A war novel is a novel in which the primary action takes place in a field of armed combat, or in a domestic setting (or home front) where the characters are preoccupied with the preparations for, or recovery from, war. It is sometimes referred to as military fiction.
History of the war novel
The war novel's main roots lie in the epic poetry of the classical and medieval periods, especially Homer's The Iliad, Virgil's The Aeneid, the Old English saga Beowulf, and different versions of the legends of King Arthur. All of these epics were concerned with preserving the history or mythology of conflicts between different societies, while providing an accessible narrative that could reinforce the collective memory of a people. Other important influences on the war novel included the tragedies of such dramatists as Euripides, Seneca the Younger, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Henry V provided a model for how the history, tactics, and ethics of war could be combined in an essentially fictional framework. Romances and satires in Early Modern Europe--Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, to name two of many—also contained elements of military heroism and folly that influenced the later development of war novels. In terms of imagery and symbolism, many modern war novels (especially those espousing an anti-war viewpoint) take their cue from Dante's depiction of Hell in The Inferno, John Milton's account of the war in Heaven in Paradise Lost, and the Apocalypse as depicted in the Book of Revelation. Notable non-western example of war novel include Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
As the prose fiction novel rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, the war novel began to develop its modern form, although most novels featuring war were picaresque satires in which the soldier was rakish rather than realistic figure. An example of one such work is Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, a semi-autobiographical account of the Thirty Years' War.
19th century war novels
The war novel came of age during the nineteenth century. Works such as Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, featuring the Battle of Waterloo, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, about the American Civil War established the conventions of the modern war novel as it has come down to us today. All of these works feature realistic depictions of major battles, visceral scenes of wartime horrors and atrocities, and significant insights into the nature of heroism, cowardice, and morality in war .
World War I and after
World War I produced an unprecedented number of war novels, by writers from countries on all sides of the conflict. One of the first and most influential of these was the 1916 novel Le Feu (or Under Fire) by the French novelist and soldier Henri Barbusse. Barbusse's novel, with its open criticism of nationalist dogma and military incompetence, initiated the anti-war movement in literature that flourished after the war.
Of equal significance is the autobiographical work of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel. Distinctly separate from novels like Barbusse's and later Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), Jünger instead writes of the war as a valiant hero who embraced combat and brotherhood in spite of the horror. The work not only provides for an under-represented perspective of the War, but it also gives insight into the German sentiment that they were never actually defeated in the First World War.
The post-1918 period produced a vast range of war novels, including such "home front" novels as Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, about a shell shocked soldier's difficult re-integration into British society; Romain Rolland's Clérambault, about a grieving father's enraged protest against French militarism; and John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers, one of a relatively small number of American novels about the First World War.
Also in the post–World War I period, the theme of war began to inhabit an increasing number of modernist novels, many of which were not "war novels" in the conventional sense, but which featured characters whose psychological trauma and alienation from society stemmed directly from wartime experiences. One example this type of novel is Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, in which a key subplot concerns the tortuous descent of a young veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, toward insanity and suicide.
The late 1920s saw the rise of the so-called "war book boom," during which many men who had fought during the war were finally ready to write openly and critically about their war experiences. In 1924, Laurence Stallings wrote, one of the first autobiographical war novels, Plumes. In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was a massive, worldwide bestseller, not least for its brutally realistic account of the horrors of trench warfare from the perspective of a German infantryman. Less well known but equally shocking in its account of the horrors of trench warfare is Stratis Myrivilis' Greek novel Life in the Tomb, which was first published in serialised form in the weekly newspaper Kambana (April 1923 - January 1924), and then in revised and much expanded form in 1930. Also successful were Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, William March's Company K, Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero, Arnold Zweig's Der Streit un den Sergeanten Grischa (The Case of Sergeant Grischa), and Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die in Bed.
Novels about World War I continued to trickle into print throughout the 1930s. One particular development during this decade was the rise in popularity of historical novels about earlier wars. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which recalls the American Civil War, is an example of works of this type. The turn of the 20th and 21st centuries saw yet another resurgence of interest in novels of the First World War. Pat Barker's trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road certainly illustrated the ongoing fascination with the "War to end Wars" as did more recent works such as Three to a Loaf by Canada's Michael Goodspeed.
