If a single image can stand for Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is the one that begins and ends the novel: the American guerrilla fighter Robert Jordan prone on the pine-needled floor of a forest near Segovia, awaiting the appearance of enemy soldiers. If the novel has a sound, it is the roar of the fascist bombers flying low over the guerrillas’ cave. If the novel has a flavor, it’s that of the “bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing” absinthe Jordan has smuggled in a leather flask from his previous life. And if the novel has a smell, it’s the smell of death. Not the smell of putrefaction, though the novel is littered with rotting corpses. It is the smell of a death foretold: the odor given off by a person, like Robert Jordan, who knows he will soon die.
Jordan himself refuses to believe such sorcery when he hears of it from Pilar, the guerrilla band’s matriarch. He demands that Pilar describe this alleged stench of preordained death in precise terms. The first element of it, she tells him, “is the smell that comes when, on a ship, there is a storm and the portholes are closed up.” Another note can be tasted by kissing the mouth of an old woman in Madrid who, in the predawn fog, descends upon the slaughterhouse to drink the blood of the murdered beasts. Add to this the odor of dead chrysanthemums. The final component is the reek of a brothel, which Pilar describes in a lengthy speech of unapologetic precision, ending with an invitation to “wrap this sack around thy head and try to breathe through it.” Combine all that and you have, finally, the smell of a death foretold.
You also have something that you won’t find in any history of the Spanish Civil War. In Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II, the Dartmouth literary scholar James A.W. Heffernan proposes that academic and popular histories, diaries, and journalistic accounts offer only a blinkered view of the past. For a fuller understanding of any historical period, you must read the literature it produced. Best of all, you must read the literature that was written and published while the events of the period were still unfolding.
“Punctual literature,” as Heffernan calls it, is a narrow category, especially when it comes to World War II, for practical reasons: it isn’t easy to write and publish while being bombed. To fortify his argument Heffernan further narrows his definition of “punctual,” limiting his survey primarily to fiction, poetry, and plays set or composed or published in 1939 (which happens to be, he gallantly declines to mention, the year of his birth) “and one or at most two of the years that followed.” Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, and Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags are novels about historical events, but they’re not historical fiction, strictly speaking, because they were written in the early years of the war, before the conclusion was known—before the chaos of those years could be sealed and wrapped and ribboned in a tidy narrative. “The uncertainty of being in medias res,” writes Heffernan, “is precisely what punctual literature aims to represent.” Ignorance of the war’s outcome does not count as a deficiency of this literature, as it might to a historian, but as an advantage.
Here Heffernan risks stating the obvious. Of course Hemingway’s novel produces a very different account of the Spanish Civil War than what can be found, for instance, in Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain. Most readers of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française will feel no compulsion to fact-check its account of the exodus from Paris against Julian Jackson’s The Fall of France (2003). Hemingway made this point himself, in his introduction to Men at War (1942):
A writer’s job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.
Heffernan calls this argument “startling,” but it is fundamental to fiction. Facts tell us little or nothing about the experience of an age, for experience resides in the minds of those who lived it. Beevor’s book tells how the war was won. Hemingway’s novel tells us “how the war felt,” or at least how it felt to one volunteer fighter.
Heffernan must therefore take a more daring approach. He directs his argument not to readers of literature but to historians. Brazenly he trespasses into their territory, their cleared jungles and straightened rivers, as an emissary from the shadowy realm of make-believe who dares to suggest that their scrupulous volumes, no matter how impressively researched or dramatically written, cannot match the honesty of fiction, poetry, or theater. “Histories tell us much…about the origins of World War II,” he writes. “But the literary works…examined in this book tell us even more.”
These are fighting words. Heffernan’s method is to pit a work of literature against a definitive historical account of the same subject. In these head-to-head battles, literature cheerfully concedes some predictable defeats. No reader of Hemingway will learn, for instance, that the Segovia Offensive was ordered by Indalecio Prieto Tuero, Spain’s minister of defense, in order to forestall the Nationalists’ assault on Bilbao. Readers of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Necessity of Propaganda,” collected in the Svendborg Poems, can be forgiven if they don’t realize that the word “program” should be read as an allusion to the twenty-five-point Program of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party that Hitler proclaimed in his February 24, 1920, speech at Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. History claims such empty victories as these, but in Heffernan’s book, literature wins the war.
