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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)
I/ Non-fiction Fusions and Generic Instability

Non-Fictional Interwar Narratives by English Writers



Cet article propose une lecture comparée de trois récits nonfictionnels de l’entre-deux guerres d’écrivains anglais également connus pour leur fiction ou leur poésie. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) de Siegfried Sassoon et Good Bye to All That (1929) de Robert Graves présentent l’expérience de leur auteur en temps de guerre et de paix. Engagés volontaires dans la Première Guerre mondiale, tous deux furent confrontés à une désillusion profonde devant le sacrifice dépourvu de sens de tant de vies. Malgré une approche conceptuelle différente, la frontière entre fiction et nonfiction s’estompe souvent dans leurs textes. Homage to Catalonia (1938) de George Orwell est, quant à lui, consacré à la guerre civile espagnole et les années 1930 ; cet essai associe reportage personnel sur la guerre et critique d’un Establishment britannique conservateur. On y lit l’engagement politique et socialiste de l’écrivain ainsi que sa fascination pour l’Espagne. Tout en tenant compte des écrits littéraires de l’époque de ces écrivains, cet article a pour objectif de définir les traits génériques distinctifs majeurs de ces différents récits nonfictionnels ainsi que leur degré de fictionnalisation.

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  • 1 This debate is concisely taken up by Löschnigg 256. He explains that current theories agree that ou (...)

1This paper proposes to approach the texts by Graves, Sassoon and Orwell about the recollection of war in peacetime from the aspect of genre and use the comparison to gain new prospects on the often-discussed works in the light of recent theoretical considerations. If we believe that “[a]nything processed by memory is fiction” (Wright Morris, qtd from Fussell 222) – a thesis from which this paper wishes to diverge – there would hardly be a recognisable difference between the presentations of the memoirs in hand. Notwithstanding critical statements that autobiographies – especially about war – are not nonfiction, this essay aims at re-igniting the controversy.1 It attempts a balancing act of showing that, on closer inspection, generic distinction plays a significant part in the conceptualisation of each of these autobiographically inspired works, which were published inside a decade between 1929 to 1938. Goodbye to All That (1929) Robert Graves explicitly calls An Autobiography, discarding any other form, and questions which genre is appropriate when writing about war. Siegfried Sassoon’s narrative (1930) bears the term “memoir” in the title, and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), avails itself of the extended essay form to express the author’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and to take his reflections and insights onto a public stage.

2The saying that the personal is political can also be reversed in connection with the three texts. Considering the times of World War I and the Spanish Civil War the political is undeniably seen as the determinant of the three writers’ personal memories, by each of them in a specific way. It is the purpose of this article to explore the connection between generic characteristics and the impact relative to each of the war narratives; in addition it aims at examining the link between experience, the reflection of it and its emergence in verbal expression.

  • 2 The Penguin Classics edition presents the 1929 text revised and edited by Graves himself in 1957. I (...)

3In the first example, the autobiography of Robert Graves, his memories reach beyond the period of war. Good Bye to All That covers the time from his childhood and public-school years through his time as an officer during the Great War and the ten years after its end, concluding with an epilogue in which he sums up the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, after he had left England to live permanently in Majorca.2 The longest part of the narrative deals with the First World War, when he was between 18 and 22 years old and a captain in the British Army in France.

  • 3 If not otherwise stated all references to Good Bye to All That follow the Kindle edition.

4Though more guarded with respect to his war experiences than the central character of the Memoirs by Siegfried Sassoon (whom Graves helped to avoid court-martial by being brought before a medical court), Graves generally became very censorious of Britain’s purposes and strategies in the Great War, particularly those regarding the attitudes and ideology propagated in England. Regardless of his rebellious nature, his writing turns out to be informed by the family history. Being partly of German origin – his mother was Amalie von Ranke, the historian Leopold von Ranke’s grandniece – earned him the nickname “von Runicke” in the Army. His maternal grandfather had in Germany taken sides with the revolutionaries of 1848 and emigrated to England, only to return to Germany when his youthful liberal-democratic radicalism had dissipated. Robert Graves, who had volunteered when he was in school, met with anti-German acts and statements when the war broke out. During his time in the British Army he was repeatedly suspected of sympathising with the enemy, of being a German Jew, or even spying for the Germans (pos. 636, 6413) – a suspicion that was unfounded. However, through the news from his German relatives he considered himself better informed about several background situations than even Britons of a similar military rank (pos. 3186, 4378).

  • 4 Ashplant 76-77 contests the dominance of the comic form in Goodbye as well as the prevalence of the (...)
  • 5 Fussell’s chapter “A Satire of Circumstance” extensively explores the irony implied in the war itse (...)

