Tomorrow sees the start of this year’s Summer School and we will be reading and discussing three novels grouped together under the title Paying the Price. The books, A Whispered Name by William Brodrick, Rennie Airth’s The Reckoning and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer all clearly share a wartime theme but they have other features in common too and when I kick things off at the start of our first meeting I shall want to draw attention to those as well as pointing out differences in the way in which war is treated. Coincidentally, I came across an essay, The Literary Response to the Second World War by Damon Marcel Decoste, in which he argues that literary responses to the two major conflicts of the Twentieth Century, both those contemporaneous and those written retrospectively, take contrasting approaches. Put crudely, those which describe the actions of the First World War tend to concentrate on what we might loosely call ‘the pity’ of the situations in which combatants on all sides found themselves, while those which take the Second World War as their subject are more likely to focus on the lack of preparedness of a world which really should have seen it coming.
Of the three books chosen the first, A Whispered Name, is solely concerned with events that took place between 1914 and 1918 and, I think, falls neatly within the parameters of DeCoste’s argument. Airth’s novel deals with the aftermath of both wars and, with its emphasis on the long term damage suffered by those who fought in either conflict, for me is still focused on the ‘pity’. However, Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is not so neatly pigeonholed. Personally, I don’t feel that the author is taking any particular moral standpoint in the way he writes about the events that overtake his heroine, Marion Sutro. Perhaps distance has lessened the satirical edge that characterised novels written in the years immediately after World War II. Perhaps others attending the School will think differently.
The concentration on wartime events is not the only feature these three novels share. Each of the books also draws our attention to what I like to call the uncertainty principle as it applies to narrative. As Mawer comments
as with so many matters, the full story is complicated and appears different depending on how you look at it.
A narrative is a recounting of events inevitably given a personal spin by the individual doing the recounting. Either deliberately or through no fault of their own that person may omit events, misinterpret them or even falsify them. And that is before we come to the whole question of the influence of choices to do with such things as tense, person and vocabulary choices. In the first two novels, both of which are generically classified as crime fiction, the main protagonists start from a position of relative ignorance and have to repeatedly attempt to reconstruct a narrative that accurately reflects the original events. Both emphasise how difficult it is to come to an understanding of what occurred and how the narratives we tell are influenced by what we believe/want to believe the truth is. Mawer’s book is more concerned with the creation of a narrative as Marion Sutro develops the legend behind which she will hide as an SOE agent in France. But, if everyone is dissembling and has been trained to do it well, then how do you know who you can trust? And how easy is it to live according to a personal narrative that bears little resemblance to the truth of who you really are?
I am sure that as the week develops other commonalities will emerge and if I have the time then I will report back. It might, however, have to be an overall round up at the end of the week. If any of you know the books and have any points that you would like to make the do leave a comment and I will feed your views (duly acknowledged) into our discussions.