From Roth to Le Guin: top 10 novels about the first world war

Authors such as Virginia Woolf and Pat Barker show how the conflict’s devastating impact carried on long after the 1918 armistice

I had not intended to write a first world war novel. But the physician protagonist of my initial project, set in interwar Vienna, needed a backstory. So I sought in it the war and, like countless others before me, found myself drawn into the conflict. Soon it was the central setting for my book, The Winter Soldier.

The first world war still pervades our imagination. Even in California, I grew up with images of the trenches and of barbed wire strung across muddy fields. But the war, as it appears in my book, came to resemble something very different. To begin with, my novel’s setting, a field hospital in a commandeered church in the Carpathian mountains, seemed increasingly foreign to the first world war I had once imagined. The eastern front, with its vast plains, mountains and marshes, had little entrenchment compared with the west. Here one found cavalry forces reminiscent of Tolstoy, plumed and bannered, at times colliding with the newer weaponry of increasingly industrialised armies.

And yet it was less the battles that interested me, more the other struggles, carried out in war’s shadows. I was drawn to stories of non-combatants: of doctors and nurses, veterans, bureaucrats, smugglers, families searching for their sons. I was drawn, equally, to the fragile fin de siècle world destroyed by the fighting and to the way the war played out in memory, in pride, in camaraderie, trauma, grief and regret. My reading soon affected more than just my novel: as a psychiatrist, I see the impact of trauma in my patients’ lives every day. Little did I imagine the many lessons I would learn from patients from a century ago.

Absent from my list are certain classics – All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Birdsong that introduced me to the war years ago and remain some of my favourite books. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on the rich fiction I came to discover while researching my novel: works not only of the eastern theatre, but also those about the home front and the war’s psychological impact.

1. The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
Hašek’s meandering, unfinished comedy tells the story of a dog thief turned soldier, who blusters, pranks and malingers his way through the early days of the war. Some of the sequences are so funny I often found myself laughing out loud, but the darkness of the humour only highlights the suffering of those caught up in the conflict. Here, the unrelenting portrayals of a cynical bureaucracy extend Švejk’s lessons beyond the first world war, and to all wars, offering a sardonic blueprint for resistance against the structures of faceless power.

2. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
It is only at the end of Roth’s multigenerational portrait of trio of Austro-Hungarian officers that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo sends Europe decidedly into war. But death – here, literally a skeletal personification of Death – haunts the pages from the beginning. Woven in this novel’s many pleasures – its satire, its richly conjured material world of the Habsburgs – is its assertion that war begins not with a bullet or proclamation, but springs from complex social and psychological forces.

3. Regeneration by Pat Barker
The most subtle depiction of the emotional trauma of war that I have read. Far from the front, we follow the impact of the fighting, not only on the men who served, but also on the doctors who care for them. Barker’s portrayal of psychiatrist WHR Rivers shows how compassion and humanity can thrive in the complex and conflicted mind of a doctor struggling to understand his patients, as well as his own motivations and desires.

Continuing conflict … Kenneth Branagh (left) and Colin Firth in the 1987 film version of A Month in the Country.
Continuing conflict … Kenneth Branagh (left) and Colin Firth in the 1987 film version of A Month in the Country. Photograph: Euston/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

4. A Month in the Country by JL Carr
Carr’s 1980 novel tells the story of Tom Birkin, a shell-shocked veteran hired to uncover a medieval church mural from beneath a coat of whitewash. While the fighting may be over, it is clear that the war lives on in the bodies and minds of its veterans. And the unfaithfulness of Tom’s wife, as well as his failed attempts to connect with others, serve as painful reminders of the complexities of home life.

5. Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
The sudden cure for war trauma portrayed in this novel’s ending has been dismissed as too tidy, psychologically improbable and stylistically crude. Yet for me, an earnestness stands out in this story of a “shell-shocked” soldier’s return home and the loved ones who care for him. In some ways, in the improbable cure, I find a testament to the earnest hope for recovery.

6. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Where West’s depiction of the trauma of war offers both a facile diagnosis and facile cure, Woolf’s portrait of postwar London provides no easy answers. Septimus Smith is haunted by the conflict, and yet the complexities of his symptoms elude his doctor’s simplistic diagnosis of shell-shock. Here, the war lives only in traumatised memories, a reminder that the end of fighting rarely brings an end to the combatants’ struggles.

7. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
Another portrait of the home front, this one set in Denver, Colorado, about the incipient love between the protagonist and a soldier. Though seemingly far from the front, the war is very much present, whether in the social pressure to buy war bonds, or ultimately, tragically, in the impact of influenza. While epidemiologically linked to the mass movements of people and the breakdown in social structures during war, in Porter’s novella, the flu is far more intimate, following shortly, and tragically, on the heels of love.

8. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
What!? The Magic Mountain a war novel? And yet there, in the tumbling final pages, hostilities begin and Hans Castorp enlists to meet (it seems) his death in the field of battle. Unlike Roth’s book, which foreshadows death from its earliest chapters, the war is not Mann’s primary concern. And yet this brutal caesura to the intricate world of the Berghof tuberculosis sanitarium, with its complex lives, its intrigues, its long meditations on illness and mortality, left me with a profound sense of futility and waste. While many “war novels” tell us little of the lives of soldiers before the war, this one illuminates the war by showing all that it destroyed.

9. Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
While the war in the west came to an end on 11 November 1918, fighting in the east continued to rage long after the armistice. New conflicts erupted almost immediately: Romania against Hungary, Serbia against Hungary, Poland against Ukraine. Babel’s stories are set in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet war, but the world it depicts is clearly a product of the larger conflict that fed it. Most painful and vivid are its depictions of the impact of the fighting on civilians, uprooted by both distant powers and petty, local cruelties.

10. Orsinian Tales by Ursula K Le Guin
Although Le Guin’s tales are set in an imagined central European country before and after the war, they capture the essential richness and vulnerability of the central European plain. Most poignant is Conversations at Night, in which a blind veteran lurches towards and away from a young woman, whose mother’s chastisement – “Can’t you find a whole man!” – captures the trials that awaited soldiers long after the war had ended.

• The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason is published by Mantle. To order a copy for £14.95 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Daniel Mason

The GuardianTramp

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