An ideal candidate for this type of analysis is Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field (1940), a novel written by an American reporter in Czechoslovakia about the experiences of an American reporter in Czechoslovakia. It is, Heffernan writes, “the work of a journalist who discovered, paradoxically, that fiction alone could re-create the truth of what she had seen.” We have here a clean test case, with Gellhorn’s journalism serving as the control. She spent several weeks in and around Prague on assignment for Collier’s during the fall of 1938, shortly after Hitler annexed the Sudetenland—the predominantly German-speaking part of the country—for a report titled “Obituary of a Democracy.” The same research forms the basis of A Stricken Field.
What truth does the novelist Gellhorn record that the journalist Gellhorn cannot? She renders the lives of her subjects in far richer detail, though this may say more about the editorial conventions of Collier’s than narrative journalism as a form. In her fiction, Gellhorn writes about the novelists and journalists who came to Prague to exploit the situation for their careers, offering a behind-the-scenes perspective that Collier’s editors might have considered unseemly. And through her surrogate, a reporter named Mary Douglas, Gellhorn writes about herself—her own vulnerabilities and cynicism and bystander guilt. When a young Czech Communist in hiding begs Douglas to condemn the Nazis for her American audience, she dutifully obliges, but without conviction: “After they had public opinion all properly shaped, what good did it do? It was immensely easy to make people hate but it was almost impossible to make them help.” Ultimately Douglas decides to engage, intervening in the lives of several people she meets through her reporting. She brings one injured man to a hospital and smuggles out documents for another—a haphazard, largely ineffectual response to her feelings of impotency, but the only one available to her.
For Heffernan the novel’s most impressive accomplishment, however, is Gellhorn’s depiction of Czech cruelty. Like Hemingway, whom she would soon marry, Gellhorn felt it was her duty, when writing for a large public readership, to lie in service of the virtuous side—to propagandize, in other words. (When Hemingway wrote that “a writer’s job is to tell the truth,” he meant a writer of fiction; in his journalism he was a devoted propagandist, careful to suppress any facts that “could hurt the Republic,” as he acknowledged in correspondence.) Although Gellhorn and Hemingway witnessed what he called a “carnival of treachery on both sides” during the Spanish Civil War, they reserved their accounts of Republican barbarity for their novels. The most frightening scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls describes the rabid executions of Loyalists in a small hilltop town by a Republican mob who torture their victims and defile their corpses before tossing them into a gorge. Gellhorn saved her Republican horror stories for A Stricken Field, which she told friends was the book she had wanted to write about the Spanish Civil War and the Republicans’ betrayal of their ideals. But to do so she had to transpose the narrative to Czechoslovakia.
She managed easily enough, for the Czech authorities treated the most vulnerable among them almost as savagely as the Spanish Republicans treated fascist prisoners of war. In A Stricken Field, Gellhorn describes how German refugees—hundreds of thousands of Sudeten Germans who had rejected the Nazi Party—were routinely sent back across the border, ensuring their imprisonment, and in some cases their execution, for treason.
Gellhorn doesn’t mention any of this in Collier’s. She does tell the story of one refugee family forced to return to the occupied village they had fled, but she neglects to say who sent them back, or why. In her novel she fills in these details, most brutally in an episode about a refugee who, after being hit by a car, is so terrified of encountering the Czech police that he refuses medical care. But an officer appears nevertheless and orders the refugee to the police station, where he will be condemned to return to Nazi territory.
As Heffernan is careful to point out, Gellhorn’s fictional account of Hitler’s annexation has its own omissions and blind spots. She ignores almost entirely, for instance, the plight of the people who suffered most gruesomely at the hands of the Czech authorities: the Jews. Némirovsky’s disinterest in Jewish anguish is even more conspicuous in Suite française, given her history of employing antisemitic flourishes in her fiction—a habit that drew attacks in her own lifetime and attracted greater controversy after the novel was discovered and published to enormous success in 2004.
