Book: Show us a great biography or memoir.
World War One was a premature, savage and unnecessary harvest of, in Wilfred Owen's words, "half the seed of Europe". So it's ironic, horribly so - as irony often is – that it was also responsible for one of the lushest flowerings of memoir-writing English literature had ever experienced.
The authors for the most part were University-educated, well-read and sensitive to the waste and laziness of their gilt, Edwardian lives. They not only welcomed the chance to 'do their bit', but they welcomed the war itself. They saw it as a purgative, a cleansing agent to purify a decadent country.
This explains the exquisite tragedy of these memoirs. Suddenly a soldier, shell-shocked into reality, he saw sights that he had never imagined in even his most barbaric dreams.
But through it all he retained some delicacy of thought, of expression. Which is why these works are so beautifully written, so insightful, so heart-breakingly clear and unmerciless.
And it was this lack of mercy which held back the publication of these books. For the most part they weren't published until the 1930's, sufficient time to keep the angry words and incriminating memories from doing their damage.
When Edwin Campion Vaughan left for France in January, 1917, he pitied the loved ones waving their boys goodbye – realizing that "the excitement of the venture into the dreamed of but unrealized land of war, eclipsed the sorrow of parting…" In late August he was climbing over a pile of bodies shredded by shrapnel to get to HQ's entrance, "…as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses."
And in the final lines of the book: "Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future."
Guy Chapman, on the other hand, had no "…romantic illusions. I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to the thought of England." Months later that realism was pounded into despair: "We descended to primal man. No washing or shaving here; and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole."
By the war's end, he had become bitter and angry: "Our civilization was being torn in pieces before our eyes. England was said to be a country fit only for profiteers to live in…England had vanished over the horizon of the mind. I did not want to see it."
I think that both of these books are pure examples of how beauty and horror can co-mingle in one life and can also occasionally create a work of memorable art.