Monday, November 10, 2008

The Penguin Book of First World War Stories

One of the purchases from The Book Grocer last week was The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte and Ann-Marie Einhaus. I think I've been seduced into World War I fiction by Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. One of the nicest things about historical fiction written about another part of history, but written more-or-less in your own part of history is the ease with which one can understand the points of view and prejudices of the characters. The very best historical fiction does a damned lot of explaining for the reader (without those didactic asides or weird anachronisms. Not that I'm against weird asides or didactic anachronisms. I quite liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell).

The written-at-the-time historical stories, though, hit a person quite differently. It's the unexamined patriotism that's the hardest to accept. Not all the stories fall into the 'war is hell' genre, and not all of them fall into the 'join up to be a hero' genre either, although both are strongly represented. The first story, 'The Bowmen' by Arthur Machen, tells of mystic longbowmen from Agincourt striking down 10,000 German soldiers. Frankly, it's very odd indeed. Others include a weird garden and a big dog, a ghost soldier who can't make friends with the new owners of his house, a women who builds her whole life about mourning her brother and another women who resents having no one to mourn.

The oddest, though, is 'His Last Bow' in which Sherlock Holmes defeats a rotten German spy by sending a cleaning lady to look after the scoundrel. I'm not sure that a super spy, even in the very early 20th century, would a)confide in his cleaning lady, or b)keep all his secret letters hidden behind a curtain in pigeon holes labelled with the names of each secret. Obviously a person who respects tidiness more than victory. It may be comforting to think that your enemies are a bunch of wallies, at least until you prove unable to beat them. I guess that makes you look a bit silly as well.

All the stories are from the allied point of view, indeed, mostly British. There's nothing German or Turkish or Australian here at all. I didn't notice that until just then. There's one story about French people, written by an American woman, and one by Katherine Mansfield. Some of the stores are by Scottish or Irish people, though.

Incidentally, one of my favourite World War I stories is The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (Australian, but doing a fine impersonation of the English class system). The other name of it is the rather unfortunate Her Privates We.

The Noodle, on the other hand, is reading considerably funnier books. He's just finished the entire series of The Floods by Colin Thompson. And he's giving The Muppet Show Annual a thorough going over as well. He has two series of the Muppet Show on DVD, which is bringing joy to my heart. All the classics are there, including Pachalafaka, Dr Bob, Pigs in Space and many, many monsters eating people. The Noodle is particuarly delighted by things fallen down on Wayne and Wanda and Crazy Harry's diverse explosions.


Ampersand Duck said...

I loved 'Her Privates We', which is the title I read it under, having been lent a very early copy by an elderly friend. In my head I think of it as 'Her Privates Wee' and snigger, but it's such an un-snigger-worthy book. And I loved Jonathon Strange as well, have re-read it at least once during the long dark tea-times of holidays. I must look out for this anthology. That one with the long-bows sounds like the inspiration for 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks'.

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