One of the many courses I am attending this semester is an English literature course called Representation of War in British Film and Lit. Never mind the fact that we’re reading Heart of Darkness (as an example of colonial warfare?) and watching Apocalypse Now (definitely not British), but we started the course with The Battle of the Somme (1916) Siegfried Sassoon’s and Wilfred Owen’s writings. We followed up with representations of World War I in short fiction and read Katherine Mansfield’s “An Indiscreet Journey,” D.H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please” and Robert Graves “The Christmas Truce.”
Of the three short stories, the war front was only really described in Graves’ work, and it wasn’t done even in a straightforward manner. Mansfield’s story was labeled as “At the Front” by the Penguin collection of WWI short stories, and while the story mentally and emotionally carries one to the front, it was actually set in a French village away from the “real” fighting. I appreciated all three stories, especially Lawrence’s about a budding feminist movement, but I mostly wanted to dedicate a few thoughts to Graves’ story. As to be expected by literature (open to subjective presentation and interpretation) all three stories presented more than uncritical observations of war. The style of Graves’ text especially provided some food for thought.
I already indicated that Graves story doesn’t work in a straightforward way (does literature ever?). Instead, it relies on a frame to open the reader to the events of the 1914 Christmas Truce during World War I. The frame, consisting of a young man being told “yarns that improved with the telling” in response to his doubts about human relations and the imminent “world war III, helps form the interpretation of the (arguably unreliable) narration. Stanley (the young man) believes in an idea of “mankind” and so his grandfather and his pal, both WWI veterans, each tell a story that complicates the idea, both reinforcing and challenging it.
I could go into a further analysis of the story itself, but right now I mostly want to comment on the story-telling itself. See, something that dawned on me during class discussion is that these stories the grandfather and Dodger told were shared in a sort of celebratory way. That they “improved with the telling” indicates to me that there was some revelry that went on in how the war was recounted and how the deeds were described.
Coming from the United States, one of the Allied Powers during both world wars, I am used to this idea of story-telling as a positive tradition. I think the same is true of England, However, I was attending this class in Germany and Germany obviously has a very different relationship with the wars. I asked my classmates whether their grandparents shared stories of the war with them, and their answers were “no.” Post-war captivity and hardship were talked about, but German WWI or WWII veterans generally have little audience for their stories (unless it’s a right-wing bar). There’s more than one explanation for this, but I don’t want to get into that here.
Basically, however, I was interested by the challenge of interpretation presented by this story based on a cultural difference in the writer, expected audience, and actual audience. At the same time, Graves question of “mankind,” I feel has a much different answer than both WWI, WWII and the time he wrote it in 1962.