5Dramatic irony pervades the development of events in wartime, and the narrative uses ironisation as a stylistic means in the description of the following peace time. Paul Fussell (1975) dedicates a whole sub-chapter of his seminal study The Great War and Modern Memory to “The Caricature Scenes of Robert Graves” (220-39) and identifies the autobiography as “a satire” (224) and “a fiction disguised as a memoir” (239) which misleads the reader into believing in its factuality. According to Fussell, Graves’s artistic ancestor is Ben Jonson and his heir apparent Joseph Heller with Catch 22 (239).4 As the main reasons for the farcical turn, which Fussell thinks all-important for Goodbye, he mentions the numerous moments of erroneous or “fake news” quoted there (e.g. 235) and maintains “the dubiousness of a rational […] historiography” (236). I wish to argue that the number of anecdotal incidents and irrational or foolish quotations, historically verified and revealing an omnipresent absurdity, do not render Graves’s memoirs a satire. Nor does the circumstance that the author needed the money justify an assumption that he simply wrote what people wanted to read, divergent from his own experience. Fussell claims that Graves himself with a “P.S. to ‘Goodbye to All That’”, published in 1931, subverts the authenticity of his own book and confesses to having obliged to popular expectations in his writing (221-22). This belated revelation appears as a contrary pose that the autobiographer occupies not without cynicism, if compared to his serious commitment earlier in his career.5

1. Authenticity versus fictionalisation in Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That

6In four or five passages – which, I believe, cannot be ignored – the first-person narrator “Robert Graves” self-consciously defends himself against the inclination of writing a novel, with which he had at first wanted to present his recollections to the readership. Indeed, Graves, even though he puts writing poetry in prime place, has become especially famous as a historical novelist, for instance, of I, Claudius, which presents the fictional autobiography of a historic figure. In Goodbye to All That the openings of chapters 12 and 13 as well as later passages (pos. 3553) once more reflect his initial goal to compose a novel that was meant to include memories from Charterhouse public school to the fields of France and Oxford University. For him, he re-affirms, the war experience still resisted novelistic treatment in the early 1920s; the question which form could provide an adequate manner of narrativisation repeatedly disquiets him until the end of his book: “I made several attempts during these years to rid myself of the poison of war memories by finishing my novel, but had to abandon it – ashamed at having distorted my material with a plot, and yet not sure enough of myself to turn it back into undisguised history, as here” (pos. 4838).

  • 6 These functions are explicitly stated in the opening sentence of the first edition, which gives the (...)

7He ascribes a double function to narrativising the war: firstly, one of catharsis or exorcism for the narrated former self, and, secondly, as the narrating instance, to be considered a trustworthy witness6. According to him, Graves eventually rejected the idea of putting his memories into a novel in favour of “pure history”, or undistorted historical truthfulness, only replacing the names of persons still alive at the time of composition, when necessary, by fictitious ones. Consequently, the narrative can assume a confessional tendency at times. To the reader, the author’s turning from the received grand narrative about the Great War, about higher education in England, old families, or the standing of poetry and literature in general is still evident and maybe controversial even today. His aversion in the literal sense and the criticism he expressed certainly caused much more disquiet in 1929 when the book came out, but it was highly praised and sold well. Had he written the novel, as initially conceived, the label “fiction” would no doubt have influenced the telling of the tale as well as its reception.

8The modernist self-reflexive turn marks the explanatory passages about the narrative’s development: “In 1916, when on leave in England after being wounded, I began an account of my first few months in France. Having stupidly written it as a novel, I have now to re-translate it into history.” (1392) That the present changes the past is an aphorism popular in postmodernist thinking (probably deriving from T.S. Eliot), yet it also accompanies the reflections of the narrating “I” in Graves’s war autobiography. The chapter which opens with the above-quoted remark about the distinction between the novelistic and the historical narrative depicts his arrival in Normandy, where he joins the Second Welsh Battalion with other officers of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, It is followed by a description of his first experience in the trenches.

  • 7 John Hildebidle uses – beside the adjective “pseudo-scientific” (120) – the nouns “logic” and “calc (...)
  • 8 Hildebidle elaborately shows that irony is a major tool in survival literature, as which he address (...)

9“[T]o re-translate it into history”, Goodbye to All That uses the collected material with varying narrative techniques, which emphasise the historiographic characteristics of the work. The first-person narrator states that several names of places had to be changed because it was still forbidden to mention real ones (pos. 1624). Quotations from newspapers show that his criticism of hateful propaganda in the media is well-founded (pos. 1042, 1045); at some points the language and purpose of orders and military incidents are denounced by the author as nonsensical. He enhances the verisimilitude and authenticity of his recollections by narrating well-known episodes such as the fraternisation of troops at Christmas 1914 (pos. 2125), as well as several others where the absurdity or evident foolishness of a situation is being disclosed (e.g. pos. 2586). Graves also provides numerous factual details, for example about the different dangers relative to officers and men (pos. 2651), about food and drink, or about the soldiers’ outfit. There are long lists of objects supplied for the combatants (pos. 1624-1637) as well as the copy of a Battalion Order (pos. 3297).7 Diverse kinds of texts such as statistical enumerations, songs, poems, letters or excerpts from published articles are inserted into the autobiographical report and contribute to displaying the complex narrativity of war. The letters quoted are selected from Graves’s own when he writes home, and those from other soldiers – above all Siegfried Sassoon. The most staggering letter is an officer’s message announcing the author’s death from wounds during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 sent to Graves’s mother in England (pos. 3335), followed by a telegram from the Army Council confirming his death (pos. 3444-3455) – both these writings turn out to be incorrect, though not intentionally fictional. The irony in the telling of this incident underlies the structure of feeling throughout, where certainties are undercut by the narrative method, and a dialogic collage of texts rules out any single point of view.8

10Robert Graves’s narrative of war and peace appears as a permanent struggle for survival in the physical, the psychological and quite often the material sense, up to the moment until 1929 when he publishes his autobiography at 33 and decides to say good-bye – to what? The shortness of this paper renders it impossible to extensively depict what “all that” includes that he takes leave from, but it is more than the experiences of the First World War. At first, he leaves only temporarily, because the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War bring him back from Spain to England, until he finally leaves “for good” in 1946. The military as well as the Imperial cause, traditional upper-class education, patriotism, religion, and political conservativism are part of “all that” which causes for the author an ambivalence and inner struggle that had already characterised his maternal grandfather’s life. Interestingly, the writer’s father Alfred Percival Graves, born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish descent and settled in Harlech, Wales, answered his son’s work by publishing his own autobiography under the title To Return to All That in 1930, one year after Robert’s departure from England and the appearance of Good Bye.

