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  • Fictions de la Grande Guerre: variations littéraires sur 14–18par Pierre Schoentjes
  • John Flower
Fictions de la Grande Guerre: variations littéraires sur 14–18. Par P ierreS choentjes. ( Études de littérature des XX eet XXI esiècles, 2.) Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2009. 276 pp.

In his Introduction Pierre Schoentjes reminds us that the majority of earlier critical studies of the literature of the First World War have taken the form of broad surveys. While individual texts and indeed authors may have been subject to scrutiny, they are essentially secondary to the critics’ concerns to demonstrate how the works they are analysing succeed in conveying an authentic and realistic overall depiction of the war. Taking as his material over 150 predominantly French but also German and English novels, from contemporary accounts of the war to those written nearly a century later, Schoentjes’s aim is to analyse recurrent themes and tropes in order to assess their literary effectiveness. Many of the texts he cites have been forgotten or are relatively unknown, but a large proportion are based on the first-hand accounts of the authors who experienced front-line action and trench warfare. The task is ambitious and Schoentjes is well aware of some of the problems: the limitations of language to describe hitherto unknown experiences, the danger of stereotypes and clichés, a search for realism that can result in what he terms ‘une véritable pornographie de la mort’ (p. 94), the ambiguity of a text depending on when it is received and hence the difficulty of interpreting the language used (p. 112). By the mid-1930s, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Frontmay be read as an adventure story and a quest for virility (p. 239). In each chapter Schoentjes takes what he defines as a theme and illustrates it from a variety of texts. The opening chapter provides an overview of how war has been described from classical times to the end of the nineteenth century, reminding us that there had not been any first-hand accounts even of the Franco-Prussian War. Each chapter thereafter resembles a computer file beginning with a brief historical introduction followed by a series of subsections dealing with different responses often according to the authors’ perception of the war. He examines the language and the images used to describe such diverse matters as ironic responses to war, the need to describe the indescribable, the act of killing, the role played by colonial forces, the influence of women, firing squads, and the introduction of gas. The accumulation of material is rich but we are still left with the difficult if not impossible question of what, in literary terms, constitutes a truly realistic and wholly successful ‘war novel’. Schoentjes acknowledges this: ‘la vision littéraire des combats [est] une vision nécessairement mensongère’ (p. 89). He also acknowledges that there remain texts undiscovered, that other themes (the ever-present mud or the impossible burden of equipment) could be added, and that a similar study should be made of poetry. Be that as it may, Schoentjes’ study marks a fresh and rewarding approach to a body of writing that continues to fascinate even today when ‘un bon livre de guerre [. . .] s’oppose a` la guerre’ (p. 119). [End Page 271]

John Flower


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