But the near-total absence of Jewish characters in Suite française is as much an aesthetic blunder as a moral one. The story of Némirovsky’s own efforts to secure protection from Vichy France would have neatly complemented the narratives of vanity and self-delusion that define the novel. In September 1940, a month before the Vichy government decreed that “foreign residents of Jewish descent may be interned in special camps,” Némirovsky wrote a letter of appeal directly to Marshal Pétain. She touted her longtime association with the conservative periodical Revue des Deux Mondes and her personal connections to various enthusiastic supporters of his collaborationism. She boasted of her refusal to concern herself with politics and of having dedicated herself to writing literary works in which she had “tried [my] best to make France well-known and well-liked.” Even after her deportation, her husband, Michel Epstein, shortly before his own murder, appealed to the German ambassador: “Even though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection.” Neither Pétain nor any of Némirovsky’s collaborationist friends came to her aid, and she died of typhus in Auschwitz.*
Such fickleness of authorial attention, even unthinking bias, is critical to Heffernan’s argument. Punctual literature is proudly piecemeal and defiantly subjective. It offers us the perspective of the soldier, not the secretary of defense; of the random bystander, not the chancellor. Free of the historian’s imperative to write an authoritative, objective account, punctual literature instead records the effects of a particular event or age on “a mind capable of calibrating its significance at the time it occurred.” Or minds, for it is not only the author but his or her characters whose lives are deranged by the cataclysms of their age. Any single person’s experience of a grand historical transformation can only be uncertain, idiosyncratic, contradictory. How, for instance, does one make sense of killing strangers in war, even for a virtuous cause? In For Whom the Bell Tolls, such inquiries inspire Robert Jordan’s self-tormenting interior dialogues, which convulse him without warning:
How many is that you have killed? he asked himself. I don’t know. Do you think you have a right to kill any one? No. But I have to. How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force. But you like the people of Navarra better than those of any other part of Spain. Yes. And you kill them. Yes…. Don’t you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
Hemingway offers no synthesis, no answer, no satisfaction—only the questioning, and the questioning of the questioning.
Some wartime minds are not so sensitive. Basil Seal, Evelyn Waugh’s recurrent amoral dandy, would not be able to listen to Robert Jordan’s musings about war as a crusade on behalf of “all of the oppressed of the world” without snickering into his gin. In Put Out More Flags, war is just another racket, the latest opportunity for shameless self-promotion, blackmail, giggles, and social gamesmanship. As one character says, “One takes one’s gas-mask to one’s office but not to one’s club.”
Waugh did not write autobiographically: none of his characters is a Waugh stand-in, despite sharing his class and milieu. Waugh, in fact, committed himself to the war effort with much greater seriousness than any member of Basil Seal’s coterie, joining the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant. It would be tempting to say that Put Out More Flags reflected Waugh’s own disillusionment about the honor of war, but as Heffernan points out, he was under no illusions when he enlisted. Waugh’s correspondence from the period reflects a frank expectation of his own violent death and describes the fighting as “tedious & futile & fatiguing.” (In this way Waugh resembles Robert Jordan more than Basil Seal, risking his life for a cause that disgusted as much as inspired him.) In diary entries from the Battle of Crete, during which the British and their allies suffered a humiliating defeat, Waugh describes starving men reduced to ghosts, crawling out of ditches like lizards. He began writing Put Out More Flags on an ocean liner back home. He would later claim it was the only book he wrote purely for pleasure. John Keegan, the preeminent military historian of the period, called Waugh’s farce of pompous dodgers and profiteers “the greatest English novel of the Second World War.”
If war, in Waugh, is an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, in Henry Green’s Caught it is an excuse to sleep around. War is sexual opportunity, an aphrodisiac, and an excuse for the suspension of shame and inhibition. “War,” as one character puts it, “is sex.”
Caught is the strangled tale of Richard Roe, a patrician businessman who volunteers as an auxiliary fireman in London during the first year of the war (following the example of his pseudonymous author, who was born Henry Vincent Yorke). As in Put Out More Flags, the action is mainly set during the so-called phony war, the eight-month period between the British and French declaration of war and the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, during which the Allies engaged in little actual fighting. These months of playing soldier allow Roe to relish the perks of wartime footing without the risk of being slaughtered. He leaves behind his irksomely affectionate wife and his mystifying young child at their staid country estate to go slumming with firemen in London. There he enjoys the easy camaraderie of the fire station, the delusion of valor, and the long expanses of free time, which inexorably draw him to lonely working-class women.
There is an unpleasant tincture to Roe’s idyll, however. His boss, Albert Pye, has a personal connection to the recent, if brief, abduction of Roe’s son, Christopher. Before the war, while visiting a toy store with his nanny, Christopher was lured by an eccentric woman to her apartment, where he was abandoned and later found by police. So it is with some awkwardness that Roe discovers that Pye is the brother of his son’s abductor. Worse, Pye partially blames Roe for the cruel (and expensive) treatment his sister has received since her institutionalization. But the force of war—the thrill of war—sweeps aside these interpersonal tensions with relative ease, the resentments blanched by the enthusiastic preparations for bombs and broads. It is only once the sky lights on fire that Roe realizes the whole endeavor has been a sham. Their year of training vaporizes as the “mile-high pandemonium of flame” descends upon the incompetent and overwhelmed auxiliary firemen, who flee in panic. Roe returns to his estate traumatized by war and even less capable of negotiating the most fundamental duties of marriage and fatherhood.
