World War I produced futile hopes but great writing

READINGS

January 30, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"The Penguin Book of First World War Prose," edited by Jo Glover and Jon Silkin, 620 pages, Viking Penguin Inc., New York, N.Y., $29.95.

IN THIS TIME of the war to establish The New World Order it is sad and painful to read prose from the great War to End All Wars. Almost every one of the authors in "The Penguin Book of World War I Prose" wrote his or her work as a cry of warning against future wars, even as mourning mothers hope the war their sons die in is the last.

Their cries were futile. World War I was only the first of the great wars that have consumed humanity in the 20th century. The war for The New World Order may be the last, but only because there's probably not enough time in the century for another.

World War I was fought for a Cause, but it's hard to remember now what The Cause was. Or what, in fact, The Great War accomplished. In one ironic sense The War in the Gulf had its genesis in the aftermath of World War I when the "victors" divided up the old Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally and our enemy.

Many of the books these pieces are excerpted from are out of print. Old war stories and old soldiers can be tiresome and boring in peacetime. But when a new war comes, we search in their experience for clues to what we can expect today. We find that perhaps the only constant is death.

The authors who served in the First World War, perhaps more than any since, describe the dead and wounded in graphic and bloody detail. The men who fought the grinding trench warfare of their time often seem surprised and ambushed by the horror of it all.

They may have been, as has often been said, the last generation of soldiers to march off to war with illusions of glory, which may account for the depth of their disillusionment.

Oskar Kokoschka, the great Expressionist painter and poet from Austria, recalled riding to war on the Russian front on horseback, with great flair and elan.

"When we left Hungary, girls in colorful costumes brought us Tokay wine and cheered us; I lifted one girl on to my saddle . . . "

He found war not so finely colorful.

"The first dead that I encountered were young comrades-in-arms of my own, men with whom, only a few nights earlier, I had been sitting round the campfire in those Ukrainian forests, playing cards and joking."

A cap dangled from a tree and a little farther on a dragoon's fur-lined coat.

"He who had once worn these things himself hung naked, head downward from a third tree. The horses lay in the forest with their hooves in the air, swollen-bellied, swarming with flies."

Kokoschka's account continues with an even more horrific image of death. He was later severely wounded himself and barely survived.

Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed on the Western Front when he was 20 for some tactical adjustment no one remembers, wrote home to England of "the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of the wounded men.

"Then death and the horrible thankfulness that the next man is dead."

Jon Glover, one of the editors, writes in his introduction that "the war was appallingly destructive, and, arguably, unnecessary. Yet, to immerse oneself in the literature it produced is, in a strange way, heartening.

"Great writing emerged from the war's brutally enforced actions, which were for the individual supremely alienating and uncontrollable."

The authors who wrote of World War I out of direct experience are simply among the greatest of the century. Included in this Penguin anthology are Colette, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Musil, Rosa Luxemburg, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, E.E. Cummings, Joseph Conrad, John Reed, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Ford Maddox Ford, Willa Cather, Edmond Wilson, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Louis-Fredinand Celine and Pierre-Eugene Drieu La Rochelle.

Their achievement is unlikely to be repeated by the men and women who fight The War in the Gulf.

Jon Silkin, the other editor of this book, notes that a central image of World War I prose and poetry often derived from the rose. He quotes Paul Fussell, another fine chronicler of The Great War, who says ancient tradition associated the rose with battle scars. The rose symbolized the risen Christ and, in combination with a skull, the omnipotence of death.

The war for The New World Order seems to have found its central image in professional football.

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