November 2011

The voices of World War I

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Peter Englund is “an academic historian by training” and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which each year awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his compelling “intimate history” of the First World War, The Beauty and the Sorrow, Englund purposefully bends toward the literary and away from the academic to focus on the “everyday aspect of the war” and “depict the war as an individual experience.”

To that end, Englund draws from the memoirs, letters and diaries of 20 individuals who wrote about their experiences during the war. These include a former American opera star married to a Polish aristocrat, a 12-year-old German schoolgirl, an Australian ambulance driver in the Serbian army and soldiers and sailors from every theater of the war. Although several of the memoirists were prominent in their day—a Belgian flying ace, a French writer and civil servant—none of the people are well known today, a fact that not only burnishes the book’s luster of authenticity but also allows the details of ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times to surprise and even shock a reader.

In weaving his almost day-by-day narrative, Englund more often summarizes than directly quotes from his sources. The downside of this is that a reader is sometimes uncertain whether the opinions being expressed belong to him or his characters. But this approach enables Englund to create a coherent story and, more importantly, to suffuse that story with the always interesting results of his exacting research. And he manages to do this without obscuring the hearts and souls of his main characters.

Most of these individuals were enthusiastic about the war at the outset, certain of the justice of their cause and confident of victory. By the end, after years of hardship and privation, most were completely disillusioned, both with the war and with those who brought them into the conflict. One German sailor, for instance, a super-patriot at the beginning, joined a widespread rebellion near the end, furious at the arrogance and incompetence of the aristocratic military leadership. Thus The Beauty and the Sorrow begins as a narrative of war as experienced on the battlefield and on the home front, and ends as a remarkable chronicle of the physical and psychic collapse of the Old Order.

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