The aphrodisiac qualities of war, the class tensions, and the incommunicability of the wartime experience to outsiders—all of these have been observed, Heffernan acknowledges, in nonfiction accounts of the Blitz. (“Sexual desire, especially in women, was much intensified,” says a psychoanalyst in Juliet Gardiner’s 2011 book The Blitz: The British Under Attack, Heffernan’s historical counterweight to Caught.) Green’s unique accomplishment, then, is to convey “a richer quality of truth: a truth embracing the whole lives—physical, social, familial, emotional, sexual, and psychological—of men and women caught up in the blitz.” This is undeniable, but it’s hardly categorical evidence of punctual literature’s superiority. The same quality of truth might be found in the diaries or correspondence of individual Londoners from the period—Waugh’s diaries, for starters, or Green’s.
In an epilogue, Heffernan makes a final bid to offer a synthesis for the unique contribution of punctual literature: each of the works under discussion, he notes, expresses “ways of resisting heroism itself.” This is not entirely surprising, since Waugh and Green are the only authors among the group who did not resist military service. Brecht fled to Denmark, then Sweden, Auden across the Atlantic (for which Waugh mocked him, under thin disguise, in Put Out More Flags), and most of the novelists and poets who responded to questions about the war for a 1939 issue of Partisan Review (among them Henry Miller, James T. Farrell, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Tate) argued for pacifism and disengagement. Still there is nothing preventing a writer of nonfiction from mocking ideals of heroism, and several of the historians and memoirists discussed by Heffernan do just that.
Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II offers an appealing enticement to read some of the most inventive works of wartime literature and to recognize their contributions to the historical record. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the fact that each case study resists reduction to any universal law of punctual literature. Although novels (and plays and poems) do tend to convey “a richer quality of truth” than histories of the same events, talented memoirists, correspondents, and, yes, even historians can offer readers the same information, the same measure of contradiction and nuance, and even the same intimate engagement with historic events. They don’t, typically. (Most novelists don’t either.) But they can, and occasionally they do.
This doesn’t diminish Heffernan’s fundamental insight—that imaginative writing is especially well suited to examine a range of human experience ignored by conventional historical narratives. There may be no hard-and-fast rules of punctual literature, but there are no hard-and-fast rules of any other sort of literature either. Literature is a democracy, and not an especially law-abiding one. A writer has the freedom not to take anything seriously, even global war. A writer also has the freedom not to settle on a single perspective, moral, or conclusion. Such settling, though often the stated ambition of a work of scholarly history, is anathema to literature that takes as its subject the influence of history, politics, and philosophical thought on the lives of its characters—the so-called “novel of ideas,” which describes most of the works discussed by Heffernan. In these novels dramatic tension arises from the opposition of contradictory values, each expressed with their full strength. Without this conflict, Saul Bellow wrote, a novel of ideas “is mere self-indulgence and didacticism is simply ax-grinding. The opposites must be free to range themselves against each other and they must be passionately expressed on both sides.” Contradiction, nuance, high emotion, irrationality—in all these qualities, literature has the edge over history, though its lead is not insurmountable.
There is one dark art, however, that nonfiction cannot fully replicate: the ability of immersive narrative literature, and especially fiction, to blur, or even eradicate, the boundary between reader and subject. Readers of a history are reminded on every page, with every footnote and dutiful scholarly reference and contextual aside, of one’s distance from the action. The reader even of a memoir or a diary can never fully suspend disbelief, since the dramatic stakes of the narrative rely on its authenticity—on the assertion that the events described really happened and that the people depicted really experienced them.
Novelists don’t tend to bother about that. A novel’s success depends not on its faithfulness to reality but on the author’s ability to beguile the reader into empathizing with its hero and, for a brief time, exchanging the reality of the world for the reality of the novel.
This magic trick achieves more than an enraptured reading experience. It allows the reader to contend, on the most intimate terms, with the challenges faced by the author’s characters. In my carelessness and panic, I’ve left behind my infirm, aged father in Paris to face the Nazi invaders alone; should I abandon my children and risk my life to rescue him? I’ve injured a refugee in a road accident, but he refuses to seek medical care out of fear of extradition; do I bring him to the hospital or leave him bleeding in the road? The deeper immersion activates the reader’s own imagination. The question is no longer, Should the guerrilla fighter Robert Jordan kill on sight any stranger who obeys orders from a Fascist commander? Instead it becomes, Could I kill, if pressed into combat in a war of democracy versus tyranny? And it becomes, What would I kill for? What would I die for? What do I believe? What am I capable of? Who am I?