11Robert Graves and his first wife Nancy had already demonstrated their dismissal of the burden of tradition when they raised their children in rural surroundings between 1918 and 1926, before he completed the 1929 edition of Goodbye: “We did our best to avoid the mistakes of our own childhood; but when they went to the village school we could not protect them from formal religion, class snobbery, political prejudice, and mystifying fairy stories of the facts of sex” (1929, 325). Graves’s style in a retrospective representation of British society, education or lifestyle shows why he wished to leave it all behind.

  • 9 Graves’s epilogue in the 1929 first edition already explicitly states: “This is a story of what I w (...)

12Goodbye to All That is not just a text of 1929. The revised edition is important in clarifying and complicating his earlier intentions. According to Graves’s statements of 1957, his style became more self-possessed and composed when he revised the original text of the late twenties, leaving out what had served as a prologue – a poem and dedication – and adding a new epilogue from a considerable temporal and geographic distance. Thereby the narrated and the narrating “I” are declared to be distinct selves (cf. Hatavara 169, 173).9 Yet the account of his rambling from Oxford and Devon to Egypt in the years following demobilisation, despite his large family of origin and his wife with their four children, also shows the permanence of his passionate vocational endeavours to succeed in different literary genres. Many years later in Majorca, while writing the new paratexts for the 1957 edition of Good Bye to All That, he wishes to tell his astonished youngest child from a second marriage that he “was born in the reign of Prince Charles’s great-great-great-grandmother” (pos. 5,194), in what was obviously a different age.

  • 10 Virginia Woolf had met him in 1925, finding fault with his behaviour, and read his autobiography wh (...)

13Despite the plethora of texts and paratexts, the paradigm of the autobiography remains basically intact by means of a great number of verifiable historical details precisely recorded as personal memories. In addition, the author’s accounts of the peace time periods in the revised edition of 1957 with prologue and epilogue, even though short by comparison, contribute to the traditional generic pattern by asserting a teleological reorientation of his life story. Graves calls his life-development of the years between 1926 and 1929 “dramatic but unpublishable, […] So I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again.” (pos. 5147) Private conflicts added to his unconventional attitudes10 and asked for a radical change, as he makes the reader believe, who may fill the indicated gap with speculation or suspicion. Mari Hatavara insists that the unpublishable omissions also cast a doubt on the autobiographical narrator’s reliability concerning his representation of war experiences (168). It is therefore not surprising that Hatavara – like Fussell and several others after him – calls both Graves’s and Sassoon’s life writings “novels” (170; Weare 152).

  • 11 The American Barbara Tuchman critically describes the contemporaneous British inclination of “raisi (...)
  • 12 In a recent survey article with an emphasis on didactic considerations, Ralph Schneider pursues ano (...)

14An autobiographical stamp, I contend, also reveals itself in Graves’s emphasis on his personal relationships with soldiers as well as with numerous poets: Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon, Arnold Bennett, Wilfred Owen and T.E. Lawrence, to name only the most well-known. This kind of cultural imprint results in recollections that give the reader access to a personal universe, which transforms an individual representation of historic events. Regarding the culturally conditioned rhetoric of war in 1914-15, however, Graves seems to avoid what Fussell addresses as the use of ‘raised’ language (22-24).11 Graves’s framework of the autobiographical genre, to which he ascribes ‘more truthfulness’ than to the novelistic form, enriches historical facts with diversity and controversy relating to war and peace alike. On one hand, the unofficial chronicle, to which the author committed himself after the war, becomes a multifaceted picture from a personal yet detached angle. On the other hand, the problematisation of autobiography as documentary evidence of historical facts is confirmed and its literariness, underlined by the followers of Fussell, is exhibited.12

15Even though Paul Fussell demanded that “their fictional character” be revealed in the autobiographical works about the Great War he admits that most readers preferred “to confound them with ‘documentary’ or ‘history’” (338) – a receptive attitude which Graves encouraged. I wish to argue that the degree, means and effect of fictionalising this experience differ. Among the varieties of life-narrative the memoir has been said “to highlight the interrelation between the individual life at its centre and the cultural context of the time, primarily asking ‘what is the place of this writer in the culture represented?’” (Buss qtd from Tönnies 114) This definition stresses the importance of the central narrating voice as relying on personal experience without neglecting the wider environment.

2. “Reliving” the war in Sassoon’s fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

  • 13 Fussell states: “In one sense, The Memoirs of George Sherston [sic] can be considered a long series (...)

