A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
What I wanted to do was disrupt narrative structures and upset realist expectations by imitating an early-medieval annalist… but it proved impossible. In the first place because every sentence is a kind of narrative, and a kind of explanation, the distinction drawn between annals, chronicles and narratives is more apparent than real. We can never escape from narrative. Secondly, Western historians at least no longer operate in sacerdotal time, or anything remotely like it. We cannot recapture the honesty, freshness and attractive ambiguity of a mind and hand engaged elsewhere and elsewhen, scribing pari passu in the margins of an Easter Table whatever secular fragments came to notice and seemed worth recording. We are too knowing for that, too subtle and too demanding and perhaps too fraudulent. We want certainties about uncertainties and a certain degree of explanation. The form of this book is therefore a hybrid of annal and narrative, but the intention remains: to foreground other ways of reading the past, thereby divulging some of history’s inherent ambiguities and dilemmas. (From the Introduction, p. 2)
Living on the Western Front represents a new and unique way of writing history. The experience of British settlers in Belgium, Northern France and Germany over the course of the First World War, drawn from a vast body of letters and diaries, is parcelled into narremes: short self-contained narrative units. These can in turn be read in a variety of ways: singly and at random; chronologically; or following one of a set of thematic stories (such as Aspects of Identity, Enemy, Journeys and Landscapes). The author, Chris Ward, kindly set aside the time to answer a few questions.
This book represents quite a departure in both form and content from your previous work on Stalinism. How did this new strand come about?
Years of supervising and thinking about history made me think about trying to, if not overcome, then at least highlight the artificial nature of history production and to draw readers’ attention to the fact that history and the past are not the same thing at all.
In the introduction, you say that you have left the stylistic and technical inconsistencies of the text intact, in order to preserve traces of how the work evolved. This strikes me as practically unprecedented, given that the usual way(s) of writing history tend to emphasise the seamless and unified narrative. Is this a fair assessment?
I think so, but when a text leaves its author’s hand the author has no responsibility for (though s/he may evince some curiosity about) how readers read it. I suppose I wanted it to be ‘fair’ in the way that the reader gets to see the nuts and bolts of how history is constructed: i.e., getting away from the idea of the omniscient narrator, so that readers see, right in front of them, that this is a construct.
When I was writing my Masters thesis back in 2003, you taught me to organise my work using index cards. Here you used a computer programme to plot out the book, and you mention that this threw up new and unexpected forms. To what extent is this book a collaboration between man and machine?
To a large extent. Letting the machine do some of the work again throws into sharp relief the point I try to make about history being a product that can be shaped/imagined in many different ways.
The voices that emerge from your treatment—that have pride of place, in fact—are varied, engaging, idiosyncratic. Did you find you had favourites?
Not really. All of them in their different ways are interesting, and historians are (or ought to be) vulgar voyeurs, but I guess some of them (Cude, Schweder, Goodliff) would have been more interesting to chat to than others simply because they were more articulate.
As you say, the officer class (of which Schweder, who particularly stuck with me, was one) still speak the loudest in the first-hand accounts of the time; even though the majority of the participants could record their experience, and did. Confidence and agency were on the side of the officers. Is there also, do you think, a general fascination with the experience of the élite?
Quite the reverse, really, I think. For nearly half a century now, British historians of the Western Front have struggled to write ‘from below’ about the experiences of ordinary soldiers. The thing is, I’m not too impressed with what’s been achieved: too much sentiment; not enough source criticism; not enough thinking about what we mean by ‘experience.’ Also, as I said somewhere, mythology has taken over so many texts. Anyone would think that it rained shells and water all the time, that there was nothing but mud and death, and that everyone lived in trenches forever.
Speaking of sentiment and the trenches, how do you feel about the beat-up to the centenary in July, and especially the public debate around the origins and legitimacy of the First World War? Where—if indeed anywhere at all—do you place your book in relation to the ongoing debate?
It doesn’t fit at all because it has nothing to do with that ‘debate’ which, by the way, to my mind is, by and large, not an historical debate at all. THE business of historians is to show the past to the present. Now, they may fail in this—in fact, they invariably will—but what they can’t do is have ‘opinions’. They have to get rid of them and be strangers to themselves. Of course, they can have ‘technical opinions’—what happened, why did it happen one way and not another, what happened afterwards (causes/processes/consequences)—but you’ll notice that these are all amoral opinions. Quasi-scientific, if you like. But once you start to argue about ‘legitimacy’ we are back with 1066 And All That: ‘good’/’bad’/’progressive’/’reactionary’. All rubbish, of course, because it’s got nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present: mere punditry. You’d be surprised how many historians are not really interested in the past at all, but are greatly interested in themselves, and in their opinions, and in using the past for their various ends. As for the centenary itself, I think in the book somewhere I called it ‘official pieties’. Does anything more need to be said when politicians open their mouths?
I think all this applies equally well to Russian history. All those interminable 1917 documentaries…
I’ve given up watching them!
Which books would you recommend to those who want to find out more about experiences of WWI?
Since memoirs tend to be more interesting than histories, I’d go for Lewis, Sagittarius Rising and Manning, Her Privates We. Both are intelligent and reflective in unusual ways and also avoid the self-conscious, knowing irony you get in things like Graves’ Goodbye To All That.
Chris Ward is University Senior Lecturer in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. For more information about his work and publications, see his Department webpage. For Kirsty’s earlier conversation with him about Trotsky’s works, click here.
Living on the Western Front, Bloomsbury Academic (June 6 2013), 296 pp. ISBN: 978-1441109309. Also available for e-readers.
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'