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The Writing of War: French and German Fiction and World War II
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
William Cloonan. The Writing of War: French and German Fiction and World War II. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1999. xi + 188.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in literary studies in what Marianne DeKoven calls "the urgent question of whether or not we can attribute political efficacy to what many of us see as the most important formal modes of twentieth-century art." William Cloonan's incisive new study answers this "urgent question" by demonstrating the inextricable connection between narrative form and the "new consciousness" that World War II, and more specifically the Holocaust's Final Solution, mandated. At the heart of Cloonan's study is the contention that the Final Solution challenged (if not dismantled) the basic tenet of Enlightenment thinking: that "humanity is by nature reasonable, social, and prone to goodness." As a result, while he is fully aware of the devastating events of the war and their unthinkable results, Cloonan deftly shifts our attention to the "broader ramifications" of the events of the Holocaust and the impact that the war had on fiction writers who tried to process and interpret the unthinkable in their postwar writing. The Writing of War not only explains that these writers responded to a new world order, but also explores the larger question these writers struggled with: "what role does literature play as a means of understanding postwar experience?"
Rather than indicting certain literary forms as inadequate or outmoded, Cloonan does the important work of showing how postwar novelists utilized their aesthetics to address historical events that "challenged or even destroyed moral values once considered sacrosanct in [End Page 538] Western culture." He traces the impact of this "postwar moral malaise" in a variety of novels, organizing the book around those texts that struggled in vain and those that dealt successfully with this radical shift. Cloonan underscores the dangers implicit in those novels that fail to adjust to the apocalyptic changes after the war, while emphasizing what a complex, if not impossible, task it was to write in the wake of the Holocaust. As Cloonan explains, writers of this period faced no less than the question of "whether language in its present state can cope with what has occurred." Cloonan's ability to scrutinize the work of certain writers while never letting himself (or his readers) stand outside or above the enormity of this dilemma is one of the most important contributions of this study.
For Cloonan, the texts that fail to address the impossibility of their project--postwar fictions that do not raise "more questions than [they] can answer"--fail as a response to the war. Chapter 2 is devoted to these failed texts by such canonical French and German writers as Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Ernst Jünger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and an examination of the ways in which they cling to Enlightenment and Romantic "influences" in what Cloonan sees as a decidedly post-Enlightenment world.
Cloonan's discussions of the shortcomings of these postwar projects form an excellent contrast to his examinations of a vast range of successful postwar fiction in subsequent chapters. Cloonan makes it clear, however, that the success of work by Germany's Group 47, Claude Simon, Christa Wolf, Céline, Günter Grass, Michel Tournier, and Siegfried Lenz is reflected in the fact that these authors are concerned with how World War II made, in Gertrude Stein's words, "it all unreal, really unreal." Cloonan demonstrates that "the vision of a world without meaning, except for invented ones, along with the constant need to subvert the literary text, would come to characterize the best writing about World War II." What is most striking in these latter chapters is Cloonan's ability to cover a vast territory of postwar fiction without sacrificing close readings of these novels' consistent underscoring of their inability to construct realistic narratives in a...