Category Archives: World War I

A Drowning Man: Stach’s Insights on Kafka and World War I

The final installment of Reiner Stach’s expansive and compelling biography of Kafka begins with The Great War. I had mentioned on Twitter the other day that one of the most surprising revelations for me from Stach’s narrative is the fact that Kafka desperately wanted to enlist for the war, but his bosses at the Insurance Institute kept exempting him from service. His weak, frail constitution initially spared him from service, but as the war dragged on and more men were needed on the Austro-Hungarian front lines, Kafka was given a second medical evaluation that cleared him for the military. But his supervisors, whose staff had been wiped out by the draft, insisted that Kafka was indispensable to the continued operation of their business. He argued with the president on a couple of occasions to release him but to no avail.

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, left an interesting comment on Twitter in response to my reaction about Kafka’s desire for military service: “Knausgaard details a number of reactions of intellectuals to WWI in My Struggle Volume 6, and it seems so crazy knowing what WWI actually was. They didn’t get modern warfare until it was actually happening.” To prove his point, Chad sent me a quote from Thomas Mann that he aptly calls “wild”: “War! It was purification, liberation that we experienced, and an enormous hope…it set the hearts of poets aflame…how should the artist, the soldier in the artist not have praised God for the collapse of a world of peace that he had his fill, so completely his fill of?”

Stach argues that Kafka never showed this same amount of patriotic fervor as Mann and other writers, even at the beginning of the war. Kafka’s diary about this topic mixes the personal and mundane with the global and tragic: “Germany declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.” Because of his job at the Insurance Agency which become responsible for founding a sanatorium for wounded veterans, Kafka knew more horrific details about the physical and mental consequences of war than any other writer of his day. Stach argues that Kafka was neither naïve nor oblivious to the gruesome realities of modern warfare. So why the insistence on joining this catastrophe firsthand? Even Stach is flummoxed by this: “Kafka’s insistence on joining the military is one of the most baffling decisions of his life; psychologically motivated empathy will not get us very far. We would have an easier time understanding an act of desperation of a fleeting indifference to his own fate—and Kafka would not have been the first to seek refuge in barracks. But that was not the case. His endeavors to serve in the military were well thought out, purposeful, and spirited, and they were repeated for years on end.”

Even though Kafka fell into a deep depression during the winter of 1915 and 1916, Stach rules out suicide. So what is left? Kafka is greatly susceptible to guilt and as Kafka witnesses friends, family members, and fellow writers succumb to the tragedies of war, it is certainly possible that he felt terribly guilty for his continued exemptions. But the most compelling reason that Stach makes, I think, for Kafka’s desire for military service is also the simplest—he wanted to escape, even if it meant going to war:

He found himself careening down an inclined plane whose slope kept steepening, and everything was tugging him in the same direction. He was cooped up in the office for fifty-hour workweeks, his desire to write stifled by headaches, insomnia, and increasing isolation. Kafka welcomed any prospect at all of making a fundamental change and warding off the psychological decline he was experiencing with the agonizingly intensified sense of time of a drowning man. Vacation, marriage, military service…it mad almost no difference which one.

Vacation, marriage, World War I….whatever, any one will do! Oh Kafka! I know I keep going on and on about how extraordinary Stach’s biography of Kafka is. But I really must say it again. Stach has set a new, very high bar for writing intense, exhaustive, interesting and compelling stories. Kakfa, who loved to read biographies, would have most definitely approved of this one!


Filed under German Literature, History, Kafka, Nonfiction, World War I

Nil de Nilo Fit: A Different Sea by Claudio Magris

ἀρετή τιμὴν φέρει, (excellence brings honor), are the first words spoken by Magris’s protagonist in A Different Sea.  Enrico has graduated from the Royal Imperial Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia and has decided to set sail for Patagonia in an attempt to live an authentic life, free from material items, worry,  and The Great War which is about to break out in Europe.  His mind has been shaped by the Ancient Greek texts that he and his friends Nino and Carlo are so fond of reading in Nino’s attic room:

Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer—also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.  They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day’s events, like that story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.