16Sassoon temporally restricts his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, defined by critics as bio-fiction, autobiography or novel, to the time of the First World War; the text is, however, part of a trilogy covering a longer timespan. It proves to be an English cultural and especially literary environment that envelops the protagonist.13 That modern warfare is experienced here by a first-person narrator patriotically named George Sherston distinguishes the book from Graves’s autobiography. The writer of the Memoirs renounces the claim to present undisguised historical fact. The term “memoir” evokes “memory” with all its faulty and subjective implications. That Sassoon chose the title Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, which sounds depersonalising and detaches the first-person narrator from the author, indicates a selectivity or accidental choice based on a fictional individual’s ability and willingness to remember. In addition, “memoirs” tend to transport a carefully shaped image of the writing subject and the events recollected – the memoirs composed with consideration and diligence by famous personages with the help of their ghost writers. Yet this telling about war is frequently crude and reckless. “Disguised” as a fictional character, the protagonist can profit from greater liberty of representation. Sassoon’s narration of George Sherston’s vividly recalled scenes from 1916 depict far more aggression on the part of superiors and comrades than Graves’s restrained and seemingly matter-of-fact descriptions. Without reserve or comic twist, the Memoirs of an Infantry Officer show his growing aversion against incompetent and apparently unscrupulous commanders, in the same measure as they reflect the agony of the soldiers in the trenches.

  • 14 The Pargiters consists of Woolf’s edited manuscripts, which aimed at a combination of interchanging (...)

17Graves, who repudiates his earlier fictionalisation of autobiographical experience, thematises grief about his loss of friends as well as his passion for writing poetry in a rather abstract way. His narrative is ostensibly informed by surveying knowledge when organising the experience of war. In fact, “Robert Graves” refrains from any “psychological re-living of his former experiences” (Hatavara 174), whereas Sassoon’s Memoirs repeatedly attempt to achieve such a “re-living” and exhibit the protagonist’s emotional shock. In Sherston’s portrayal of war the reader is closer to the experiencing self. This reveals the paradoxical strength of fiction, which Virginia Woolf pointed out in the early stages of her work on her novel The Years: “If you object that fiction is not history, I reply that though it would be far easier to write history […], that I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction (1978, 9, emphasis added).14

  • 15 That Virginia Woolf was aware of the significance of the war narratives by Graves and Sassoon and n (...)

18Woolf is quoted by the editor of The Pargiters as admitting a distinction between “the truth of fact and the truth of fiction” (Leaska xix). Undisputedly, Graves’s as well as Sassoon’s narratives seek to make “truth” perceptible. It is, however, Sassoon’s openly fictionalised war experience which more intensely visualises a soldier’s awareness of and his physical familiarity with the ordeal that twentieth-century warfare brought for volunteers and conscripted troops alike.15 Another result of reconsidering the dichotomy established between “the truth of fact and the truth of fiction” might be that in the case of Robert Graves’s book this dividing line collapses. Because fictional narrative’s textual structuring, selecting or emphasising of dramatic moments also becomes obvious in Graves’s endeavour for authenticity.

19Sassoon does not eclipse or alleviate the abject, irrational and cruel details disclosed as the soldier’s experience. The immediacy of a commandant’s hate-speech, quoted by Sassoon’s protagonist Sherston, starkly contrasts with Sherston’s own unmilitary response:

Afterwards I went up the hill to my favourite sanctuary, a wood of hazels and beeches. The evening smelt of wet mould and wet leaves; the trees were misty-green; the church bell was tolling in the town, and smoke rose from the roofs. Peace was there in the twilight of that prophetic foreign spring. But the lecturer’s voice still battered on my brain. (pos. 136)

  • 16 Fussell expands in his first chapter on “the change from felicity to despair, pastoral to anti-past (...)

20The discrepancy between the pastoral and the anti-pastoral is especially emphasised in Sassoon’s work.16 The “infantry officer”, who unlike his creator does not claim to be a poet, writes about boredom, even apathy or pointless discussions about the possible outcome of the war in the trenches. That much of what participants experience in a war can be ordinary and dull applies to each of the interwar narratives in hand and is substantiated by Liesl Olson’s investigation of modernist writers: “the ‘shock’ of modern wartime is sometimes represented as strangely repetitious, even boring, both for those far removed from the fighting and for soldiers at the front” (9). Like the first-person author figure “Robert Graves”, whom Sassoon’s narrative never mentions, Sherston suffers from the ignorance of people in England about what is happening at the front. With the planned offensive at the Somme impending, officers on leave like the central character are tight-lipped and scarcely contradict the civilians’ praise of heroism or the naivety of relatives (pos. 478, 486). Upon the thought of being killed or of the necessity “to put myself out of my misery, if the worst came to the worst and I was lying out in a shell-hole with something more serious than a Blighty wound” (pos. 537) follows with inevitable absurdity the narrator’s being recommended for the Military Cross. Scenes of Sherston’s immersed reading of Thomas Hardy’s Tess or The Return of the Native, of the soldier’s reverie and day dreams, emerge rather poetically between the criticism of officers. Personal agitation frequently interferes with the representation of the military practice, as in this memory of the battle of the Somme on 1 July, 1916:

  • 17 The refrain was the advertisement of an enterprise that produced different sorts of pens. The “Some (...)

The following refrain was running in my head: They come as a boon and a blessing to men. The Something, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what the first one was called. Was it Shakespeare? Was it Dickens? Anyhow it was an advertisement which I’d often seen in smoky railway stations. Then the bombardment lifted and lessened, our vertigo abated, and we looked at one another in dazed relief. Two Brigades of our Division were now going over the top on our right. (pos. 744)17

  • 18 As a sign of “revisionist modification to the thesis of post-war disillusion, cultural historians h (...)

