Great Novels Set In WWII
It took a very clear-eyed and unsentimental author like Rex Warner to create such a perversely beautiful, horrific novel as ‘The aerodrome’. Taking a contrary position to the prevailing attitude of the time (1941), that the British Air Force pilot represented a pinnacle of pure order in a time of dark chaos, he tells the story of Roy (clearly Rex), a young man at first fascinated and later repelled by the airmen whose sinister outpost slowly absorbs a lowly country village. Roy admires the ill-mannered Flight-Lieutenant who casually offends villagers and steals his girl, because the pilots operate according to higher moral laws that place them far above the drunken, rowdy locals. But his respect proves misplaced; the Flight Lieutenant is a pen-pusher who has never flown, and as other secrets begin to tumble out, events are set in motion that lead to murder.
Mysteriously, the order of importance Warner chooses for the book’s sensational disclosures is very unusual, so that the shooting of a mother in a crowded church or the adulterous betrayal of a friend is of little consequence in the pilots’ minds, because they are merely an expedience on the path to higher glories. No wonder JG Ballard was such a fan.
Henry Green is another uncomfortable writer; in ‘Caught’, his greatest novel, he recounts the horrors of the Blitz seen through his old real-life job as an auxiliary fire officer. As the fire bombs cause a conflagration that threatens to engulf them, a painfully human story of rivalry unfolds. I must admit I find his prose a bit flat and bleak for my tastes.
Muriel Spark’s ‘The Girls of Slender Means’ takes place in a Kensington hostel for young ladies in 1945 when accommodation was scarce, and recounts the girls’ struggle to find men and money simply for survival, until tragedy changes their lives. It plays to all of Spark’s greatest strengths.
In ‘The Ministry of Fear’ Graham Greene goes a bit John Buchan and sets up a terrific wartime adventure involving a not-quite-innocent amnesiac dupe, a garden fete and spies trying to murder him – great fun.
Evelyn Waugh, an author in my 20th century top three, brings back the hapless Basil Seal from the disgraceful ‘Black Mischief’ in ‘Put Out More Flags’, in a plot involving evacuees, scandals and scams. But Waugh’s greatest war achievement is the ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy, in which the incompetent Guy Crouchback blunders his way through the red tape in a complex, poisonously funny and ultimately tragic examination of wartime betrayals.
In Elizabeth Bowen’s extraordinary ‘The Heat Of The Day’ a young woman discovers that her lover has been selling secrets to the enemy and must decide how far she will go to protect him. I’ve just spent half an hour looking for the book because I don’t remember how it ends!
And I think we should also include Lissa Evans’ ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ (columns passim), a tale of artistes attempting to make a morale-boosting low budget British film in 1941, where there’s a sense of wry amusement in even the darkest hours.