1560 (through French – i.e. as a double translation) by Peter Whitehorne; The Prince had to wait for well over a century after it was originally written before it appeared in English in 1640, translated straight from Italian, thanks to Edward Dacres. However, well before that, we know that Henry VIII and certainly Thomas Cromwell, read The Prince in Italian.

This brings up an important point: that for centuries, most educated men and women read in a foreign language. Even in the 19th century – one of the greatest eras of the European novel – elite British society had little need of translation, particularly from French and Italian, thanks to the Grand Tour.  This was accompanied – to quote Terry Hale, in the Oxford History of Literary Translation (edited by Peter France and Kenneth Haynes) – by a “patriotic general public unsure of the moral value of foreign literature” – and by literature here, he means novels, drama and verse.[1] However, the trend of translating continental fiction rose during the century as more new French, German and Russian novels were translated. Translated non-fiction, on the other hand, remained relatively stable, accounting for nearly 56% of all translations in 1830, and 50% in 1890.[2]

So to return to that popular misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction, the translation of non-fiction has an extremely long and respectable history: it is certainly literature.  It is just the rarity of it today (as a small subset of that 3%) that may make it seem “stranger than fiction”.

A clear signal of the status of non-fiction translation comes from the International Federation of Translators FIT which has a dedicated prize, wonderfully named the Aurora Borealis prize. Its purpose is “to promote the translation of non-fiction literature, improve the quality thereof and draw attention to the role of translators in bringing the peoples of the world closer together in terms of culture.”

Other points that came up in the discussion were the importance of contact with the author, the wide variety of methods used to tackle research, and also our approaches to managing a book-length project, which included different experiences of working with copy-editors.

All in all, it was an excellent day with really useful insights from all the other panellists and from the audience. Thanks too to the organisers of the meeting, Marion Greenway and Corinne Durand, as well to the ScotNet convenor, Pierre Fuentes.


[1] Terry Hale, “Readers and Publishers of Translations in Britain”, in Peter France and Kenneth Haynes (eds), The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Vol. 4, Oxford 2006, p.36

[2] Peter France and Kenneth Haynes, “The Publication of Literary Translation: An Overview”, in Ibid, p.137 (Table 2)

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Elizabeth Jane Howard: a short tribute

It was with great sadness that I heard this afternoon of the death of a wonderful writer whose work I really only got to know well recently through writing an interview for a forthcoming issue of the Historical Novels Review.

Elizabeth-Jane-HowardI first read The Light Years with my book group last year and enjoyed it so much that it led me on to the next books in the quartet that make up the Cazalet Chronicle. It was a real delight then to hear that Elizabeth Jane Howard, then aged 90, was writing a fifth book in the saga and I was thrilled to be given a chance to interview her for the magazine. When a preview book of All Change appeared, I read it with enormous pleasure: this was an author still brilliantly able to capture the essence of human nature, noting intimate characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and setting it against a postwar world of rapid change, but also new beginnings.  Women and children are portrayed with the greatest sensitivity: the former because Howard always has been a strong female voice, and the latter because with nearly a dozen grandchildren, she is not short of raw material for observation!

“Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Tribute” will appear in the February issue of Historical Novels Review.


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Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy on 2013 Notable Fiction List

It’s that time of year (again) and The Washington Post has published its “Notable Fiction of 2013” list (here).  A tweet from Arcadia highlighted the fact that Miklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is on the list, quite a feat for a book whose first volume was published, in Hungarian, in 1934.  What is really heartening is that the English version was published by Arcadia, a leading independent publisher of translated fiction. Moreover, the translation was by the author’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield, appearing under the title The Writing on the Wall in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Thursfield met the author’s daughter in the 1990s and together they worked on the translation for several years. Certainly a labour of love and dedication given that the three volumes total some 1,500 pages.  Their translation of the last volume, They Were Divided, won the prestigious Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 and the translators received their award in Oxford from Umberto Eco. This is the beautiful cover of that edition.

Banffy-They Were DividedOn the website of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize I found these memorable and rousing words: Common European thought is the fruit of the immense toil of translators. Without translators, Europe would not exist; translators are more important than members of the European Parliament.’ (Milan Kundera)

For good measure, here’s my review of that prize-winning translation. It appeared in Solander in 2007.

Miklós Bánffy, They Were Divided, trans. by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Arcadia Books, 2007 (original text 1940), £12.99, pb, 326pp, 1900850516

The lost world evoked by this classic novel is an epic tale of love and bittersweet nostalgia, washed down with a liberal draught of derring-do.  The setting is Transylvania and Hungary in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, when a seemingly inexorable course of events culminated in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the collapse of this once great country.

Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, of which They Were Divided forms the third part (not having read the others was certainly not a drawback), was published just before the Second World War. In his foreword to this reprinted edition, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes the aristocracy as “throwing away their spectacles and fixing in monocles”.  Indeed, they were so pre-occupied with the endless round of parties, shoots, love affairs, gossip and Anglophilia, that they totally failed to notice the “writing on the wall”.

The personalities of Balint Abady, his fatally flawed cousin, László Gyeroffy, provide an extraordinary insight into a society that disappeared without trace, as well as portraying human nature in all its frailty and complexity.  In this, inevitable parallels can be drawn with Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was fascinated by the descriptions of Denestornya, the Abady residence, and of his mother, the Countess Roza.  Definitely a European classic in a prize-winning translation. [Lucinda Byatt]


Minutes after finishing writing this post, I discovered that Patrick Thursfield died in August 2003, so this revival of interest in this brilliant translation is also a fitting tribute, keeping his work alive.  Much more about Thursfield and about the translated trilogy can be found in this wonderful blog post by Neglected Books.

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