21The narrative attempts to represent the grotesqueness in the opposition of an individual’s dulled consciousness, remembering the phrase “they come as a boon and a blessing to men,” and the terror experienced during the shelling. The horrible aftermath of the attack is summarised in one sentence: “I felt that I was leaving all my previous war experience behind me.” (pos. 819) The enemy is by Sherston perceived as an alien being even in death: the soldiers’ clothes, writings on signs in German, the facial expressions of those killed in action all evoke “that queer feeling I used to have when I stared across no-man’s-land, ignorant of the humanity which was on the other side” (pos. 825). When on convalescence leave in Oxford his visitor, an authority on Military Records, “was careful to keep the conversation safely on this side of the Channel”, and “showed no curiosity about the military operations of the moment” (pos. 1317) – even though the narrator would not have minded to tell him about the British offensive at the Somme. Sherston feels that a disruption with the past has taken place, which includes people he used to know and his own self.18 “Was it because I had experienced something that they couldn’t share or imagine?” (pos. 1344) He confesses “I was losing my belief in the war” and was longing for an acquiescence of mind he once possessed, “like young Patterson [new at the front], who had come out to fight for his country undoubting, who could still kneel beside his bed and say his simple prayers, steadfastly believing that he was in the Field Artillery to make the world a better place. I had believed like that, once upon a time, but now […]” (pos. 1807).

  • 19 Hildebidle (112-14) explains the importance of the pastoral in the memoirs of the Great War, referr (...)

22While he recovers from a severe wound in a hospital back in England in spring 1917 Sherston – a volunteer and decorated officer – has gained a different outlook on the war after his second time in France. Whereas he had regarded former well-meant advice by a relative as pathetic (pos. 486) he is now estranged from the civilians who cannot understand and to whom one cannot explain what this war is like. Sherston enumerates, depicts and quotes the various visitor “types”, who respectfully and benevolently come to see and encourage him: his response varies accordingly from “”[m]odest, politely subordinate” to feeling “[i]nability to reveal anything crudely horrifying to civilian sensibilities”, but replying “[g]rimly wan” with “[s]ecret antagonism”, “suppressing all unpalatable facts about the War” (pos. 2548). His felt “embitterment towards civilians” (pos. 2563) exacerbates his alienation from ‘home’, which he had judged before as an “indefinite hostility” (pos. 2100). The dominant emotion of the convalescent is the constant presence of war even where peace deceitfully seems to reign – even now in pastoral elements: “[The narcissi] by my bed were symbols of an immaculate spirit – creatures whose faces knew nothing of War’s demented language” (pos. 2537).19

  • 20 This is a chapter heading and thematic focus in Fussell‘s study.

23Like Graves’s author figure, George Sherston is haunted by the war, and the ignorance of those back in England aggravates the nightmare. Thus, he ponders, ignorance about the Other – whether enemy soldier or English compatriot – probably remains the prevailing state of mind of those who fought in France as well as of many civilians at home. Sassoon’s soldier, when hospitalised and in a convalescence home, tries to keep his “battle memories true and intense” (pos. 2737), in order not to be “bluffed back” into an attitude of euphemism or, as he says, one influenced by battle descriptions, such as that expressed by “some amiable man who had apparently mistaken the War for a football match between England and Germany” (pos. 2740). The press, inspiring “the imaginations of people who had never seen the real thing” (pos. 2750), is considered the main source of popular delusions, as well as the “intolerable twaddle” (pos. 2748) in a daily paper or chats about the “spiritual aspects” of the Great War (pos. 2749, 2078, cf. 1689). The author discloses Sherston’s aversions in first-person narrative for the reader, but when this protagonist meets somebody for lunch outside the hospital he can self-confidently state after his conversation with the narratee: “I emerged from the restaurant without having uttered a single anti-war sentiment” (pos. 2641). Thus, the narrative distinguishes between the temporal levels of an experiencing I in the trenches, ‘his’ convalescing counterpart and, finally, the narrating I. Moreover, acting or role-playing are presented as becoming the adequate behaviour in “the theatre of war”.20

  • 21 For the text of Sassoon’s “Soldier’s Declaration: finished with the War” see Graves (pos. 3951-3965 (...)

24The result of confrontations, reflections and eventually talks with critics of the war for the biographical author of the Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, whose similarity with the protagonist extends to the outcome, is described in more detail in Graves’s autobiography. In the Memoirs, Sherston only throws the Military Cross “into the mouth of the Mersey”, where it “floated away as though aware of its own futility”. He had volunteered and then “felt outlawed, bitter, and baited” (pos. 3434). In 1930, protected by the main character’s fictionality, the biographical writer expressed the unvarnished impressions which had led to the publication of his non-fictional declaration in July 1917 (and his admission to Craiglockart hospital).21 Thus in two separate ways Sassoon objected to the ideology that enforced the continuation of the Great War as a deceit of the soldiers who fought in it.

3. George Orwell’s unstable narrative of war in Homage to Catalonia

  • 22 The British Communist Party refused to support him, because he was considered politically unreliabl (...)

25That George Orwell believed in socialism and revolted against Capitalism and hegemonial attitudes in Britain in the 1930s is expressed in his fiction (e.g. Burmese Days) as well as nonfiction. Homage to Catalonia Spain presents his personal experience of war together with his political reflections. Orwell joined the Republican side as a war correspondent and subsequently fought for the leftist cause22. Apart from the extensive descriptions of Spanish towns and countryside, Orwell’s style is often argumentative. Some of the peculiarities of this war narrative are considered here.

