talk about the war:
the literature of remembrance

In for a Penny, In for a Pound
Howard Hewer
(Stoddart, 296 pages)
in for a penny, in for a pound cover
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War might be a tragedy on an enormous scale, an awful reminder of human bestiality, and the worst imaginable manifestation of the political use of power, but it has been a gift to literature. Foremost in the mind of any writer has always been the question: What to write about? For the generations of writers who lived through the world wars of the passing century, the answer was obvious. 

From Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon through Hemingway and Remarque to Waugh, Heller, Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal and more, the experience of war, even on the sidelines, answered the question and spared us an almost unbroken century of novels about tenured middle-aged writers and their tawdry affairs. More recently, Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Michael Ondaatje - all too young to have lived through either world war - wrote their best work in wartime settings, making credible the awful idea that another war might be needed, if only to save us from more novels about hip, neurotic young urbanites and their tawdry affairs.

War memoirs have emerged more tentatively as literature. The First World War ended with an explosion of memoirs by countless self-glorifying generals, admirals and politicians, most of which were swept aside by T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the great, epic military romance that seemed to recover the glory of war in its gruesome aftermath. Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy was probably the source of our indelible image of the Battle of Britain fighter pilot: noble yet callow, driven by exhaustion and the fear of imminent death to a ragged embrace of life and the occasional profound insight. 

Howard Hewer’s memoir of life as a radio operator on a bomber crew is hardly as raw as Hillary’s, written fifty years after the war and a long time after the rawness of fear and exhilaration have passed. It reminds me of Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, a WW1 pilot’s memoir written in the thirties; clear, artless prose and a remarkable recall of the machine-like progress of the writer through training, posting, battle and the loss of friends, ending with the anticlimactic return home. 

Hewer is candid about the almost manic need for something to do on leaves, and his own, virtually suicidal, urge to take on extra missions, even volunteering to drive a reconnaissance unit behind enemy lines despite never having learned to drive, just to avoid any inactivity that might invite listlessness and depression. His description of the condescension inflicted at Canadian servicemen by British officers and the petty humiliations of an enlisted man’s life still bears traces of bitter rancour. Altogether a marvellous addition to the utterly essential literature of remembrance.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis