Obscuring the body count

British Writing of the Second World War
April 12, 2001

This is the most authoritative study so far of the culture of the second world war. Mark Rawlinson's survey of poetry, fiction, autobiography, film and journalism is wide ranging as well as profoundly researched and theoretically alert. His book focuses on the need to capture the heterogeneity of wartime experience in the 1940s and on the need to recover the unpredictability of those times in trying to work out the relations between the social and cultural conditions of the past and future, of the apocalyptic class consciousness of the 1930s and of the post-war reconstruction that the fighting was supposed to guarantee.

Rawlinson pitches the discussion of wartime culture on to new levels: in his concern with the intersections of the material and the discursive in contemporaneous reactions to the war; in his attention to the encoding of the injured body, by turns given a symbolised typicality and rendered invisible; and in his review of the range of conceptions of the relationship between the individual and the state. Particularly fine is a chapter on the Blitz that highlights the discrepancy between the anticipation and the actuality of aerial bombardment, and which registers the extent to which the Blitz was perceived disproportionately in terms of a damaged architectural heritage rather than damaged bodies.

Rawlinson details the process by means of which the effects of violence could be assimilated to "ideals of consensual state governance, so that they became a component of nation building", and shows how this adaptation could be linked back to the communitarian ethos dreamed of in the previous decade: "The community of the targeted replaces the idealised solidarity of the proletariat." The Blitz involved a number of reversals of meaning, not least of its own name - the German word was reinterpreted swiftly to mean "not lightning victory but enduring resistance".

The last chapter, "We're all prisoners of war", is perhaps the most brilliant exercise in cultural history. It proceeds from examining the use of prison as a metaphor in the writings of non-prisoners to exploring the way in which British prisoner-of-war writing reproduced social codes that obscured the nature of European prison conditions of various kinds, the outcome being that "the boundaries between radically different regimes disappear". Not the least of this book's virtues is its scrupulous reassessment of the concept of the "people's war", which in practice involved giving consent to "increasingly centralised social and economic direction, not to the revolutionary overthrow of authority".

Rod Mengham is senior lecturer in English, University of Cambridge.

British Writing of the Second World War

Author - Mark Rawlinson
ISBN - 0 19 818456 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 248

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