26This war, including the account of battles, is different; the cause for which the autobiographical first-person narrator engages is neither to protect allied countries nor patriotism or national pride. Moreover, the time period Orwell spends in one of the fractured leftist and anarchist militia groups only amounts to six months, from December 1936 (Orwell 2) to mid-1937, when he is discharged as “useless” for medical reasons and returns to England (156). He had arrived in Spain motivated by idealism, fighting for a classless society and an anti-fascist government of a laicist republic (83-84). Orwell himself calls the attraction this cause had for him “the ‘mystique’ of Socialism” (84) – an idea(l) that in this particular chronotope created “a prevailing mental atmosphere” (83). Much of his book is dedicated to the portrayal of Spain and the nature of a divided nation. After the Barcelona fighting between the Communists and Anarchists (Masters 207-09), Orwell, disappointed about the country and the development of a confused war, regards the revolutionary cause as hopeless, but honourable and therefore worth being commemorated. In contrast to recent critical statements pointing at the non-representativeness of Sassoon’s, Graves’s or Edmund Blunden’s disillusion about the First World War, Orwell wishes to convince his readers that his change to disenchantment is a common one: “it was difficult to think about this war in quite the same naïvely idealistic manner as before. I suppose there is no one who spent more than a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree disillusioned” (Orwell 132).

27Orwell arrives at a moment when the revolutionary thrust has ended (2), but in areas where its results are palpable: the red flag waving practically everywhere, comradeship instead of hierarchies established among the civilians as well as the fighters. Communists and Anarchists being in control of Catalonia, he believes that individuals are convinced of the meaning and necessity of a socialist society. “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State” (3). The whole social environment differs from conditions in England, about which he does not give a favourable judgment (e.g. 83). Although the basic position of the author and his involvement in this war differs significantly, two elements which Orwell’s text shares with Sassoon’s and Graves’s elucidate the similarities and dissimilarities especially well and suggest a contrastive comparison of the three war narratives by English volunteers.

28The first concerns the story of the war. Certain situations and experiences do not diverge from those of British officers in the First World War such as Graves and Sherston alias Sassoon. The boredom which makes the everyday of the participants insupportable appears as the worst condition in a war that is either stationary or experienced as occasional street warfare: “I was in no danger, I suffered from nothing worse than hunger and boredom, yet it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life” (111) Orwell states when he joins the defenders of the POUM posts in Barcelona. Structurally, this experience has an even greater impact, since he initially also presents it as both dispiriting and dreadful:

I ought to say in passing that all the time I was in Spain I saw very little fighting. I was on the Aragón front from January to May, and between January and late March little or nothing happened on that front, except at Teruel. […] Up there, in the hills around Saragossa, it was simply the mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare. A life as uneventful as a city clerk’s, and almost as regular. (22)

29Trench warfare is extensively described in many, often disgusting, details, which renders the representation itself tedious and repetitive. Here also war appears

not as the opposite of the ordinary, but as a socio-political context that highlights the pervasiveness of the ordinary’s affective dimension even amid unprecedented historical events. Though war is never an ordinary event, war nonetheless can be ordinary in the first sense: it can be dull. (Olson 9)

30Orwell very soon expresses the disillusion experienced by someone who had not yet shed the notions of idealism and heroic endurance. “Often I used to gaze round the wintry landscape and marvel at the futility of it all. The inconclusiveness of such a kind of war!” (Orwell 23). The lack of competence among the fighters and the utter lack of practically all material from uniforms to weapons make this war seem grotesque in the eyes of the British combatants and in comparison with “the English conception of war” (42), which, of course, was not exactly that adopted for a civil war.

31Added to the miserable conditions the increasingly visible lack of union among the fighters seems intolerable to the Briton. Since the Republicans’ was not a regular army but was completed by the militias the description of appalling shortcomings in the material warfare – much criticised by the first-person narrator – is not of the highest priority for those with whom he shares the experience of this war. Instead, the ideological discussion together with the narrator’s growing doubts resulting from internal reflections gradually take centre stage, which accentuates the second aspect instrumental for my reading of Homage to Catalonia: language. Since his occupation is originally that of a reporter Orwell’s use of language markedly highlights facts, particularities and observations.

32The effects of classlessness on common language is the earliest experience and a great surprise for the protagonist: the way the Spanish now address and speak to each other appears “queer and moving” (3). The ubiquitous obtrusiveness of propaganda (43) and the insight that truth is the first casualty in a war cause him “to read the war news in the papers with a more disbelieving eye” (45): having been an eye-witness of an aimless Fascist firing near Monte Trazo he knows that the newspapers are lying when they depict it as a tremendous attack. Even though he is convinced that Franco can be defeated he increasingly sees huge problems in the future of the country and buries his expectations for a socialist government in a united state.

As for the newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy’, it was plain eyewash. No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. (132-33)

33After the fall of Malaga to Franco’s troops, when Orwell is near Huesca, the retrospective deliberations continue about the fight against the dominant role of the Church, against feudalism, poverty and a despotic rule in general, for liberty and a democratic spirit (133-34).

