Sassoon in 1920.
When we think of Siegfried Sassoon, we think of World War One – his brutally realistic poems about the trenches, his anger, how he narrowly escaped death so many times. The war was the defining of Sassoon’s life and his career as a writer… But it lasted only four years and was over when he was only thirty-two. In this 639-page biography, the war ends around the 200th page. Then what? This was a question that plagued Sassoon all his life – and one his biographer, Max Egremont, struggles with as well. What happens after the worst has passed? How do you move on? What is left?
Drawing by Siegfried Sassoon.
Inspired by this year’s centenary events and wave of media attention, I have spent the last few months diving into works from the Great War and encountered some true gems along the way. It is a fascinating era where artists struggle to put unspeakable horrors into words and try to find meaning in the chaos. For everyone who wants to get into WWI literature, I have put together three reading lists with suggestions, ranging from the big names of the period to lesser known publications that I think deserve more attention. The first post in the series deals with poetry (see: non-fiction and fiction), both from the era itself and by contemporary authors looking back.
Thanks to the centenary I have caught the WWI bug and I have started working my way through Great War literature. After Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I figured it was time for a non-fiction account and decided on this collection of letters and diaries, edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf. The selection is varied, including not just British documents but also German, Russian, and Indian voices, plenty of women (much appreciated!), and mostly “ordinary people” with the occasional familiar name thrown in (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and so on). The fragments are not in chronological order, but have been organised by place and theme instead: ‘Hearing and imagining from afar’, ‘experience at close quarters’, ‘how the war divided us’, and ‘searching for what is lost.’ We get stories from all over Europe, ranging from published articles to letters from loved ones.