World War II and after
World War II gave rise to a new boom in contemporary war novels. Unlike World War I novels, a European-dominated genre, World War II novels were produced in the greatest numbers by American writers, who made war in the air, on the sea, and in key theatres such as the Pacific Ocean and Asia integral to the war novel. Among the most successful American war novels were Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, the latter a novel set in the Spanish Civil War. An exception to American writers was Pierre Boulle's Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952), translated as The Bridge over the River Kwai. He served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma and French Indochina. More experimental and unconventional works in the post-war period included Joseph Heller's satirical Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, an early example of postmodernism. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, William Woodruff's Vessel of Sadness and James Jones' The Thin Red Line, all explore the personal nature of war within the context of intense combat.
The decades following World War II period also saw the rise in significant parallel genres to the war novel. One is the Holocaust novel, of which A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll, Primo Levi's If This is a Man and If Not Now, When?, and William Styron's Sophie's Choice are key examples. Another is the novel of internment or persecution (other than in the Holocaust), in which characters find themselves imprisoned or deprived of their civil rights as a direct result of war. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about imprisonment in a Russian labor camp), and Joy Kogawa's Obasan (about Canada's deportation and internment of its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II) are two examples of novels that address war from alternative perspectives.
Almost immediately following World War II was the Korean War (1950–1953). Richard Hooker's novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors was a black comedy set in Korea during the war; it was later made into a movie and a successful television series. Also about the Korean war is Canadian Herbert Fairlie Wood's The Private War of Jacket Coates, another comedic take on the war.
Vietnam and after
After World War II, the war that has attracted the greatest number of novelists is the Vietnam War. Graham Greene's The Quiet American was the first novel to explore the origins of the Vietnam war in the French colonial atmosphere of the 1950s. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is a cycle of Vietnam vignettes that reads like a novel. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is a poignant account of the war from the Vietnamese perspective. For a critical overview of the different Vietnam War novels written or translated into English, see the Malda College-Assistant Professor Pinaki Roy's The Minds at War: Sensibilities in Select Vietnam War Novels, published in The Atlantic Literary Review Quarterly International (Volume 9, Number 4, October–December 2008, pp. 121–37).
In the wake of postmodernism and the absence of wars equalling the magnitude of the two world wars, the majority of war novelists have concentrated on how memory and the ambiguities of time affect the meaning and experience of war. In her Regeneration Trilogy, British novelist Pat Barker reimagines World War I from a contemporary perspective. Ian McEwan's novels Black Dogs and Atonement take a similarly retrospective approach to World War II, including such events as the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 and the Nazi invasion of France. The work of W. G. Sebald, most notably Austerlitz, is a postmodern inquiry into German's struggle to come to terms with its troubled past.
Some contemporary novels emphasize action and intrigue above thematic depth. Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October is a technically detailed account of submarine espionage during the Cold War, and many of John le Carré's spy novels are basically war novels for an age in which bureaucracy often replaces open combat. Another adaptation is the apocalyptic Christian novel, which focuses on the final showdown between universal forces of good and evil. Tim LaHaye is the author most readily associated with this genre. Many fantasy novels, too, use the traditional war novel as a departure point for depictions of fictional wars in imaginary realms.
The post–9/11 literary world has produced few war novels that address current events in the War on Terrorism. One example is Chris Cleave's Incendiary (2005), which made headlines after its publication, for appearing to anticipate the 7 July 2005 London bombings. Another is Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell.
- ^ Sansom, Ian (August 21, 2005). "Dear Osama". The New York Times (New York, New York). http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/books/review/21SANSOM.html. Retrieved 2011-07-06.