34In contrast to Sassoon and Graves, Orwell writes his essay a few months after his return to England and gives a very detailed account of the moment when he is seriously wounded, which means for him the end of his participation in this war (137-42). From the front he is transported to Barcelona and “declared useless”, free to go back to England. “[C]onsequently I felt able, almost for the first time, to look at Spain” (156). From this point onwards the sights, his perception, and with it the language to express it, change.

35He regrets that he was only able to see the north-eastern part of the country he had longed to visit all his life (157). The degree to which the imagination shapes this report of what starts as the expression of a war experience is impressive: the imagination of a country and its people, of the cause foreigners fight for side by side with Spanish peasants, the imagination of a Mediterranean landscape and nature. The latter part of the book presents this “Homage to Catalonia” and to the Spanish mentality which inspired the title. The first-person narrator is aware that the country always had and still has an exceptional hold on his imagination.

36Orwell’s return to the North-West of Europe through France and into the pastoral South of England inspires yet another instance of reflection, represented in phrases that oscillate between the poetical and satirical:

It is difficult […] to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. […] Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows. (186-87)

37English pastoral emerges here again as the focus of stability, but not without irony which leads to a warning about the illusionary character of England’s seemingly unconcerned state, which Orwell imagines when perceiving London: “the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen” (187). As the author does not fail to add, “all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” (187). When his book came out in 1938 this prophecy was about to materialise. To refer to peace as dangerous is a stance which the two examples published eight or nine years previously had not yet envisaged. Their protagonists were preoccupied with their memories of the Great War years after the armistice. Graves briefly mentions the danger of another war conjured up by the Treaty of Versailles (pos. 4372), Sassoon’s protagonist accuses politicians and military leaders to turn a blind eye to human suffering in the war. Orwell’s first-person writer exhibits his disillusion about the feasibility of social ideals and concludes with a nostalgic-sarcastic glimpse at England’s deceptive calm.


38Historiographic autobiography (much problematised), fictionalised memoirs, and a testimonial report evince the limitations prescribed by a personal account of history. All three forms, however, display the gain in immediacy and diversity that the voice of an individual who was deeply immersed in the times of war can contribute. The argument of my paper has shown that neither of these texts dispenses with the devices and rhetoric of literary narratives, even though their artistic construction remains distinct from the novel, as Mrs. Dalloway and the story of Septimus Warren Smith or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls exemplify it. The first-person chronicler “Robert Graves” or the fictive narrator Sherston – both a character in the narratives – process, work and voice the writer’s autobiographical experience: Sassoon achieves it in figural representation, Graves with ironical ruptures that extend to his self-image, and Orwell with political argumentation interwoven with personal sentiment. The measure and ways of aestheticisation in these nonfictional texts refrain from “plot”, “subplot” and “characterisation”, yet not from a storytelling that liberated the narrator. Sassoon’s Memoirs produce a fictional anti-war book thirteen years after his public protest note had been judged as the writing of a shell-shocked man. Graves asked forgiveness for his departure from England and all that. Orwell became a political renegade. Their autobiographical narratives show documentary, respectively argumentational characteristics and are informed by selected attributes particular to literary prose. Hybridity results from the author’s dilemma of how, precisely, to be truthful.

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Albrinck, Meg. “Silent Citation in Three Guineas.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, vol. 60, no. 3, 2002, p. 3.

Ashplant, T.G. “Goodbye to All That? Critiquing the (Masculine) Nation in Post-First-World-War Britain.” Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-Century Europe at War, edited by Peter Tame, Dominique Jeannerod, and Manuel Bragança. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, pp. 76-98.

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Leaska, Mitchell A. “Introduction”. The Pargiters. The Novel-Essay Portion of The Years, edited by Mitchell A. Leaska, Hogarth, 1978, pp. vii-xxiv.

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MacNiven & Cameron. Library of Congress online catalogue. Accessed 11 January 2019.

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1 This debate is concisely taken up by Löschnigg 256. He explains that current theories agree that our experience and memories are generally organised as narratives (261-62), and states that criticism increasingly emphasises autobiography’s fictionality (267). His article (269) also refers to Monika Fludernik’s 1996 alignment of narrativity with fictionality, in which “she claims ‘the experience portrayed in narrative is typically non-historical (non-documentary and non-argumentational)’”. The present argument raises this issue anew.

2 The Penguin Classics edition presents the 1929 text revised and edited by Graves himself in 1957. In a short prologue he apologises for having given offense by his autobiography. In the 1957 epilogue he holds “a conditioning in the Protestant morality of the English governing classes, though qualified by mixed blood, a rebellious nature, and an overriding poetic obsession” responsible for his critical attitude towards his background and for his personal way of self-liberation by leaving England. He does not fail to mention how his children showed their loyalty to Britain by volunteering in the Second World War, while he was prevented by his more advanced age from enlisting once more or engaging in any other way to show his patriotic allegiance during wartime.

3 If not otherwise stated all references to Good Bye to All That follow the Kindle edition.

4 Ashplant 76-77 contests the dominance of the comic form in Goodbye as well as the prevalence of the author’s disillusion with the war.

