For generations of schoolchildren World War I is known, almost exclusively, through its poetry, “the Poetry is in the pity”. In No Man’s Land, Pete Ayrton (the founder of Serpent’s Tail) draws on a wide range of writers, an internationalist collection that expresses the experiences of soldiers and civilians on both sides. Rather than representing the literature of the World War, it depicts a world at war. The anthology includes the voices of Commonwealth soldiers, Indian and Australian, European writers (most notably Jean Giono and Joseph Roth) who depict the ruins of the lives they had known and, most unexpectedly, life on the home front.
The breadth of the writers Pete Ayrton has included, with new translations for many of the European writers, introduce many who will be largely unknown to British readers and others who may be familiar names (even if their work is rarely read), such as Wyndham Lewis and Dalton Trumbo, but deserve (on the extracts here) to be more widely read. The internationalist nature emphasises the solidarity between soldiers of all nations, there is a pervasively fatalistic in the characters’ attitude to the War, whether Jules Romains’ “many human beings ought never to have been born at all and spend most of their lives trying to correct that elementary mistake” to Federic Manning’s “all sensible people know that war is one of the blind forces of nature”.
This is an anthology that will send you to read the full books, the extracts from Jean Giono, Federic Manning (whose novel Her Privates We has handily been re-issued) are especially powerful and, already an acknowledged classic, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. It has a cosmopolitan, all-embracing approach that introduces an entire generation of European writers while creating some unexpected juxtapositions. How many readers would associate John Galsworthy in any way with Erich Maria Remarque, Willa Cather with Louis-Ferdinand Celine?
It avoids any attempt to allocate any historical blame for a more elemental approach, finding in the writing about WWI a common sense that the individual is the victim of the evil in human nature rather than the pawn of ideologies or Empires. There is a philosophical, rather than historical, underpinning to Pete Ayrton’s choices that evoke how the War forced writers to ask how they could rebuild a culture that had failed and has become a continuing presence for contemporary writers (and politicians).
Any Cop?: As commemorations of the start of WWI are being organised No Man’s Land brings fresh, and often surprising, perspectives while, hopefully, bringing readers to some undeservedly forgotten writers.