How to write about war

Somebody had left many boxes of books on the sidewalk on 76th Street between Fifth and Madison, and as Susana and I were walking back from our run in Central Park we stopped and scooped up a bunch. One was a very famous war novel that I had never heard of until our friend Hazel in Carboneras urged it upon us, Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong (London: Hutchinson, 1993). Another was a collection of short stories by Saki, pen name of Hugh Munro, whom I remembered from the delightful, chilling surprise of reading "The Open Window" long ago in high school.

I don't know how I had missed Birdsong -- a quick search on the 'net revealed that it has been a best-seller, there's been talk for years about a movie, and it has even inspired tours of the battlefields that figure in it. It really is a gripping read, especially those horrifying scenes from the trenches of France in 1916 and until the end of the Great War two years later. These are preceded and then intertwined with a kind of love story -- though "love" is an imprecise description for British infantry officer Stephen Wraysford's obsession with a vacuous, self-centered and dimly remembered Frenchwoman. No matter. Even the flightiest characters (including Stephen's Isabelle) are depicted convincingly. There is also a later story, set in 1978-79, about Stephen's granddaughter's search for mature independence and information about that grandfather. All of it clearly and sensitively related, though it is only the two terrible bloody years in France that really matter. Faulks has chosen to remind us of this war which (as his characters say and almost all real-life contemporaries said over and over) unleashed destructive forces so much greater than its predecessors -- including the cruel and bloody Boer, Russo-Japanese, and Balkan wars that immediately preceded it -- that it changed the world.

So it seemed an odd coincidence to find in the same serendipitous heap of books on the sidewalk of 76th Street the short, poetic piece, "Birds on the Western Front," in Emlyn Williams' 1978 edition of Saki's Short Stories.

The other stories here (there are about 60 in the book, a small sample of Saki's voluminous output) are mostly clever, extended jokes, playing on and confirming a public school Briton's class prejudices. They are often annoyingly sexist, in the light, silly manner of situation comedy. In fact, what gives pleasure in reading Saki is the absurd situations leading to startling outcomes (as in "The Open Window"). The characters are simply caricatures, and they all talk alike, however devious their intentions. But-- "Birds on the Western Front" is something else.

The frivolous, supercilious Saki was perhaps a cover for a somewhat more serious Hugh Munro, foreign correspondent (1902-1906) and author of serious-sounding tomes on Russian history and the pre-1914 turbulence elsewhere in Europe. In 1916, at the age of 46 (rather old to serve), he joined the British Army (Royal Scottish Fusileers) and was soon killed in a trench in France. "Birds", which must have been written just weeks or months before his death, ingeniously describes trench warfare without looking at it directly. Instead, it is about the birds whose natural habitat has been destroyed by cannonade, bombs and machine-gunning, but still must find some scrap of something for nesting and carrying on the only life they know. This is a marvelously effective denunciation of the war, still fresh even after the angry sentimentality of Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” has begun to grate.

I wonder if Faulks was thinking of this short piece by Saki when he chose the title "Birdsong." If so, then maybe what he meant to suggest (with Saki) was that even through the worst horrors, life persists.

Here is my plot summary of and further comment on Birdsong, and rather less on Emlyn Williams' edition of Saki's Short Stories.

Photo of Ancre (France) after the battle from this website.

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