5 Fussell’s chapter “A Satire of Circumstance” extensively explores the irony implied in the war itself (what I call “dramatic irony” is part of it) and the irony in the use of language describing the war. The synthesis of the critic’s research in literature and linguistics (“rhetoric” 184) with historical scholarship about the British engagement on the Western front is the especially intriguing feature of his work. A significant part attends to investigating the diction of war from 1913 to 1918. According to Fussell, “Modern Memory”, that is the way one remembers, is for the participants who individually memorise the Great War exposed as (pre-modernist) British “cultural memory” (Assmann), fed by English poetry and enthusiasm for the Pastoral. During the war the national-cultural memory provides the language to either express the indescribable (189) or to escape from it (255-57). Later generations are constantly conjuring up the Great War by language, “educing the pattern: innocence savaged and destroyed” (362). This continues into the age referred to as postmodern: “Indeed, a striking phenomenon of the last twenty-five years is this obsession with the images and myths of the Great War among novelists and poets too young to have experienced it directly,” Fussell writes in 2000 (348).

6 These functions are explicitly stated in the opening sentence of the first edition, which gives the author’s three reasons for composing his text: the wish to say good bye, anticipated forgetfulness after writing down war experience, and the need for money (Graves 1929, 13).

7 John Hildebidle uses – beside the adjective “pseudo-scientific” (120) – the nouns “logic” and “calculation” (117) to characterise Graves’s way of expression, thereby exposing the author’s ambition to be historically convincing.

8 Hildebidle elaborately shows that irony is a major tool in survival literature, as which he addresses the memoirs of these front officers who volunteered in the Great War. According to him, they were writing for others who survived and in memory of those who did not.

9 Graves’s epilogue in the 1929 first edition already explicitly states: “This is a story of what I was, not what I am.” (440) He finishes the summary of what he did and did not do during the first 33 years of his life with the half-sentence “and learned to tell the truth – nearly” (441). This conclusion is self-explanatory regarding the fact/fiction opposition.

10 Virginia Woolf had met him in 1925, finding fault with his behaviour, and read his autobiography when it came out, but did not much care for it (Albrinck 3). It is known that she preferred Sassoon and his Memoirs.

11 The American Barbara Tuchman critically describes the contemporaneous British inclination of “raising” the idiom of warfare (cf. Fussell 190).

12 In a recent survey article with an emphasis on didactic considerations, Ralph Schneider pursues another way and methodically investigates autobiographical writing of the First World War in general. He argues that because of the exceptionality of war bio-fictions the texts position themselves in a system of four binary oppositions, or “force fields” (22-23) and use different authentication strategies. Blunden’s, Graves’s and Sassoon’s autobiographies also serve as examples.

13 Fussell states: “In one sense, The Memoirs of George Sherston [sic] can be considered a long series of adversary footnotes to Wordsworth’s poem [“Happy Warrior”]. Sassoon mentions it very often, and always ironically.” (183)

14 The Pargiters consists of Woolf’s edited manuscripts, which aimed at a combination of interchanging fictional and non-fictional chapters on life in Britain between 1880 and the present. In alternating sections, the texts capture especially the lives of women in Victorian stratified society. Eventually Woolf gave up the concept of juxtaposing imaginative representations and expository texts in the same book. The first part of The Years contains the family history of the Pargiter family.

15 That Virginia Woolf was aware of the significance of the war narratives by Graves and Sassoon and noted them in Three Guineas is the subject of Meg Albrinck’s remarks (2002) on the connection between the three works.

16 Fussell expands in his first chapter on “the change from felicity to despair, pastoral to anti-pastoral” (25) during the summer of 1914 as symbolic of the war “innocently” begun and joined. The writers’ recourses to Arcadia are resumed in chapter 7 of The Great War and Modern Memory, entitled “The British Model World” (251-60) and in the following sub-chapters. For several novelists and poets born after World War I “the Great War establishes an archetype of subsequent violence – as well as the criticism of it” (351), expressed in the corresponding myths and images, as Fussell elaborates in the chapter entitled “Persistence and Memory.”

17 The refrain was the advertisement of an enterprise that produced different sorts of pens. The “Something” is “Pickwick” (MacNiven & Cameron 1870).

18 As a sign of “revisionist modification to the thesis of post-war disillusion, cultural historians have recently given close attention to the various forms of public commemoration and mourning,” Ashplant (94) argues against the evaluation of Sassoon’s and Graves’s critical attitudes, which Ashplant refers to as temporary and non-representative.

19 Hildebidle (112-14) explains the importance of the pastoral in the memoirs of the Great War, referring also to Sassoon’s preceding Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man with the same protagonist.

20 This is a chapter heading and thematic focus in Fussell‘s study.

21 For the text of Sassoon’s “Soldier’s Declaration: finished with the War” see Graves (pos. 3951-3965) or McSmith (2014) in The Independent.

22 The British Communist Party refused to support him, because he was considered politically unreliable. He joined the Independent Labour Party, which was affiliated to POUM, the Spanish Communist Party (Masters 205).

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Barbara PUSCHMANN-NALENZ, « Non-Fictional Interwar Narratives by English Writers », E-rea [En ligne], 17.2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 14 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, Dpt of English
Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz taught English and American literature and Cultural Studies as a Senior Lecturer at Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum until she retired from teaching in 2011. Her research is mainly on Early Modern literature and Contemporary fiction. Her most recent publications are the monograph The Orphan in Fiction and Comics Since the 19th Century (2018, with Marion Gymnich, Gerold Sedlmayr, and Dirk Vanderbeke); contributions in edited volumes on Graham Swift, A.S. Byatt, and Ian McEwan, and a recent article (2019) on the interactive reader and interactive narratives.

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