June 7, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReading

On the World War II Novel

Writing fiction about World War II from the vantage of the twenty-first century presents a rare challenge. Of all of history’s wars, this one has always felt the most uncomplicated, as close to a good vs. evil conflict as we’ve ever come—I remember once one of my college history professors crying in the middle of his lecture on the Blitz, overwhelmed by the emotion of imagining ordinary British citizens defending their country against the terror of Nazi bombing and unable to maintain his professorial poise and historian’s detachment. But we also live in an era that feels so far removed from the moral simplicity of World War II: post-Cold War and postmodern, our society no longer has an enemy as clearly evil as the Nazis. Because of this, representations of World War II have a danger of indulging in easy romanticism, looking back to a (seemingly) less morally relative time and thus reaffirming conservative values of nationalism and unquestioning patriotism. Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, as thrilling and well-directed as it was, ultimately suffered from this, celebrating a very particular kind of military masculinity and oversimplifying World War II into a generic battle against “the enemy” (the film, after all, never actually mentions Nazi Germany, thus allowing viewers to imagine in the planes coming to attack any enemy they find ideologically convenient—Muslims, Russians, etc. etc.). In an era of Brexit and rising anti-immigration sentiment, a film using World War II to celebrate British nationalism felt, to put it mildly, somewhat problematic.

So how do you write fiction about World War II that doesn’t indulge in safely glamorized nationalism? Two recent novels do this by exploring how we attempt to represent the conflict in retrospect: Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. Not only did both novels come out in 2018, they also both featured similar storylines—spies involved in the war facing various reckonings in post-war Britain, with timelines that jump between the war itself and its aftermath. Even the covers look similar, with dark images of London obscured by fog (Warlight’s a somber gray, Transcription’s an eerie blue), a metaphor for the ultimate inscrutability of history.

I’ve written before about Ondaatje’s seminal novel The English Patient and how it depicts a group of people who manage to create an anti-nationalistic utopia near the end of World War II. Warlight might be about a similar period, but the style is completely different, and it’s written not as a series of poetic, present tense, fragmented scenes but instead with a more traditional retrospective narration, of a man named Nathaniel looking back at his youth in postwar Britain. Nathaniel’s parents are very clearly spies (though as a boy he doesn’t quite realize it), and they leave him and his sister Rachel in the care of a mysterious man called The Moth, a wartime colleague of theirs, while they go off to do their work. The first half of the novel then follows Nathaniel and his sister Rachel as they grow up, raised by The Moth and his mysterious group of friends, strange and fascinating people who drift in and out of their home, among them a dashing ethnographer named Olive Lawrence and a former boxer turned criminal known only as The Darter, who becomes a kind of surrogate father to Nathaniel. In the second half of the novel, meanwhile, Nathaniel is older and working at the Foreign Office and attempts to learn what he can about his mother’s life and her role as a spy in the war. In doing so, he also learns more about the various men and women from his childhood and how they too participated in the war, many of them, such as The Darter, doing surprisingly heroic things, something Nathaniel would never have guessed.

Thus, one of Warlight’s central themes is the transition from wartime to peacetime. Nathaniel is surprised to discover the secret heroism of figures like The Darter and Olive Lawrence, who seem to have transitioned so thoroughly to civilian life. In contrast, though, there are also people like Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, who ultimately couldn’t (and perhaps didn’t want to) leave behind her wartime role as a spy: she continues her work after the war, abandons Nathaniel and his sister for a large and key portion of their life, and is ultimately unable to prevent the past from returning to haunt her in the form of enemies from her days as a spy bent on seeking revenge. Most important, though, is the fact that Nathaniel never learns any of this directly from his mother and instead has to piece the story together and ultimately reconstruct his mother’s World War II life in his imagination—Ondaatje writes those scenes, which appear near the end of the novel, with vivid and realistic detail, but the whole time we know that they’re just recreations in Nathaniel’s head. What seems like reality is thus actually just representation.

In a similar way, Transcription is also interested in how we reconstruct the past. The novel centers on Juliet Armstrong and alternates between 1940 and 1950. During the war, Juliet Armstrong works as a spy for MI5, while after the war she’s a producer for the BBC, in charge of creating historical radio programs for schoolchildren. Part of the novel’s humor comes from the contrast between the glamorous world of World War II espionage and the mundanity of Juliet’s postwar life at the BBC. But Atkinson also works to undermines the apparent glamour of Juliet’s life as a spy: her mission is to infiltrate and report on a group of Nazi sympathizers in Britain as well as to transcribe the recorded conversations of several of these sympathizers, who believe they’re passing secrets to a Gestapo agent (really, the supposed agent is another MI5 spy). The Nazi sympathizers, though, end up coming across as more pathetic than sinister, most of them just ordinary British women with names like “Dolly,” and Juliet’s operation ultimately unfolds more like a farce than anything heroic. Later, in 1950, figures from this operation return to haunt her, just like with Nathaniel’s mother in Ondaatje’s Warlight.

The novel’s most important thematic element, though, is Juliet’s role in transcribing the Nazi sympathizers’ recorded conversations. At first she tries to write the conversations as accurately as possible (though even here, not everything is perfectly audible and occasionally she has to guess at what’s being said). But as the novel goes on, she has to, for a reason related to the plot that I don’t want to spoil, invent conversations that never took place—thus her transcription becomes less and less accurate. This, of course, is Atkinson’s commentary on how we represent history and how our representations are never the same as reality. In a parallel way, Juliet’s work at the BBC also involves inaccurate recreations, as the historical programs she produces (such as one on the Middle Ages) are tailored for her audience of schoolchildren and thus aren’t exactly faithful in their depiction of historical reality.

Thus, both Warlight and Transcription do what a movie like Dunkirk couldn’t—they effectively complicate our understanding of World War II by addressing the way we represent history: the lines between past and present and between reality and representation are not as firmly delineated as we may wish. Both novels also center on the work of spies, a profession which has always been cloaked in moral ambiguity, thanks in part to other writers like John le Carré. Moreover, both narratives also address in different ways how strange it was that after the war, our former ally, the communist Soviet Union, became our new enemy. How then can we believe in simplistic notions of nationalism and patriotism when the very idea of “the enemy” is so morally relative? For the twenty first century, a time of similar moral uncertainty, this kind of ambiguity feels like a much more appropriate lens to look back at history than the nationalist romanticism of Christopher Nolan. After all, as both novels suggest, our idea of World War II as a morally uncomplicated moment is perhaps the result of representation more than reality.