Military conflict and its devastating effects are a key theme in many Booker-nominated novels, yet no two writers approach this enduring and complex subject in the same way
By Michael Prodger
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929 as Im Westen nichts Neues(Nothing New on the Western Front), brought its author huge riches, international fame and unimaginable pain. The book recounts Remarque’s experiences in the trenches of the First World War, where he saw active service before being peppered with shrapnel in 1917 and seeing out the war from a military hospital bed.
The visceral nature of the book is superbly captured in Edward Berger’s 2022 film, which recently won an unprecedented seven BAFTAs with Oscars glory almost certain to follow. It is the third movie version of the novel – with the first made just a year after publication – and there have been several television and radio adaptations too. These variations are testament not just to the book’s power but to the universality of the experiences it contains – the well-worn and often hollow phrases of the pain, horror and futility of war.
All Quiet was translated into English in its year of publication and became an instant international bestseller. Remarque soon changed his name from the more Teutonic Remark to disassociate himself from German militarism and wrote several other books that dealt with the war. In 1933, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared Remarque’s books to be ‘unpatriotic’ and banned them in Germany. The author left the country to live in Switzerland and his citizenship was revoked. In 1943, however, the Nazis had their revenge: Remarque’s sister, Elfriede Scholz, who had remained in Germany, was arrested and tried for ‘undermining morale’. The court president made clear the real motivation for the prosecution: ‘Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach - you, however, will not escape us.’ Elfriede was beheaded. All because of a war novel.
If Remarque lived through the experiences he described, it is little surprise that novelists who have had no first-hand experience of battle and conflict should turn to war as a subject too. Conflict offers a heightened atmosphere where humanity can be depicted in extremis and with normal human agency tested in ways peace cannot offer. It takes a degree of writerly bravery to take on a wartime story and face the dangers of bathos and cliché that wait for the slightest maladroitness.
Over the course of the Booker Prize’s history, numerous authors have set themselves to the task. Although P.H. Newby, the Prize’s inaugural winner in 1969, had served in France, the Middle East and Egypt during the Second World War, he chose not to make war the subject of Something to Answer For, but war and its effects are a key theme in a cluster of winning novels. J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987), Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) all ring to what the 19th-century writer Alfred de Vigny called ‘the echo and the dream of battles’.
It is noticeable that with a few exceptions – Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (2005) and Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (2009), for example – the majority of the Prize’s war books were written before the turn of the century by novelists old enough to have memories of the effects of war or its immediate aftermath. They remember war as a living thing.
J.G. Ballard, for example, who lived in Shanghai as a boy, vividly recollected the Japanese attack and occupation in 1943 and his family’s internment which followed. He turned his experiences of battle – Zero fighter planes thundering overhead – and captivity into Empire of the Sun (1984), a novel that, according to Martin Amis, ‘gives shape to what shaped him’.
There is also an element of autobiography in Goshawk Squadron (shortlisted in 1971), Derek Robinson’s story of a fighter squadron during the last year of the First World War and the emotionally cauterising effect on its commanding officer, Stanley Woolley, of the meat-grinder fighting. It was the first of several novels by Robinson dealing with wartime fliers and reflects his own experiences as an RAF plotter during his National Service.
Glory, however, as in all the Booker war books, is in short supply. Indeed, Robinson has attributed the line followed in his flying novels to a comment made by a former Royal Flying Corps pilot in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the RAF. The objective of a fighter pilot, the man said, ‘was to sneak in unobserved behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back’. According to Robinson, it was this ungilded and unchivalrous definition ‘which got me thinking’.
If the First World War is the archetypal conflict, several Booker novelists have gone further back in time. In 1982, for instance, the playwright John Arden was shortlisted for his only novel, Silence Among the Weapons, a story set in antiquity as the Roman Republic descends into civil war. Arden, although English, moved to Ireland in 1971 where he joined the nationalist party Official Sinn Féin. He used his novel, with its political factions, legalised murder, imperial overreach and civic disintegration, as a sophisticated way to express his opposition to the British presence in Northern Ireland.