Other significant war novelists
- Michael Shaara ("The Killer Angels" - Gettysburg- American Civil War)
- Margaret Mitchell ("Gone With The Wind"- American Civil War)
- Jeff Shaara ("The Rising Tide (book)" - World War II and many other books)
- Martin Amis (Time's Arrow - Holocaust)
- David Bergen (The Time In Between - Vietnam)
- Elias Canetti (Auto da Fe - World War I)
- James Chapman (Glass (Pray the Electrons Back to Sand) - Gulf War)
- Charles Sheehan-Miles (Prayer at Rumayla: A Novel of the Gulf War - Gulf War)
- Hugo Claus (Sorrow of Belgium - World War I)
- Stuart Cloete (Rags of Glory - South African War)
- F. M. Cutlack (Breaker Morant - South African War)
- E. L. Doctorow (The March - US Civil War)
- William Faulkner (Soldiers' Pay - World War I)
- Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong - World War I)
- Frederic Manning (Her Privates We - World War I)
- Timothy Findley (The Wars, Famous Last Words (book) - World War I/ II)
- Ford Madox Ford (Parade's End - World War I)
- Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain - US Civil War)
- Robert Graves (I, Claudius, et al. - Roman Wars)
- Gustav Hasford (The Short-Timers, The Phantom Blooper - US Vietnam War)
- Walter Dean Myers (Fallen Angels - US Vietnam War)
- Frances Itani (Deafening - World War I)
- Ha Jin (War Trash - Korean War)
- Thomas Keneally (Schindler's Ark - Holocaust)
- William Woodruff (Vessel of Sadness - World War II)
- D. H. Lawrence (Kangaroo - World War I)
- Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity et al. - Cold War)
- Emilio Lussu (Sardinian Brigade - World War I)
- Józef Mackiewicz (The Road to Nowhere - World War II)
- Colin McDougall (Execution - World War II)
- Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago - Russian Revolution)
- Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of an Infantry Officer - World War I)
- Henryk Sienkiewicz (The Trilogy - Polish historical)
- Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five - Vietnam / World War II)
- Phil Ward (Those Who Dare - World War II)
- Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour - World War II)
- J. G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun - World War II)
- Leon Uris (Battle Cry - World War II and Mila 18 - Holocaust)
- Lothar-Guenther Buchheim (Das Boot - World War II)
- Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun - World War I )
- James Michener (The Bridges at Toko-Ri - Korean War )
- Alan Pearce (Dunkirk Spirit - World War II)
Critical studies of the war novel
- Beidler, Philip D., American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (U Georgia Press)
- Bergonzi, Bernard, Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War (Macmillan).
- Buitenhuis, Peter, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (UBC Press).
- Casadei, Alberto, Romanzi di Finisterre: Narrazione della guerra e problemi del realismo, Roma, Carocci, 2000.
- Cobley, Evelyn, Representing War: Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives (U of Toronto Press).
- Cooperman, Stanley, World War I and the American Novel (Johns Hopkins UP).
- Dawes, James, "The Language of War" (Harvard UP).
- Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford UP), Wartime (Oxford UP).
- Craig, David and Michael Egan. Extreme Situations: Literature and Crisis from the Great War to the Atom Bomb (Macmillan).
- Friedman, Saul S. (Ed.) Holocaust Literature: A Collection of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings (Greenwood Press)
- Harvey, A.D., A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War, London, Hambledon Press, 1998.
- Horowitz, Sara R, Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction (SUNY UP). ISBN 0-7914-3130-4
- Isnenghi, Mario, Il mito della grande guerra (Bologna, Il Mulino).
- Madison and Schaefer (Eds.), Encyclopedia of American War Literature (Greenwood Press). ISBN 0-313-30648-6
- Novak, Dagmar, Dubious Glory: The Canadian Novel and the Two World Wars (Peter Lang).
- Rossi, Umberto, Il secolo di fuoco: Introduzione alla letteratura di guerra del Novecento, Roma, Bulzoni, 2008. ISBN 978-88-7870-320-9
- Roy, Pinaki, The Scarlet Critique, New Delhi, Sarup Book Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2010, ISBN 978-81-7625-991-0
- Wilson, Edmund, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (WW Norton).
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