Enrico has an existential crisis in his youth as he is trying to decide what, for him, constitutes excellence in his life.  To the Homeric heroes he is so fond of studying, excellence comes in the form of success on the battlefield which, in turn, brings them honor.  Enrico’s search for purpose in life seems to have more elements of Epicurean philosophy than Homeric values.  He feels the most content when he is with his friends, in the attic, discussing life and Greek philosophy.  Epicurus himself achieved ἀταραξία (a lack of disturbance) sitting in his garden and contemplating human existence with his friends.

The Epicurean elements of Magris’s text continue as Enrico traverses the ocean in order to reach South America.  Enrico craves simplicity, has no interest in politics, avoids pain and has no fear of death.  On board the ship, when he is told the story of a famous captain who dies at sea Enrico remarks: “Nil de nilo fit et nil in nilum abit” (nothing happens from nothing and nothing will go into nothing).  Once he reaches Argentina he spends weeks and months alone herding his flocks and living in a modest hut with only a bed and a few Greek books.

When Enrico finally returns home he settles in Salvore and also lives a modest life in a small house and rents his land out to tenants.  But he still remains unhappy and unfulfilled since his friends have all died and he fails to make connections with anyone else in his life.  Every time he has the chance to get close to someone, especially a woman, he ends up driving them away.  His poor relationship with women begins early in his life with his mother whom he feels favors his younger brother.  He finds comfort in having a woman with him who can also fulfill his sexual needs but he treats each woman he lives with very badly.  Even his niece, for whom he at first develops a fondness, is treated poorly and verbally abused by Enrico.  In the end Enrico’s loneliness and his failure to achieve ἀταραξία are due to his inability to make emotional connections with other people in his life.  He never finds his excellence, his reason for living, something that can bring him honor and self-satisfaction.

I found Magris’s writing in A Different Sea as enjoyable as his longer novel Blameless which I recently reviewed.  He is fond of weaving images of the sea into his stories, imbedding stories within stories in his texts, and portraying flawed characters who are searching for meaning in this random, crazy life.

Here is a link to a recent interview with Claudio Magris whose English translation of Blameless has just been published by Yale University Press:

For a more detailed discussion of excellence and honor in Homer see my thoughts on Logue’s War Music:


Filed under Historical Fiction, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella, World War I

Review: William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

My Review:
William EnglishmanI was not surprised to find out the author composed this novel in a tent on the front lines of World War I.  The novel is a gruesome, starkly honest portrayal of the horrors of war.  The author, however, draws the readers in at first with a light and satirical description of its gentle, naïve and optimistic main characters, William and Griselda.

When the story begins, William is twenty-six years old and still lives with his mother.  He has an extremely ordered and monotonous life working at a clerk’s office and handing over most of his weekly paycheck to his mother.  He doesn’t seem to have any genuine affection for his parent and when she suddenly dies he realizes that he never really loved her.  Her death means freedom for him; not only does he now have financial freedom since she left him a sizeable inheritance but he also has the freedom to make his own decisions about the course his life will take.

William asks some advice from one of his fellow clerks about what he should do with his time and money and it is through this interaction with Farraday that William becomes involved with political and social reform.  William leaves the tedious office where he has worked for many years and embarks on full-time career as a social activist who writes about, protests and goes to meetings about the suffragette movement, pacifism, and other socialist topics.

It is at these meetings that William meets Griselda, a feisty suffragette who shares the same ideals as William.  The tone in the book that describes these two is one of gentle parody as William and Griselda appear to fight for mostly vague causes.  They believe all government is evil and any attempt of a government to raise a military and train it is simply “playing” at warfare.  They love to go to meetings and hand out pamphlets and consider themselves strong and tough for fighting against social injustices.  They see themselves as the perfect couple and their courtship and devotion to each other is a sweet love story.

