Don’t mention The War

I have recently finished reading Swann’s Way, the first novel in the sequence of books that make up In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I shall take a rest before picking up the second novel, Swann in Love, in the new year. 

In the meantime I am enjoying reading 1913 by Florian Illies, a chronological  kaleidoscopic catalogue of cultural, social and political events that occurred in Europe and America in the year before the storm.  Or rather, I am enjoying having it read to me, on cd, by Bill Wallis.

For a brief time in 1913, living in Vienna, within so short a space of one another that they may have passed in the street, lived the men who would shape the 20th century, Freud, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler and Archduke Ferdinand.

1913 was the year of the Armory exhibition, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Kafka began his epistolatory romance with Felice, Freud was filled with thoughts of patricide and Proust published Swann’s Way.


Proust was interested in exploring all forms of recollection, and he considered those memories that surfaced unconcsiously and unbidden, as the purest form of remembrance, though he would exercise his analytical skills in expounding on what we choose to recall as individuals and as a society.

This year we have celebrated, or rather elected to celebrate through our publicly-funded broadcasting services, the centennial anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, the bi-centennial anniversaries of the births of Wagner and Verdi, the premiere of The Rite of Spring and 50 years of Doctor Who.

And next year? 

The Big Push by publishers to go over the top with their latest glossy version of The Great War has already begun, and I fear it won’t all be over by Christmas. All state secondary school children have been ordered to send ambassadors to the First World War Theme Parks; apparently we WILL remember them.

But what will we remember?
What will be learnt?

Speaking of the commemorations, Defence Minister, Andrew Murrison, states that they will focus “…on remembrance, making no judgment on right or wrong, or indulging in jingoistic sentiment.”


And yet, in most reports we see already the traditional language being used, at once both lazy and familiar, – “tragic loss”, “noble sacrifice”, “senseless slaughter” – all of which suggests a willing suspension of critical faculties.

I hope we will be given the opportunity to explore beyond the clichés and discover that there was more to 1914 than the outbreak of war, but I suspect that it will be an opportunity we will have to forge for ourselves.


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