Writers and War

The scene is a symposium organized by Elie Barnavi at the Bastogne War Museum in Belgium on the topic of war reporting generally and, particularly, how it can become a literary genre.

That was Sartre's thesis, who believed writing about war to be the genre par excellence.

It was Hemingway's, too. In his 1941 interview with the short-lived New York newspaper PM, he congratulated himself for having been a reporter before turning novelist and for having drawn on his first profession to produce the best of his novelistic art.

It was not merely the thesis but the very life of Isaac Babel and Vassili Grossman, great writers whose works literally emerged from their journalistic experiences on the front line.

The close links between the two orders has been at the origin of very many great books, and those great books have themselves been the source of many great myths that have helped many men to live and, sometimes, to die. The writer as war correspondent -- I am thinking of Malraux, of Malaparte's Kaputt, and of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia -- has explored so many unknown possibilities of the human condition that it is difficult not to grant the genre the status that it already commands and, at bottom, deserves.

Yet a part of me has always mistrusted what writers are doing when they appropriate as material the furor of men at war.

I think of Apollinaire's "God, how beautiful war is!"

I think of Cocteau's view of war as a fairy tale, a ballet, a form of theater that inspired in him, once home from the front, an exaggerated exaltation that exasperated André Gide.

I think of the raptures that Proust puts in the mouths of Charlus and Saint Loup -- and even of his narrator, for whom the night sky of Paris during the raids brings back the forgotten milky beauty of stormy days during his childhood in Balbec.

I think of Henry de Montherlant's La Relève du matin, of Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel, and of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's The Comedy of Charleroi, in which one hears hymns to the "marvelous thrill," the "intoxication," the "ecstasy" that takes hold of the powerful and virile warrior (this is Jünger speaking) when the moment arrives for the great phallic merry-go-round of hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. And I think of the terrible temptation, even among the greatest writers, to aesthetize war: Malaparte's stroll in the Warsaw ghetto in Kaputt; Malraux's famous "fraternity," which gives short shrift to the generalized every-man-for-himself, run-for-your-life impulse typical of the human insect plunged into the whirlwind of an assault; the lofty sky above the head of the wounded Prince Andrei in War and Peace and, later, of Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls; and Vasily Grossman's The People Immortal, which offers up some truly dreadful phrases, such as "great are the people whose sons die a death holy, humble, and severe upon the vast fields of battle."

It may be that a distinction must be made between two separate war literatures and even, within individual works, between two distinct veins of writing:

One that sweetens the pill and finds beauty in situations that real reporters know to hold only ugliness, misery, and the bestialization of terrorized people.

And another that, by contrast, looks horror in the face and exposes it: in Malraux's work, there is The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, which, in its lampooning of intellectuals likened to women prone to fantasizing about soldiers, seems to target the most lyrical pages of Man's Hope; or, in Grossman's oeuvre, the admirable Life and Fate, which, like Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry before it, was condemned as a crime against socialist hope, humanism, and realism.

Perhaps a further distinction should be made between literary works that impart meaning to war and those that face the fact that, of all human experiences, war is one of the most thoroughly senseless.

On the one hand are the now-forgotten novels making up the so-called literature of the trenches, which had its moment of pale glory around writer Henry Bordeaux, a member of the Académie Française. In its reflections on the mysterious endurance of the Poilus, who mutinied far less than one might have expected, that literature formed the basis for a mythology of "the land" and of "the call of the soil," thus providing some of the fuel for fascism.

On the other hand, and sticking to the Great War, we have masterpieces of lucidity about herds of men trapped in a living death before finishing the job and pitching themselves headlong into mass graves. In this vein there is Céline's Voyage, of course, but also Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, Roland Dorgelès's Wooden Crosses, and Maurice Genevoix's underappreciated Ceux de 14.

But perhaps the real dividing line should be drawn further upstream. I mean the dividing line between different kinds of wars.

There are the majority in which one would be hard pressed to find any trace of human nobility of excellence, the accounts of which should, for the sake of honesty and humility, be confined to unadorned prose free of pathos.

And then there are others -- much rarer, though they do exist -- in which, because the passion for freedom is pitted against the contrary impulse to servitude and extermination (an opposition found in all anti-fascist wars), men rise above themselves and become capable, in fact, of true acts of nobility, selflessness, and heroism. In such cases it is not only permissible but appropriate to give full voice to these moments of grace, as in the best pages of Man's Hope.

Just wars are no less inhumane than others, but at least in them can be found a dim tunnel to greatness through which it is the duty of writers, above all others, to carry their pen.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy