When I first heard that A.L. Kennedy’s new novel was about a tailgunner in an RAF Lancaster bomber in World War II, I was frankly astonished. Nothing in this writer’s previous work or life, as far as I was acquainted with them, apart from the fact that she writes quite frequently from a male point of view, made her choice of subject seem anything other than utterly surprising—and risky. She is one of the most respected of younger British fiction writers, especially admired for her stylistic virtuosity and droll, dark sense of humor; but her novels and short stories to date have been mostly about personal relationships, domestic conflicts, and various kinds of social and psychological dysfunction like abuse, addiction, and depression, set against a contemporary background, especially in Scotland, where she was born in 1965 and brought up. How, I wondered, would such a writer set about recreating the experience of an RAF tailgunner in the war that ended in 1945? And why?
Of course women have written well about combat, the sharp edge of war, especially in historical fiction. But I can’t think offhand of any novel about the Allied bombing campaigns of World War II, or indeed about aerial warfare in general, by a woman writer, and the best-known examples of this subgenre are certainly by men, whether based on personal experience like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or on research like Len Deighton’s Bomber.
It is not hard to understand why this should be so. When gender roles were still clearly defined, the technical aspects of aerial warfare held more fascination for male writers and readers than for their female counterparts, as did the particular type of heroism it required. The home-based pilots and aircrews of the RAF in World War II experienced combat differently from other servicemen, who were often separated from their homes and families for years on end, but by all accounts suffered more boredom and discomfort than danger most of the time. The airmen, in contrast, made frequent, brief, terrifyingly dangerous sorties, either to engage the attacking enemy (spurring their Spitfires and Hurricanes into the sky in the Battle of Britain) or to rain down destruction on his homeland in the teeth of ferocious resistance; returning after a few hours, if they were lucky, to rest and recover in relatively civilized conditions, and prepare themselves for another sortie, very soon. For soldiers and sailors, going into battle was usually determined by chance rather than choice. Fighter pilots and bomber aircrews were volunteers, existentially responsible for their own fates.
The French structuralist critic A.J. Greimas distinguished three basic types of narrative, which may be combined: the disjunctive (i.e., stories of departure and return), the performative, and the contractual.1 Popular versions of the World War II bombing story, especially in movies, usually combine the first two. Departure and return constitute its essential structure, and pose the narrative question with the primary emotional pull: Will our heroes survive? Survival, however, only has value if they perform their mission, to drop their bombs on the target. This is the performative element, and in some examples, like the true story The Dam Busters (book and film), it can be the dominant one.
In fact there was also a contractual element in the bombing story, which was not apparent in popular, patriotic examples of the genre, but is important in literary fiction: namely that bomber crews were required to do a certain number of “trips” or “ops,” thirty in the case of the RAF, which made up a tour of duty, after which they would be given a long respite from combat and possibly retire from it with honor. This contract was the dominant source of psychological stress in the lives of bomber crews. Len Deighton has an instructive passage about it in Bomber. The survival prospects of aircrews could be calculated actuarially on the basis of an average loss of 5 percent of planes per raid. Five percent sounds like a low risk, but not if you have to confront it thirty times in conditions of extreme jeopardy, compounded of darkness, cold, flak, searchlights, and night fighters:
There was…another graph that could be drawn, a morale line charted by psychiatrists. Its curves recorded the effect of stress as men were asked to face repeatedly the mathematical probability of death. This graph—unlike the others—began at the highest point. Granted courage by ignorance and the inhibitory effect that curiosity has upon fear, the men’s morale was high for the first five operations, after which the line descended until a crack-up point was reached by the eleventh or twelfth trip. Perhaps it was the relief of surviving the thirteenth operation that made the graph turn upward after it. Men had seen death at close quarters and were shocked to discover their own fear of it. But recognizing the same shameful fears in the eyes of their friends helped their morale, and after a slight recovery it remained constant until about the twenty-second trip, after which it sloped downward without recovery.
The bomber crews’ increasing preoccupation with their own chances of survival tended to dissipate the chivalric spirit in which they had volunteered. Deighton recalls that the origin of Bomber
goes back to an afternoon in 1944 when my boyhood friend Colin Smith—a flight engineer freshly returned from his first bombing raid—told me that during his briefing the crews had cheered when they heard that the more vulnerable Stirling bombers would be accompanying them.
There was another source of psychological stress which some members of bomber crews felt more than others, namely anxiety about the ethics of the kind of bombing they were ordered to carry out in the latter part of the war: area or “carpet” bombing of German cities, by massive armadas of aircraft which saturated the target with layers of high explosives and incendiaries, creating firestorms that killed civilians, including women and children, in tens of thousands and destroyed historic city centers—most notoriously and controversially, the raid on Dresden in February 1945 when the end of the war was in sight.
This is a subject that has since been exhaustively researched and analyzed by historians, but it was slow to appear in fictional accounts of the war. The popular view was that Nazi Germany had started the war and initiated the bombing of civilian targets, and thus deserved retaliation in kind. In the often quoted words of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” Then the exposure of the horror of the death camps and the Final Solution at the end of the war seemed to brush aside all scruples about the methods used to bring this hateful regime to an end.
The Germans themselves, burdened with war guilt, busied themselves with rebuilding the fabric of their country, and it is only very recently that a German historian has directly confronted and condemned the Allied “terror bombing” campaign.2 In British political circles sentiment turned against it, and against its principal architect Harris, in the aftermath of war. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee excluded Harris from the Victory Honours List, and rejected his request for a campaign medal for Bomber Command—a mean gesture which did an injustice to the courage and self-sacrifice of aircrews who were not responsible for the strategy they carried out.
But the general public’s consciousness, and conscience, concerning this subject were not fully awakened until the publication in 1963 of David Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden, where many people, including myself, encountered for the first time some uncomfortable facts about the strategic bombing campaign, its dubious efficacy, and its appalling toll of lives: some half a million Germans, mostly civilians, killed at the cost of more than 100,000 Allied aircrew divided more or less equally between the RAF and the USAAF, who bombed by night and day respectively in a coordinated campaign. Irving, who became notorious in due course as a Holocaust denier and apologist for Hitler, was at this stage of his career perceived as an enlightened and enlightening historian.
All these aspects of the bombing story—the disjunctive, the performative, the contractual, and the ethical—are combined in A.L. Kennedy’s remarkable novel.
Day is a novel in the modernist mode. It doesn’t have the mythical dimension one finds in The Waste Land or Ulysses, but it employs other formal characteristics of modernist writing, like narrative discontinuity, the representation of consciousness as a stream of associations, a wide spectrum of linguistic registers, and a dominantly metaphorical rendering of perception, to give poetic intensity to the fictional representation of a violent chapter in modern history. It contrasts in this respect with two other novels about bombing in World War II already mentioned.
Len Deighton’s Bomber (or, to give it its full title, Events relating to the last flight of an RAF Bomber over Germany on the night of June 31, 1943), published in 1970, is a thoroughly realist novel. Panoramic in scope (it deals with the German experience of the raid, as well as the British, with civilians as well as servicemen in its huge cast of characters), exhaustively researched (Deighton claims to have read more than two hundred books in its preparation), and packed with technical facts about aeronautic engineering, bombs, guns, radar, meteorology, Pathfinder targeting, and German night-fighter tactics, as well as unflinching descriptions of death and injury in the air and on the ground, it gives a convincing and impartial account of what area bombing entailed for its participants and victims. The characterization at times is a little formulaic, and the comparisons by some reviewers with Balzac and Tolstoy were overenthusiastic, but it is a book of considerable literary merit, far better than the average airport bookstall bestseller which it superficially resembles.
Near the opposite end of the generic spectrum is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), in which the terror and violence of aerial warfare (in this case tactical rather than strategic, supporting the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943) is rendered in a postmodern style of black farce and witty paradox. Its hero, Yossarian,
was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live for ever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.
In this novel the repeated departure-and-return story is dominated by self-preservation, the performative aspect is disparaged, and the contractual basis of the hero’s service is subject to absurdist manipulation by his superiors: they keep revising upward the number of missions that constitute a tour of duty, and when Yossarian tries to get out of flying by pleading mental breakdown he is trapped by the famous catch: nobody who wants to avoid danger can be considered insane.
One might also invoke for comparative purposes another exemplary postmodern text, Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful Slaughterhouse 5, published a year before Bomber. Its central character, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier, not an airman, but the book deals obliquely with the raid on Dresden, the terrible effects of which Billy witnesses as a prisoner of war, as did Vonnegut himself, who was pressed into burying some of the tens of thousands of incinerated corpses. A.L. Kennedy’s hero, Alfred Day, is also a prisoner of war for a time, after being shot down over Germany. Both novels present the experience of war from the point of view of traumatized survivors who are subject to distressing flashbacks, dreams, and memories.
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” Vonnegut declares early in his tale, and so has Alfred Day, but the ways this state is rendered are utterly different in each book. Billy cultivates an absurd compensatory science fiction fantasy in which he is abducted by aliens to the planet Tralfamadore, where all times in a person’s life are simultaneously present and he can choose which one to inhabit; it is left to the author to remind us, by his intrusions and confessions, of the reality from which Billy is trying to escape. In Kennedy’s novel the narrative is sealed inside Alfred’s consciousness. Vonnegut tells his editor in an aside that his novel “is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Alfred’s narrative is jumbled and jangled because that is how a traumatized mind works.
This makes hard going for the reader, especially at first—a characteristic of classic modernist texts. It begins: “Alfred was growing a moustache.” It is not until page 128 that the reader discovers why he is growing a moustache, but that is the least of our problems in negotiating the early pages of Day. The center of consciousness is evidently a psychologically disturbed former airman who is accompanying a foreigner called Vasyl whom he doesn’t seem to like on a walk through fields in an unnamed country with an unspecified purpose. Alfred is mainly preoccupied with fending off unwelcome thoughts about his past:
You could dodge certain thoughts, corkscrew off and get yourself out of their way, but they’d still hunt you.
You have to watch.
This morning he could feel them, inside and out, bad thoughts getting clever with him, sly. They lapped like dirtied water behind his face and outside him they thickened the breeze…. Today it had the smell of blue, warm Air-Force blue: the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they gave away after ops; Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.
“Hello, looks like London Fog again.”
Pluckrose had started them calling it London Fog: the Thames smoke haze in the briefing room—him first and then everybody. One of the things they had between them as a crew: “London fog again.”
But he wouldn’t remember Pluckrose, wasn’t going to ask him in.
Chop it. All right?
And this time I mean it.
This passage is stylistically typical in the way it combines synesthetic imagery (“the smell of blue,” “the stink of drizzle”), air force jargon (“ops”), sometimes turned into a fresh figure of speech (“corkscrew,” an evasive flying maneuvre, becomes a metaphor for avoiding unpleasant thoughts), demotic colloquialism (“sodding awful”), and documentary synecdoche (the brands of cigarettes) into a polyphonic evocation of Alfred’s consciousness. (And how, I wonder in passing, did A.L. Kennedy discover what I recall from my own National Service, that thick woolen British uniforms exhale a faint odor of vegetable decay when damp?)
Also typical, and distinctive—it occurs in much of her fiction—is the constant shifting between first-, second- and third-person narration, and the use of italics. The second-person form (“You could dodge certain thoughts…”) and the italics, both used extensively throughout the novel, express the dialogue of a disturbed mind with itself. “Chop it. All right?” is Alfred mentally addressing himself, reprimanding his own thoughts in service idiom. The whole passage is allusive, fragmentary, imagistic, like modernist verse. It isn’t until a few pages later that we learn that Pluckrose was the navigator in Alfred’s crew, and not until two thirds of our way through the novel that we discover why Alfred doesn’t want to think of him—because one of Alfred’s most traumatic memories is of flying home in a flak-damaged plane with Pluckrose’s shattered corpse bleeding all over the floor.
But what about Alfred’s expedition in the country with Vasyl, with which the novel begins? On page 20 we discover that they are both extras in a movie on location in Germany, but the full details of this story, which provides the narrative frame of the novel, are revealed only gradually. It is 1949, and Alfred has taken time off from working in a London secondhand bookshop to act, along with a lot of other ex-POWs, displaced persons, and “good Germans,” in a film about Allied prisoners seeking to escape from a German prison camp.
This fictional movie is obviously based on The Wooden Horse, released in 1950, itself based on a true story in which British POWs used gymnastics and a vaulting horse to disguise their tunneling activities. It makes an appropriate context for the tormented retrospection and introspection in which the twenty-five-year-old Alfred is constantly engaged, his effort “to tunnel right through to the place where he’d lost himself….”
Alfred Day is a remarkable creation, and a bold choice for a hero. As short in stature as he is low in self-esteem, he is the son of a fishmonger in the industrial area to the northwest of Birmingham known as the Black Country. He grew up speaking the local dialect, which he tries to shed after joining the RAF (“He still practiced in his head. Yo bin and yo bay. Yo doe and yo day. You are, or you have been…. You do and you don’t….“) but to which he tends to revert in moments of crisis or unguarded intimacy. He had an unhappy childhood dominated by a brutish father who abused his mother, and a poor education. He joined the Air Force as soon as he could, like many others, from a mixture of motives—patriotism, moral conviction, a desire for adventure, but primarily to escape servitude in his father’s fish shop—and volunteered to be a tailgunner, for which his small stature is an advantage.
There is an excellent scene early in the novel when scores of newly trained airmen crowd into a hangar and are left unsupervised to sort themselves into crews—an interesting, almost archaic ritual, designed presumably to encourage bonding between individuals who would soon depend on each other for their survival. It certainly has that effect on Alfred. He is passionately devoted to his skipper, and has a special relationship with the rather posh and eccentric Pluckrose, who passes him books and encourages his efforts at self-education. But even Hanson, the mid-upper gunner, known to the others as the Bastard because of his cynical selfishness, claims Alfred’s loyalty by virtue of belonging to the crew.
The crew becomes an almost mystical body for Alfred. Off duty, and even on leave, they are seldom parted, and the more intense their shared experience of “ops,” the more separate they become from others. They develop superstitious rituals for warding off ill-luck: for instance, leaving a favorite gramophone record playing when they go off on a bombing mission. And to Alfred it seems that they have a different sense of time from the rest of humanity:
The crew was extremely particular whenever it dealt with time—it woke and was live and moving in its moment and in that moment only. It would not be concerned with its past and had no business thinking of its future: its cleverness was in drinking up its minutes, second by second, and making sure to drain each one. It looked at the bods outside it…and saw how close they were to being dead: how the time streamed off other people like rain and ran away without them missing it. The crew didn’t like that….
This is very daring writing, which by drawing its metaphors from Alfred’s own experience, and avoiding syntactical elegance, manages to achieve poetic intensity without violating the credibility of his naive, self-educated character. He totally identifies with, and is fulfilled by, his job as tailgunner, gratefully inhaling
the smell of his one chosen home: the tight, exciting reek of working oil and skin and his never-to-be-washed flying suit and the good metal and the brassy sting in his throat from ammunition, the choke from hot firing, his trade, himself.
He likes to travel by train with his back to the engine as he likes to fly in the rear turret of the bomber, looking down at the East Anglian landscape pulled away beneath him until
the long moment—Alfred knew it every time—when the Lanc drew herself out and over the coast, crossed the line—it shivered in her spine and rocked him.
His devotion to this aircraft is animist and exuberantly lyrical, rejoicing for instance at the sight of “a single Lanc, big-chinned, blunt as a whale and open-armed and singing.” Lancasters are even part of his first ecstatic experience of sexual love:
That night with her, I didn’t want to sleep.
But the resting was lovely. And the tiny sounds when she shifted a little, or opened her lips, or sighed—and then above us and heading for the Wash, the singing of Lancs, their kind of comfort.
This young woman is Joyce, whom he meets by chance in a London bomb shelter. They fall in love in a tentative, tender way, its consummation rendered with a delicacy and reticence that is very different from the sexual explicitness of Kennedy’s previous fiction, but consistent with Alfred’s character and evocative of the period. Their relationship is overshadowed by the fact that Joyce is married to a serviceman who is a prisoner of war in the Far East, and it is broken off by the impending end of the war itself, when Joyce writes to Alfred to say she feels it is her duty to prepare for her husband’s return. Receiving this letter via the Red Cross while incarcerated in the German POW camp is one of the most painful memories stirred by his spell as a prisoner in the “pretend camp,” though it is not in fact the end of their story.
The movie camp is itself a site of violence, suspicion, and bizarre behavior. In one of the huts a group of extras, POW vets, are covertly digging another tunnel with the aim of escaping into occupied Germany to run a black market racket. Vasyl, who leads Alfred into the nearby fields to defile what he claims is Himmler’s grave, turns out to be not, as he says, a Ukrainian forced into slave labor by the Nazis, but a Latvian who carried out brutal pogroms for them.
Day is a novel of extraordinary complexity, the narrative jumping and sliding between numerous time planes, weaving together different narrative threads. One of these concerns Alfred’s familial life, his protective love for his mother and his hatred for his abusive father. This subplot is resolved in a way that is not only melodramatic and implausible, but morally disturbing, withdrawing sympathy from a character with whom we have thoroughly identified. It seems to me a flaw in the novel, but not a fatal one, because thematically irrelevant to its main concern, which is with war, specifically the bombing war against Germany.
A quite small proportion of the pages of Day are devoted to Alfred’s combat flying, but they are extremely vivid, written in an impressionistic style that mimics the fear, urgency, exhilaration, and confusion of the experience. Several missions are briefly described in a sequence that reflects the historical development of the strategic bombing campaign—the deployment of the radar-blocking strips of foil code-named Window, for instance. But the method also allows us to share the crew’s growing obsession with their own chances of survival: “twenty-three ops completed: that could tend to make you feel anxious for your thirty”… “Twenty-five…. The thought of those other five woke with you, was ready and rubbing your mind before you could even think of Joyce.”
Alfred and other members of the crew are also troubled, and have been for some time, by the destruction they are causing, happier when targeting “docks and cranes and industry: things that you wanted to hit,” rather than emptying their bombs on cities, conscious of “people hating you below.” Their twenty-sixth trip is the raid on Hamburg in August 1943, historically the first to deliberately create a firestorm on the scale of Dresden. As they approach the target, already burning fiercely, the crew are awed:
A light you’d never known, a red day swelling up ahead. Made everyone quiet on the intercom…. You’re doing your job and you’re keeping your eyes on the black, saving them—but the black isn’t black any more—it’s smoke and ash at 20,000 feet and a life in it, shifting, glowing—bombs go down and you buck higher, rattle over something like a prop wash, an odd turbulence, a fat, high writhe of air….
And slowly, slowly as you arc there is the shape of what you’ve done—a twist of fire—a whole new kind of fire….
Has to be a mile wide, wider—colours in it that aren’t colours, that rise from somewhere human beings cannot be, that fatten and swell—and there’s a howl in it, you could swear, the sound of a monster.
After this raid Molloy, the lapsed Catholic Irish flight engineer, says to Alfred, “When we did what we did this week—that was the end of heaven…I know it. I understand. I’ll have to go to hell now.” In a realist novel like Bomber such a speech would sound implausible, even ridiculous, but in this intensely poetic novel it seems absolutely right. Alfred reflects:
Trip twenty-six.Never knew another like it.
But twenty-seven was the worst. It was our ruination. When they ordered us back two days later and we went….
We went back and we bombed them again.
On trip twenty-seven the crew’s luck runs out, their plane is hit, and all but Alfred are killed, a nemesis described in a virtuoso passage of impressionistic prose.
I approached this book wondering how A.L. Kennedy set about writing it, and why. As to the first question, it is obvious that she did a lot of reading and other research. There are brief acknowledgments at the end to the Imperial War Museum and the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre; she probably interviewed some veterans of Bomber Command, and she almost certainly sat in the rear turret of a Lancaster bomber somewhere and handled the machinery. But research can only take you so far in writing a novel about war as good as this one. Without any personal experience or even relevant childhood memories to draw on, Kennedy had to rely on intuition, empathy, imagination, and rhetorical skill, of a high order.
As to the question why, she gave two answers in a recent interview. The first was that her involvement in the anti-war movement had made her wonder if the lessons of World War II had been learned by the strategists who favored bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan; the second was that when visiting hospitals in her younger days as a community arts worker she met veterans of World War II, “who had had everything asked of them and who’d given everything…. Not all of them obviously, but I felt a debt and I always wanted to write about that generation.” The generosity of spirit revealed in that second explanation informs the novel.
The occasion of the interview was that Kennedy had just won one of Britain’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year Award, for Day. It was a courageous decision by the judges, because this prize tends to favor reader-friendly books and Day is not an easy read. But it is a deeply rewarding one.
May 1, 2008
Algirdas Julien Greimas, Du Sens: Essais Sémiotiques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970). ↩
See Ian Buruma’s review of Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand: Deutschland in Bombenkrieg 1940–1945 (The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War, 1940– 1945; Berlin: Propyläen, 2002), in The New York Review, October 21, 2004. ↩