1914: Goodbye to All That was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, World War I Centenary Art Commissions and edited by Lavinia Greenlaw. It contains essays and stories by Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Daniel Kehlmann, Aleš Šteger, Elif Shafak, NoViolet Bulawayo, Erwin Mortier, Xiaolu Guo, Colm Tóibín, and Jeanette Winterson. Most of the pieces have to do with World War I, but others are about other conflicts. The subtitle explains that this collection is really about writers reflecting on the shortfalls of art and language to address war, atrocity, and devastation.
As in any collection, there are standouts and pieces that just didn’t work for me. My favorite pieces are Aleš Šteger’s story, “Tea at the Museum,” which an old friend requests a meeting so that she can apologize to the narrator for crimes committed in a previous life. Elif Shafak writes about the radical changes to spelling and meaning in the Turkish language in “In Search of Untold Stories,” that have caused the Turkish people to have amnesia about the past. Ali Smith’s meditative piece, “Good Voice,” has its narrator searching for a way to start a story about World War I while talking to her deceased father, a World War II veteran.
1914: Goodbye to All That is surprisingly brief, but it contains a number of profundities about the questions artists (writers included) have to wrestle with and why literature is such a good medium for that wrestling. In the foreward, Greenlaw writes:
I didn’t want writers to simply return to the past but to formulate and reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring. They were asked to consider the lost of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it mans to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations. (n.p.*)
Thus Colm Tóibín ends up writing about Lady Gregory’s circle of writers and their poetry that dealt with the war and NoViolet Bulawayo deals with the problem of speaking for people who suffered without having suffered herself. This collection is a testament to the fact that, even 100 years after, World War I haunts us all.
There is a line from Aleš Šteger’s “Tea at the Museum” that hit me particularly hard. The narrator muses aloud to the woman who committed murder in a past life that “You recover from the ghosts of the past only once the final witness has gone” (Chapter 4). Can this be true? Every generation is reacting to the traumas and ideas of the previous generations, but is it the older generations that keep the torch alive? Even once the oldest of us have passed on, their descendants will remember them until their deaths. The ghosts will be we with us for a long time. The narrator also used the verb “recover,” not “forget.” Recover implies healing and acceptance. But, as Elif Shafak writes in Chapter 5, World War I was the start of everything:
[What] would the world be like today had the First World War never happened? Would the “Second World War” have taken place, for instance? Would there still have been a Holocaust? Would things have turned out so differently that none of the tragedies of the twentieth century would have occurred?
Now that World War I is so far in the past and most of its veterans have gone, I think Shafak’s question and Šteger’s narrator’s hypothesis help explain why we keep returning to the so-called Great War. We can’t help but wonder, what if? And we clearly haven’t recovered from it, especially since World War I seems to be the start of a long series of devastations.
1914: Goodbye to All That was published last year and I fear it and its questions have faded from the public eye. This book came out amongst dozens of other books about the First World War. The attention span of the collective consciousness is microscopic and the western world has already moved on from the centennial of the war’s outbreak, I fear. The value of this book, even if it’s flying under the cultural radar is showing that someone (several someones, in fact) with a lot of talent are thinking about questions the rest of us won’t or can’t deal with. This book is a very good addition to the histories and biographies and documentaries about World War I because it takes a step back from objective details to look at the subjective effects on our psyches. And, as Bulawayo points out, World War I isn’t the only bad thing to have happened. Perhaps learning how to “recover” from it will help survivors of more recent mass violence.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
* Quotes are from a digital advanced reader copy of 1914: Goodbye to All That, published in 2014 by Pushkin Press. Page numbers are no available.