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?
Edward Bennett (Benedick) and Michelle Terry (Beatrice).
As I’ve explained in my review of Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC 2014), this production was presented as Love’s Labour’s Won by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was a controversial decision that confused audiences and led to heated debate among scholars, since Love’s Labour’s Won is either the title of a lost Shakespeare play or an alternative title for an existing play. Which one? Who knows! An episode of Doctor Who was dedicated to it, that’s the level of mystery we’re talking here. Still, I can see why one would want to stage these plays as a duology: they are variations on similar themes. Both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing have a distinct male and female group, men asked to prove their love, strong female characters who are more demanding than forgiving, clear class differences, and a whole lot of banter. Some critics have even argued that Berowne and Rosaline were a kind of try-out for Beatrice and Benedick.
The setting is the same (Charlecote Park, post-WWI this time) and most of the cast members return, but this production fails exactly where Love’s Labour’s Lost so gloriously succeeded: using the setting to enhance the themes of the story.
Read my book review of Love’s Labour’s Lost here.
In 2014, the RSC performed a trilogy of plays set before (Love’s Labour’s Lost), during (The Christmas Truce), and right after World War One (Much Ado About Nothing – review here), thus tying into the year’s centenary commemoration events. The two Shakespeare plays were presented as the Love’s Labour’s duology: Much Ado was retitled Love’s Labour’s Won (a controversial decision resulting in many confused people in the audience and furious debate among Shakespeare scholars), the majority of the cast performed in both plays, and both used the same setting: Charlecote Park, a grand country house and estate a few kilometres away from Stratford-upon-Avon where some say Shakespeare poached a deer and got arrested for it.
Note: I read the second edition, published in 1981. From what I understand, Penguin now sells George Walter’s In Flanders Fields repackaged as the new Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Check which edition you’re getting if you decide to buy a copy!
Now, before you all grab your pitchforks and come after me for giving anything less than five stars to a book that has work by Wilfred Owen in it, let me explain: I did not deduct points for the poetry itself. Where this collection fails, quite spectacularly, is editing. Jon Silkin was undoubtedly a very intelligent man who knew a lot this particular period, but I have issues with many of his decisions.
“Downton Abbey” still.
Having covered poetry and non-fiction, we now move on to the final post in my series of World War One reading lists: fiction. These works range from barely disguised autobiographies by authors who had actually fought in the war themselves to books from a curious early 1990′s wave of well-received novels set during the Great War (if you have a good theory as to why WWI inspired so many literary classics in those years, let me know!).
“The Crimson Field” still.
The second installment in my series of World War One reading lists (see: poetry and fiction). These non-fiction works range from interviews and letters to memoirs and diaries, written by both established writers and ordinary people, trying to figure out how to live in a world that was crumbling underneath their feet.
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.
“Birdsong” (2012) still.
As one of the last people left on this planet who has not read The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (2006), I was not familiar with John Boyne as a writer when I first picked up this book. However, I still went into it with certain expectations. A story about a young soldier who falls in love with a fellow private during World War One? I flew through The Absolutist in one sitting with a stack of tissues and a fluffy pillow on standby at all times, because there was no way that this would end well (“spoiler” alert: it didn’t).
On the surface, this book seems to have been tailor-made for me in terms of theme and setting, and at first I did enjoy it. However, the following morning I kept thinking of things I didn’t like about it and as I was writing this review, I discovered even more; it turns out that on the surface is exactly where The Absolutist stays.
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.