When William and Griselda take their honeymoon in the remote mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, they are uneasy with the slow-paced, quiet life of the village in which they are staying. But they settle in for a few weeks and enjoy each other’s company.  It is on the very last day of their vacation that things take a horrible and tragic turn for the worst.  They encounter a regiment of invading German soldiers who treat them brutally and inhumanely.  I have to say that the violence in this book shocked me and Hamilton does not gloss over or sugarcoat the atrocities of war.

William, the once naïve and optimistic Englishman who lived in his happy little bubble of bliss, now becomes the disillusioned and distraught victim of real warfare.  It is not a game or a joke when men are being blown apart and people’s lives are destroyed by gunfire and bombs.  I don’t want to give away the plot and the fate of William and Griselda.  But I will say that William’s story comes full circle and in the end his life becomes equally as monotonous and numb as it was when we first meet him living under the thumb of his mother.  What starts out as an amusing story about two naïve lovebirds becomes a harsh commentary on the gory realities of warfare.

I encourage anyone who enjoys World War I historical fiction to pick up this book.  Thanks to Persephone Press for reissuing another brilliant book from an important 20th century female author.

About the Author:
C HamiltonCicely Mary Hamilton (born Hammill), was an English author and co-founder of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.

She is best remembered for her plays which often included feminist themes. Hamilton’s World War I novel “William – An Englishman” was reprinted by Persephone Books in 1999.

She was a friend of EM Delafield and was portrayed as Emma Hay in “A Provincial Lady Goes Further.”



Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books, World War I

Review: Georg Trakl Poems

My Review:
G Trakl PoemsI loved the first novel I read from Seagull Books so I decided to give some of their poetry a try.  I was not disappointed; and, in fact, this small but powerful little book captivated my attention.  I had intended to read a few poems a day over the course of several weeks.  But I finished the collection in a couple of sittings because once I started reading the poems I could not put the book down.

After reading this collection of Trakl poems I was not surprised to discover that he had a very brief and tragic life.  His poems are filled with the language of decay, dying, sunset, twilight, birds of carrion and shadows.  But I got the feeling that despite his internal struggles, Trakl desperately wanted to fight his way out of the abyss and find some meaning, some bright spot, some redemption in what was otherwise a depressing existence.

A common theme in this collection of poems is nature and the natural decay that every living thing experiences.  But mixed within this decay there is also a natural, cyclical process of death and rebirth.  In the opening poem a flock of ravens sense that a meal is near.  They fight over their meal and once sated they fly away, almost gracefully “like a funeral cortege/Into winds tingling with ecstasy.”  Dinner for ravens means rot and decay is present but it is also nourishment and continues their lifespan; it is the fuel that allows them to make that flight at the end of the poem.

One of my favorite poems in the collection “In Autumn” perfectly describes Trakl’s struggle against death and decay.  Although fall is the season where everything starts to wither and die, the poet captures the beauty of this time of the year.  He describes sunflowers that “blaze along the fence” and women who labour “singing in the fields.”  And although he mentions death, the poem ends on a high note:

The dead houses have been opened wide
And painted beautiful with sunshine.

Scenes that capture the essence of autumn and winter abound in this collection.  These are my favorite seasons in New England and may be why these poems resonated so much with me.

Trakl also captures the calm of twilight and evening, the declining of the day,  in several of these poems.  In the poem “Decay,” he manages to bring together decay, autumn and the evening into one short and descriptive poem.  He asks us to imagine him following the birds “in their glorious flight” as they are “disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.”  And as he wanders “through the twilight-filled garden” Trakl imagines the birds taking flight and he has dreams that follow them along their paths into the sky and onto “brighter destinies.”  Once again, we feel him fighting against his melancholy and wanting to take flight from it like those birds he so admires.

