“War is nasty; war is fun, War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
Harvard University President Drew Faust borrows this quote to illustrate that war fascinates because it is a paradox. The remark actually comes from Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien about the “awful majesty of combat.”
For films and books, war is a readymade but challenging setting for conflicts in plots and challenges to main characters. Of the thousands of war films out there, I’ve seen only a small handful. No, I’m not a big fan of war films. Except when they explore questions and dilemmas about what it means and what it takes to be human.
Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Angelina Jolie’s Land of Milk and Honey are two movies I’ve seen that do this. In both cases, the focus is more on how war has ravaged the characters. In Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, for instance, one image is the most haunting I’ve ever seen in a film—Marlon Brando’s faraway, lost look of someone whose soul is already dead but who continues to feed his earthly appetites. He looks like a ghost about to burst into a thousand flaming pieces.
I’ve rarely read a war novel until Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I believe his book is a masterpiece and predict that among all fiction written in the last 50 years, it’s one of the very few most likely to endure time and become a classic. It is the rare book that not only has a compelling story to tell; it’s also one of the most beautifully written books I’ve come across in a long time. It has a voice and feel that clutches my gut the way great music does.
Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning book is what piqued my interest in war stories. This past month, I read two of them: Alyson Richman’s The Garden of Letters and Ella Carey’s The House by the Lake. It may be unfair to compare these books to that of Anthony Doerr’s but, for me, it’s impossible not to do so.
Set in Mussolini’s Italy, the major theme of The Garden of Letters is about how quickly and ruthlessly war robs the innocence of the young; in this case, Elodie/Anna a twenty-year old woman who’s been raised in a loving family in Verona. It is, thus, a heartbreaking coming of age story more than one in which battles are described in much detail.
More concerned at first about honing her cello playing than the tensions of German occupation, Elodie witnesses an incident that pushes her to join a young resistance group. She brings two gifts precious to the resistance effort—her proficiency on a cello and her extraordinary memory. They help her transmit coded messages embedded in classical music pieces that she plays in concerts to a leader of the resistance who’s an acclaimed musician. It’s an intriguing, clever and probably unique way of sending secret information.
When the war comes to Verona, people in her life die because of it—her father, her first love, her best friend, and most members of her resistance group. She ends up taking refuge in a new identity as Anna, and fleeing to a city where war has not been as intrusive. Her growth into full womanhood happens in a small village in the Cinque Terre where she gets a second chance at love.
Richman’s story is an engaging, poignant read, with a more dramatic plot and sympathetic characters than The House by the Lake. It’s also better written. The prose of The House by the Lake doesn’t flow as well and characterization isn’t as coherent or thorough as Richman’s book. Its structure, though, is more interesting. Richman’s story is essentially linear. In Carey’s book, the stories of two women with similar attributes run parallel in two different time zones and, sometimes, in two different places—modern-day Berlin and Paris just before World War II. Otherwise, the story follows the usual tropes of a “clean” romance between Anna and Will, two commitment-phobic careerists in 2010, on the one hand and Max, the heir of an Aristocratic German family and Isabelle, the young granddaughter of a Parisian demimonde at the outbreak of WW II. Of the two love stories in this book, the 1930s one is more charming. The two stories are woven together by a devastating secret that Anna, in 2010, must uncover.
Both books also show the importance of family even when, in Carey’s novel, the family consists only of each young woman and one of their grandparents.
These two novels never get as deeply into the characters’ psyches as Doerr’s book does with its occasional (sometimes lyrical) musings on the terrible effects or war and the very vivid descriptions of how the young main characters see and cope with the war:
But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?
That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?
Seductive, evocative prose from Master Doerr.
The two other books are not as brilliant. But are they worth reading? I’d say yes and yes, partly for the main reasons I’ve stated above on the elements that resonated with me in these books. But they’re also valuable because they’re written by women. They balance the presentation of war stories in the same way that Angelina Jolie’s Land of Milk and Honey tips the scales in focusing on the effects of war on mothers and daughters left behind by their war-bound brothers and fathers.