Moral of the Story: Books About War

I’ve been reading a lot of books about war lately. And even the ones that haven’t been about war, have still included death. It’s been pretty gloomy, but I’ll try not to bring the mood down too low in this post!

I just wanted to highlight two books, and an interesting difference/similarity I observed between them.

1. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway has an abrupt way of writing that sometimes jars with me (for example in Farewell to Arms) but in this book it was not a problem at all. When I think back to it, everything in it seems beautiful, suffused with a kind of peace and dignity that you really would not expect from a war book. The whole story takes place over a few days during which Robert Jordan, an explosives expert, goes on an assignment to help a band of guerrillas blow up a bridge (it’s set in the Spanish Civil War). The whole story, every little incident in it, is about war. About people in war. About things that are done in war. About how people feel in war.

2. The Great World, by David Malouf

This is the first Malouf book I’ve ever read – despite his writing being recommended to me on many previous occasions – and now I don’t know why I waited so long. His language is incredible; he managed to get me inside the heads of two men of completely different character, and to somehow communicate all the nuances of their complex and complicated relationship. These two men – Vic and Digger – met when they enrolled together in WWII. Their experiences in the war tied them together (though that seems an inadequate cliché, given the strength and nature of their bond), and to the extent that this book is "about" anything, it is about Vic and Digger and their experiences returning to civilian life.

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So, both books are books about war. But they are also, very very clearly, books about life. And that’s where the interesting difference comes in. The events in For Whom the Bell Tolls take place in the broader context of war, yet it captures everything important about life as well – the mundane and the sublime; the routine and the extraordinary; the trials and the triumphs; love, and death. In this book, if you like, war is the oyster and life is the pearl. (Yeah I know it’s a terrible metaphor, but I needed something that grows inside something else, and is lovely.) In The Great World, it’s the opposite. Vic and Digger’s experiences of the war are completely encapsulated by their long lives; by their families; by their countries; by Life, in its Entirety.

What I’m trying to say is, according to these books...

War is a moment in life. Life is a moment in war.

And whichever you prefer, and whether you disagree, you should read both.

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