Finally, I have to mention the artwork that Seagull books chose to adorn the cover of this beautiful collection.  The bright red is striking against the backdrop of a scene of nature which is outlined in black.  The choice of a crow on the cover perfectly captures the themes of nature and decay contained within the volume.  Seagull has another volume of Trakl poems forthcoming which I am very eager to get my hands on.

About the Author and Translator:
G TraklGeorg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin-de-siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, however, he died of a cocaine overdose due to battle fatigue and depression from the wartime delay of his second book.

James Reidel is poet, translator, editor and biographer. In addition to the works of Georg Trakl, he has translated novels by Franz Werfel and poetry by Thomas Bernhard, among others. He is the biographer of poet Weldon Kees and author of two volumes of poetry.


Filed under Classics, German Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, World War I

Review: The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

My new favorite literary obsession is the wonderful novels from Persephone Books.  Please visit their website to learn more about this small press and the fabulous books they publish:

My Review:
The Happy TreeFirst, I would like to mention that each Persephone book comes with beautiful endpapers and a matching bookmark.  Each endpaper and bookmark pattern that are chosen have a history of their own.  The picture here is the endpaper from The Happy Tree and is a replica of a 1926 printed woolen plush by TF Firth & Sons.

This novel shows us the devastating effects that World War I has on ordinary people who are trying to carry on in their daily lives while chaos and death have broken out around them.  The story is told from the point of view of Helen Woodruffe, who spends her childhood with her Cousin Delia and her two sons, Guy and Hugo.  Helen’s own father has died and Helen’s mother wants nothing to do with raising a child.  So Helen’s paternal relations step in and raise her.  She spends many happy days running around the family estate at Yearsly with Guy and Hugo.  Helen is particularly close to Hugo who is about her same age; they seem to have a special understanding of one another’s sensitive personalities and they share the same interests.

As Helen and Hugo develop into teenagers, it is evident that there is a strong attraction between them.  Everyone who is close to them assumes that they will eventually marry.  But when Hugo takes interest in another girl, Helen agrees to marry a man named Walter because she thinks Hugo is lost to her forever.  Walter is a good husband and loves Helen and it is sad that she comes to the conclusion that she has married the wrong person.  Helen has three children with Walter and she does seem happy for most of her married life with Walter.

The most interesting part of the book is reading about people’s reaction to the war; Helen and her family are at a dinner party when Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and no one believes that there will be a war and any fighting that does break out they believe it will be minor.  When Great Britain is pulled into the war and all of Helen’s young friends, including Guy and Hugo, join the fighting no one believes that the war will last for very long.  As the war drags on, Helen gets notice of one friend after another who has been wounded or killed in the fighting.  In the meantime, she has to deal with food rations, long lines and fuel shortages.  This begins to wear her down and she becomes very depressed, especially when her second child is born.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is one in which Helen describes the struggle of everyday existence during the war years:

This was not life, this daily drudgery, this struggle to keep going, to get through, to exist. I was marking time, we were all marking time, waiting and waiting for the strain to relax, for the war to end; and meantime our youth was going.

THE HAPPY TREE is a realistic view of World War I as see through the eyes of Helen and the everyday British citizens whose lives were worn down by this horrible conflict.  Persephone Books has given us another great classic that should go on the “must read” list for all those interested in World War I historical fiction.

About The Author:
rosalind-murray-copy_1Rosalind Murray (1890-1967) was the daughter of the well-known classical scholar Gilbert Murray and Lady Mary Howard. Brought up in Glasgow and Oxford, she was educated by governesses and at the progressive Priors Field School. She published her first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910 when she was 20, her second, Moonseed, in 1911 and her third, Unstable Ways, in 1914; this was the year after her marriage to the historian Arnold Toynbee, with whom she had three sons between 1914 and 1922. The Happy Tree came out in 1926; it was followed by another novel, Hard Liberty, and by a children’s history book.  During the 1930s Rosalind Murray’s interests turned to theology; although brought up agnostic, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1933, and published several books about faith and religion. She parted from her husband in 1942 and spent the rest of her life farming in Cumberland.


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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books, World War I