Writing in The Guardian, Marina Hyde eloquently illustrated why the last thing we need just now is Second World War metaphors. ‘Plague is a standalone horseman of the apocalypse’ she observed, ‘he doesn’t need to catch a ride with war’. Looking back at the war isn’t going to tell us how to ‘defeat’ an invisible ‘enemy’ – but it might tell us something about how British culture has in the past responded to an experience of profound uncertainty, deep anxiety and unprecedented government intervention in everyday life.
It’s difficult to generalise about a literature of the Second World War. It was too overwhelming, and – for most people – too unwelcome. Indeed, writers had exhausted themselves trying to warn against its imminent arrival throughout the 1930s. When it did arrive, no one seemed to know what to say, not least because the ‘Great War’ was still in the process of being digested. Déjà vu does not lend itself to literary innovation. Neither, according to Robert Graves, does the internal combustion engine. In a radio talk on reading under bombing he thought the war unlikely to prompt much in the way of poetry. He was wrong: from Dylan Thomas’s ‘Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London’, to Keith Douglas’s ‘How to Kill’, civilians and soldiers tried to find words for the impact of mechanised warfare. But few writers felt they could speak for anyone but themselves: the experience was, in the words of Elizabeth Bowen, ‘out of all proportion to our faculties for knowing, thinking and checking up’. Bowen turned to the short story as a means of capturing the ‘desiccation’ of everyday life, but her characters still struggle to articulate war’s impact: as one bewildered figure observes of the experience of being bombed, ‘one’s feelings seem to have no language for anything so preposterous’.
Evacuation, conscription, rationing, bombing, travel restrictions, social upheaval: what was it possible to write in these conditions? Diaries and reportage formed one response. In the face of global conflict, readers and writers turned to the local. People wrote about the changing world around them and their snapshots appeared in the flourishing little magazines of the period. It was an age of pocket-sized Penguins for the kitbag or the handbag (‘Please pass on this book when you’ve read it; paper is in short supply’). Another answer – or perhaps another form of documentary – was the writing of absurdity. The protagonists of Nigel Balchin’s wartime novels don’t fight the Nazis, they grapple with bureaucracy, paperwork, and political self-interest. And it wasn’t just bureaucracy that was absurd. Graham Greene took aim at the cloak and dagger paranoia of fifth columns and careless talk, beginning his spy story The Ministry of Fear with a microfilm hidden in that most precious of commodities, a cake made with real eggs. Greene’s thriller encapsulates wartime writing: its tone alternately witty and despairing, its ethics complex and unresolved.
The popular genre of crime fiction did valuable war work, with well-established heroes, from Margery Allingham’s Campion to Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence repurposed for battle. In thrillers such as Traitor’s Purse and N or M? the challenge is not to account for the body in the library, but to protect the body of the nation from some nebulous but imminent threat. George Orwell paused to ask why a soldier under fire would want to read about murder and speculated that the war was desensitising the nation. Perhaps: but these fantasies of agency, in which a solution is found and disaster averted, were welcome consolation in an age of hard labour and individual disempowerment.
Orwell was not alone in wondering what war was doing to our understandings of death and violence. Two examples suggest just how difficult it was to absorb the changed conditions of human life, and the strategies sought to survive them. The smash hit stage play of the early war years was Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward’s ‘light comedy about death’, featuring a man caught between the competing demands of his two wives, one of whom is a voluble and still remarkably attractive ghost. The public’s willingness to risk death to go to the theatre speaks volumes to the need for normalisation in abnormal times; but as news from Europe filtered through to Britain in the later years of conflict, deflecting death assumed a different meaning. Writing in January 1944, Arthur Koestler asked why the ever-increasing evidence of atrocities was being disbelieved? Amongst his answers, a telling observation: ‘Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. … we can only focus on little lumps of reality’.
Talking to a friend socially distanced 400 miles away, our conversation turned not to reading under bombing, but the search for Covid-19-distraction. Our choice was Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, a best-seller when it first appeared in 1945. Mitford’s ironic distance wittily surveys the emotional extremes of childhood fantasy and interwar politics before gathering its characters together in self-isolation with the best-stocked larder in all of wartime literature. The book is a celebration of life and an act of mourning that still, after repeated readings, makes me laugh and cry. In the face of the present pandemic, then, it is coping strategies rather than battle metaphors that we might take from the Second World War.