Wars (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

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9780141180809: Wars (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

This anthology brings together writings which emphasise that despite the camaraderie and heroism, war is really about killing and being killed. It concentrates on why it is men fight wars and how something we call humanity survives them. Contributors include Primo Levi, Anna Akhmatova, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, Bertolt Brecht and others.

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Angus Calder is a brave man. In Wars, his commendably ambitious volume of war writings, he has imagined an ideal reader who will read the work from cover to cover rather than dip into it, which is the usual fate of anthologies. This conceit of "through-composing" reaps handsome dividends for those willing to give themselves up to his direction. His previous book, The People's War, was as much about the banalities thrown up by war as the fighting, but here he deliberately focuses on what John Ellis calls "the sharp end of war". It is a book about killing and being killed. In its turn, it takes no prisoners.

The scope of the volume is writings about war in the European theatre during the first half of the 20th century. It has become a century haunted by those lost on the battlefield. The variety of genre and mode represented here is vast: from the instantly recognisable poetry of Wilfred Owen to excerpts of previously unknown memoirs, to song lyrics by Jacques Brel. The selection is sweeping, admirably cosmopolitan and non-partisan. It divides into nine sections: Attitudes at the Turn of the Century, Why Men Fight, The Great War, Revolution and Civil War, Death Camps, World War II, The Eastern Front, Grief and Guilt, and Reckonings. Entries range in length from a few lines of verse to many pages of prose, and the weighting of the contributions is finely and seriously judged by Calder, who studiously avoids counting out a trudging beat. This is subjectivity as art. At the heart, and mid-point, of the deliberately unindexed collection lies an extract from Primo Levi's If This Is A Man that, given space to breathe, expresses a humanity which is every bit yin to war's yang. Calder's passionate determination to make people understand, to "restore immediate meaning to bleeding", brilliantly illustrates the dignity of human expression that refuses to be silenced, however horrific the experience. A brave idea, which deserves brave reading. --David Vincent

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