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Remembered Today:

Paul Fussell


Clive Maier

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There was an interesting piece about Paul Fussell in Saturday's Guardian, and a mention of his forthcoming WWII book. You can read the article here.

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I've read his "previous" (?) WWII book which was too autobiographical to even get close to following his WWI masterpiece. His autobiography and this WWII book showed him to be a self-centered egotist, not very likeable and frankly, just happened on to War and Modern Memory ... sometimes I guess that happens.

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Guest woodyudet

Personally I think Fussell and his ilk are god-awful. They waffle on about military history without much reference to anything historical. Viewing it through literature is an *interesting* exercise, but it has deflected many into producing un-historical nonsense that does much to accentuate myths of WW1 with the general public - vis the dreadful late 90s TV series [1914-1918] about WW1 that derived much of its impetus from Fussell's book.

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Thanks for the link Clive, interesting. Have to admit that I am a Fussell fan and having read Great War and Modern Memory twenty odd years ago, used the bibliography in that book as the benchmark for my own collection of WW1 literature (and visited the IWM archive in London to read more from the unpublished references he used). I subsequently bought a number of Fussell's other works and for me, he can do little wrong although at times (in books like 'Class') he does get a little carried away. I also saw him interviewed on Newsnight in 1991 just as The First Gulf War was kicking off. He was as opposed to that one as he was to the most recent instalment. Personal opinion, but I warmed to him and The Great War and Modern Memory remains a classic that has led many - myself included - to investigate further.

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Guest AmericanDoughboy

A customer on amazon.co.uk placed "The Great War and Modern Memory" on one of his lists for shopping. The caption underneath was: "A great read to only see how wrong he is." Many people have said that Paul Fussel's descriptions and theories are debateable, but I would not know, I have never read any of his books. I really wish I could but I do not know if they're worth the time or not hearing all these terrible reviews.

-Doughboy

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Doughboy

There is more Forum discussion on Fussell and The Great War & Modern Memory here:

http://1914-1918.org/forum/index.php?showt...hl=paul+fussell

If you want one forum member's advice, invest in The Great War & Modern Memory. It is an essential read.

Paul

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I had to plough through this book for my course, and had I had the choice, would have ditched it very early on. To me, the "literary" view of the Great War is very much the view of a small minority, articulate, relevant for that group of people, but a small minority. Unrepresentative of the whole. As Woodyudet puts it "does much to accentuate myths of WW1 with the general public ".

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A customer on amazon.co.uk placed "The Great War and Modern Memory" on one of his lists for shopping. The caption underneath was: "A great read to only see how wrong he is." Many people have said that Paul Fussel's descriptions and theories are debateable, but I would not know, I have never read any of his books. I really wish I could but I do not know if they're worth the time or not hearing all these terrible reviews.

-Doughboy

In any field there is disagreement over interpretation and the relative weighing of material ... heck see the Donkey/Lion debates ... but as much as I thought his other books were self-serving bosh, The Great War and Modern Memory is worth the purchase and read. If nothing else it marks what many could call a rebirth in interest in WWI and advances many views Many (including me) hold today.

It is not history but literary criticism. One must always remember, though history tries to provide us a photograph of the past through absolute and increasingly absolute accuracy ... and never achieves its aim ... Literature is still the realm of myth where Truth can be conveyed without the photo ... It is the realm of what they thought as they communicated it and what stirred such communications this book discussses.

My advice would be to use your library (they'll have a copy) and see if you want to buy it after that ...

You should really read it.

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Guest woodyudet

Yes, but is it criticism rather than History?

I always worry that a review of WW1 literature by literary critics somewhat exludes:

a: The 'non-literature' majority of WW1 combatants [not illeterate but simply not poets, authors etc]

b: Thorough historical analysis.

I can't help Fussell views everything via the prism of his own WW2 experience and the literary experience of a minority of WW1 combatants...

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There were two pieces in Guardian 2 today. You can read these extracts online and make up your own mind about them.

Extract 1

Extract 2

Personally I have tremendous respect for Paul Fussell as an effective and illuminating writer.

