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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

Ernest Hemingway: Always searching for that elusive Second World War novel (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) 

It is a curious fact that, in the competition to produce the great novel about the Second World War, the two most obvious candidates, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, did not even enter. Greene had established a reputation in the Thirties for grappling with contemporary problems in fiction, set against grimy and sweaty realistic backgrounds, and his war service in cloak-and-dagger work gave him excellent material to transmute. But he preferred to investigate spiritual dilemmas. Hemingway had already written one of the most striking fictions to come out of the Great War, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which contained a superb account of the Italian flight after the battle of Caporetto. To this he added For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), with striking scenes of the Spanish Civil War. But he had nothing on the Second World War unless you consider Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), judged slight and mannered, a war novel.

His influence, however, was powerful, and plainly inspired the first American novel to emerge sensationally from this war, The Naked and the Dead (1948). Norman Mailer was a Brooklyn Jew and Harvard graduate who had served in the army 1943-4 during the Pacific campaign. His story of 13 characters, ranging from a general to a private, engaged in liberating the island of Anopopei carried Hemingway realism a stage further in terms of brutality, explicit sex and expletives, hence its notoriety. General Cummings is a violent intellectual whose axiom "the morality of the future is a power morality", has the critical support of Sergeant Croft but is morbidly opposed by Lieutenant Heare and Private Valsen. Mailer's attempt to analyse the war across a spectrum of American psychological archetypes does not succeed, which I suspect is why, thereafter, he left the war, as a war, superstitiously alone. On the other hand, he perceived correctly why Hemingway's Second World War novel could not be written: he was fundamentally a coward with a secret lust to suicide all his life; and this lust grew until, in 1961, it became irresistible. Mailer thought what Hemingway nevertheless accomplished as a war writer  was heroic, for "he carried a weight of anxiety with him which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself".

Three years after Mailer's commercial success but artistic failure, another American ex-soldier, James Jones, published a much more formidable war novel, From Here to Eternity (1951). Born in 1921 and so two years older than Mailer, Jones came from a much humbler background and had entered the American army as a private volunteer in 1939. Only in the war years was he commissioned. His book is essentially about the pre-war American army in Hawaii, in the shadow of the immense US naval base of Pearl Harbour. It culminates in the treacherous Japanese surprise attack, a set-piece of descriptive power in the Hemingway mould. But the bulk of it concerns the cruelties and frustrations of peacetime service, and here Jones has personal insights no other American writer possessed. His hero, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, is a champion boxer in civil life. He falls foul of the military establishment by refusing to box in the regimental championship, and finds himself in the stockade, or military prison. The scenes in the prison, where Prewett and his friend Private Angelo are victimised by the sadistic Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, under the diabolical connivance of the governor, a figure of towering malignity, are unforgettable.

The novel is also notable for portraits of army women: the prostitute Lorene, and the officer's wife who conducts a forbidden affair with an "Other Rank". Indeed it ends with these two women, immediately after Pearl Harbour, returning to the US on board ship, in uneasy company, a brilliant curtain to the story. However, the book was made into a first-class movie, which saw the emergence of Frank Sinatra, playing Private Angelo, as a star, and wonderful performances by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, as the adulterous cross-ranks couple. The film had the unfortunate effect of sinking the novel and Jones never wrote another of comparable merit. At one point he even attended a school for writers, outside Chicago.

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Seamus Dolphin
February 2nd, 2012
9:02 AM
An interesting and enjoyable article. I am surprised that there is no mention of Catch 22 or any appropriate non-UK European novels. Surely there must be some?

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