Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview
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Literature and
World War Two

Douglas Gifford

There is an immense and continuing body of writing that records, laments and occasionally celebrates World War Two’s impact on individuals and communities. This chapter can consider only some of Scottish writers’ most vivid and poignant commentaries in poetry, fiction and drama, bearing witness to those effects. It explores major Scottish writers who foresaw, fought and remembered the war. Its texts express the damaged, disrespectful, myth-making, yet impressively enduring nature of Scottish writing within and about the 1939–45 British conflict. It also considers home responses for those bombed, evacuated, objecting conscientiously, or seeing their families permanently blighted. War literature arguably falls into two groupings: that directly affected, produced in the post-war quarter-century; and later secondary re-imagining. War’s long shadow lingers in contemporary works like Andrew Greig’s (1951–) That Summer (2000) and Alison Kennedy’s (1965–)Day(2007).


War is never far from Eric Linklater’s (1899–1974) fiction, whether as background and reminiscence for the picaresque hero of Magnus Merriman (1934) or later centring on it. Private Angelo (1946), dedicated to the Eighth Army is surely, however, pre-eminent in Scotland’s war fiction, its savage satire on war and profound empathy with humble predicaments and suffering setting it alongside the great war novels of Hašek, Vonnegut and Heller. Americans and British are liberating Italy, although, as the peasant Angelo wryly comments, liberation by bombing villages is somewhat confusing. A cast of fanatics, collaborators, devious aristocrats, bullying Nazis and profiteers rampage through Italy. Like Voltaire’s Candide, the narrator’s voice is of a kindly simple storyteller, understating events’ actual horror. Angelo, like Schweik or Billy Pilgrim, archetypally symbolises enduring ordinariness; professing to lack the dono de corragio, he emerges, beaten, cuckolded, as ultimate hero of the ordinary, his fundamental decency carrying him, shivering


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