Gwyn

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Guest woodyudet

I agree, he may be a good writer, but does that necessarily make him a good historian? No. Personally I always enjoyed Sven Hassel as a teenager. Would I consider him an historian. Obviously not. I'm not directly comparing Fussel and Hassel, but I think you can catch my drift ...

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This, at its base, is one of the issues with which I have been dealing lately.

The historian, since Van Ranke, has been trying to give us essentially photographs of events ... actual detail and settings ... for events that happened. But, like photos, History, is essentially two-demensional. Also, as we all know, a photo is only a view of what is percieved from one location and, in the case of the historian, the location is the historian's judgement. It is assumed that the more "views" a historian gets (facts, documents, etc.) and absorbing other historian's views, the closer to "reality" the historian gets.

Think of it as recording music from an orchestra ... from the Tympany's perspective what does the piece sound like... if you microphone every instrument, you get a more "accurate" recording ... but do you? You still have to engineer the various instruments and produce what the orchestra sounds like ... but, of course, you loose the perspective of where you sit to listen, the hall, all the various factors which are, to be sure, too many to cover ... and, of course, you don't really get what the listener HEARD. Heck, we don't know if the listener was hard of hearing or how well his/her ears worked, either!

Literary consideration works without the anchor of having to refer to pure facts. By sorting the evidence to just what people wrote and using interpretation to distill out of them the illusive and often conjectured "meaning" we get another view. To go back to my photo illustration, we're using Ultraviolet film ... it's a whole 'nother world out there. Literary criticism tries to use a historical (in Fussell's case) backdrop to distill meaning from the participants' experience.

His book was a bombshell when it was written and still effective. It gives us another picture of what it was and what it was like through interpretation of those who were there ... wrote.

Is it History? Hell, yes ... just not the kind you typically view as history. Is digital photography, photography? Yes, but not the kind you're used to. By manipulating the bits we can do what others did with filters, timing and chemicals ... we obtain an image of what was there... much the same with literary criticism.

I think we have to blend ... heck we do even if we don't think we do ... all the evidence about an event to form an opinion of what happened, why and what it was like ... this is just another set of "inputs" in the process.

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Guest woodyudet

Err not really ... its just an historian using a limited range or primary or secondary sources - in this case literature.

I understand your point about a multiplicity of sources, and nobody denies that 'literature' be it memoirs, poetry, diaries etc are not a key source. Its when your range of sources is either too narrow or of limited 'type' that you cease to be a 'proper' historian. If you are writing historiography or a literary history, that may be justified. If your scope is wider, the narrowness of your source material is a major handicap.

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woody ...

I was saying that literary criticism is not history, but can convey a different sort of "Truth" ... not photographic ... but no less valid. It can tell us more about what people were thinking and feeling than the standard historical method.

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History can be like opinions... everyone has thier view/version, and some are more thought threw than others.

I also think books serve several purposes, like movies. I tend to enjoy the ones that are more dry and fact based. I have enjoyed Robert Graves, but probably get more out of Keegan. However there are those times you just have to go see something like Shrek and take it for what its worth.

One of the valuable lessons that my college professor gave me was that you always need to consider all sources. There are several ways of looking at events literally and figuratively. I don't think my impression/opinion/view of things can be complete until I have taken in several sources.

Just my two cents.

Andy

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Guest woodyudet

"I was saying that literary criticism is not history, but can convey a different sort of "Truth" ... not photographic ... but no less valid. It can tell us more about what people were thinking and feeling than the standard historical method."

- I'm not sure this is valid given that most of the 'great' war novels were written several years after the event when opinions had been altered. It gives us a valid opinion of what they were thinking in 1926 or 1931, but does it give an accurate reflection of what they were thinking in 1915? e.g. to use a contemporary example, its possible to suggest that a soldier writing of his experiences in the recent Gulf War now or in 5 years will be affected [perhaps only sub-consciously] by recent or future events. This memoir is likely to be different than if written the day US tanks entered Baghdad.

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