Remembering the War: Australian Novelists in the Interwar Years

By Spittel, Christina | Australian Literary Studies, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Remembering the War: Australian Novelists in the Interwar Years


Spittel, Christina, Australian Literary Studies


AMONGST the sombre records of war in the stacks at the Australian War Memorial, a couple of bays of shelves stand out, filled with colourful books with equally colourful titles: Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Flesh in Armour, The Turkish Spy. These are Australian war novels, collected despite Charles Bean's opinion that the Memorial should limit itself to providing sources for the official histories and future historians: 'Novels etc. with a war flavour [...] would simply be collected to be stacked in cellars and eaten by silverfish.' (1) But the novels are there, nonetheless, powerful reminders of the close relationship between memory and literature, between remembering and imagining. (2) These books are war records of a different kind: records that can help us today to write the history of what Samuel Hynes has called the 'war in our heads' (74). Such a history treats the First World War as the great imaginative event of the twentieth century. It explores narrative (not military) strategies, and maps the changes and continuities in the ways in which Australians remember their Great War.

This history is already being written, as many historians' interest--in Australia and overseas--has shifted to the cultural legacy of the First World War. (3) These historians work on the premise that memory--collective and individual--is an active, dynamic process of construction that obeys the imperatives of the present and relies on cultural forms: language, symbols and stories. But despite Jay Winter's claim that no study of the First World War could ignore its literary legacy (284), novelists have, so far, had only a walk-on role in the story of Australians' attempts to construct versions of the War that they could relate to, and live with. (4)

This amnesia seems at odds with the fascination that the First World War has exerted on Australian novelists. The story of Australians' literary engagement with the Great War not only predates their first significant military action on the shores of Gallipoli--Ambrose Pratt's War in the Pacific was first published in November 1914--but also takes us right to the present day, as contemporary authors such as John Charalambous (Silent Parts 2006) and Peter Yeldham (Barbed Wire and Roses 2007) continue to re-imagine the lives of soldiers even after the last Anzacs have died. The 1920s and 30s constitute a crucial moment in this story. Already, the war was receding into myth and history: it was commemorated on memorials of stone and marble, and revisited in the quiet, peaceful exhibition halls of the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne (1922-1925) and Sydney (1925-1935). (5) Novelists, on the other hand, could transport readers back to the battlefields: they could take them 'right down amongst the men', make them 'live through these terrible experiences' and help them visualise 'The Digger As He Was'. (6) Indeed, novelists had become important record-keepers: John Brophy felt that his anthology of war writing provided veterans with 'a convenient record' and posterity with 'a social document' (qtd. in Partridge, 'The War Comes into Its Own' 82). The Bulletin recommended Leonard Mann's Flesh in Armour as an accurate rendering of 'vanished, or vanishing periods', and expressed the hope that it be 'kept alive, if only for the sake of future historians' ('The Digger As He Was'). And it would: together with the colourful volumes by J.T. Allan, Charles Cooper and others, Mann's novel entered the Australian War Memorial's collection in the mid 1930s. (7)

Mann and his fellow novelists engaged in more than mere acts of preservation, however: their novels are conscious attempts to re-shape the memory of the War. They are often explicit in setting their narratives apart from those of the war-time journalists and historians--as if to shield themselves from the accusations that have since been raised by literary scholars (most notably Robin Gerster, who bemoans 'the parochial, conformist and exceptionally heroic character of Australian war literature since World War I', 337). …

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