The novel’s opening sentence quotes Cicero: ‘Once the weapons are out, the laws fall silent’, a line that applies to all the Booker war books, among them The Siege of Krishnapur by another Anglo-Irish writer, J.G. Farrell. The novel is based on accounts of the real-life siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny and is rich in martial detail, from strained life in the British residency and bullets and fighting to cholera and dysentery. The novel is the second book in a trilogy examining the effects of empire and reflects Farrell’s appreciation of the complications involved. Empire, in Farrell’s telling, could not simply be reduced to an unequivocal malign state, but nevertheless contained within it the seeds of discontent and, almost inevitably, war.
Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road is the final book in her own Regeneration trilogy. Here, however, it is not such macro themes as war hastening imperial decline or questioning the morality of colonialism that drive the narrative, but war’s effects on the individual. Her central figures are Billy Prior, a working-class soldier during the First World War who suffers from shellshock, and the real-life psychoanalyst William Rivers who specialised in treating the affliction. The war is a continual presence, a menacing entity that sits loweringly to one side for much of the book, but which eventually devours Prior when he returns to the front and dies in battle, alongside the poet Wilfred Owen, just a few days before Armistice.
The First World War appears in many of Barker’s books and although she has never drawn an explicit link, at the time of writing The Ghost Road, the Bosnian War was reminding Europeans of the horrors that took place on the Continent only some 80 years earlier (Bosnia would itself feature in a later novel, Double Vision). ‘Novelists are sort of vultures, aren’t they?’ she has said, and contemporary reports of atrocities and psychological damage can be felt in the traumas she describes in her First World War trilogy.
As with J.L. Carr in A Month in the Country, shortlisted for the prize in 1980, beneath the human strand of Barker’s novel sits a plea for understanding and sympathy for people who have been faced with unimaginable events. Carr was just two when the First World War started, Barker was born with two years of the Second World War still to run, so both grew up among survivors who bore physical and mental wounds, and the effects of war were tangible throughout both writers’ early lives.
Perhaps the greatest unimaginable event of the 20th century was the Holocaust, and this too has been tackled by Booker writers. Schindler’s Ark, which won the 1982 Prize, was a book Thomas Keneally felt compelled to write. He had gone into a shop in Beverly Hills to buy a briefcase and, while chatting there, it emerged that the owner, Poldek Pfefferberg, was one of the Jews saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler.
When Pfefferberg learned that Keneally was a novelist, he persuaded him to write the story. Although Keneally’s father served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, the child novelist-to-be passed the war years safely in New South Wales. It makes the imaginative achievement of Schindler’s Ark all the more remarkable; not only was the world he portrayed in it thousands of miles distant, in a foreign land with alien sensibilities, but Keneally was not Jewish and indeed had trained for the Catholic priesthood.
If Kenneally’s approach to the Holocaust was historical-imaginative – as was Simon Mawer’s in The Glass Room (shortlisted 2009), the story of a Jewish family and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia – then Martin Amis’s was highly literary. In 1991, he was shortlisted for Time’s Arrow, the story of a Nazi concentration camp doctor who has escaped to America after the war. The book, Amis says, is narrated by the doctor’s soul and is notable for its reverse chronology, which takes the doctor, Odilo Unverdorben, back in time. Amis’s experimental ploys mean that the horrors of the camp and Unverdorben’s role in the torture of Jewish inmates, are frequently misinterpreted so that it is the reader’s knowledge of the genocide that makes sense of the back-to-front happenings.
Not everyone agreed that the Holocaust was an appropriate theme for such literary experimentation, but the ends to which Booker authors have used war are legion. For Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient(1992), the Second World War was the setting for a pair of intensely-imagined love stories; for Beryl Bainbridge in Master Georgie (1998), the Crimean War links four very different but slightly lost characters; for Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children (1981), the violence that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan is a backdrop for magic realism and allegory; for Penelope Lively in Moon Tiger (1987), the Second World War and the love her central character Claudia finds and loses there are the defining events of her life; in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), for all their yearning, rage and hurt, the war puts redemption beyond the reach of her three main protagonists; while for Dorrigo Evans, the conflicted central character who survives Japanese brutality on the Burma railway in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, ‘the war pressed, the war deranged, the war undid, the war excused’ – it was the origin of everything.
Now that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made war in Europe a familiar presence once again, and with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in the collective memory, perhaps a new generation of novelists will try the fictional possibilities of contemporary warfare and explore where societies and individuals stand in a new martial age. As one lauded Booker Prize author, Margaret Atwood, has noted: ‘War is what happens when language fails,’ but her peers have shown that war can spark fresh language, too.