Reading in a War: a bibliography for The Separation

Approximately one hundred and twenty other published books lie behind The Separation. Of these, I read about sixty all the way through, taking notes where necessary; I used the remainder as occasional reference resources.

Book research for a novelist, and how much of it he or she should carry out, is a subject I’ve written about elsewhere. I don’t want to go over that ground again, except to say that too much literary research can be as bad a thing as too little. However, much of this new novel is set in the 1940s, a time when I wasn’t around, or at least not as a thinking adult. Although like everyone else I’ve seen innumerable movies and TV plays set in the period I felt I couldn’t launch into a whole novel without knowing something about what life was like then.

That very familiarity is another problem: nearly sixty years after the event, we are all surely so familiar with the Blitz spirit, the wizard-prang lingo of RAF pilots, the great speeches of Winston Churchill, the hell of the concentration camps, and so on, that without original research it’s pretty difficult to come up with a fresh view. I didn’t see much point in writing a novel that would be just another period piece, leaning for its inspiration on a kind of secondhand collective memory, so as far as possible I went back to first-hand accounts by participants. When researching a time of war you can’t rely exclusively on personal accounts, because as is well known the larger picture is hard to see, so it’s necessary to consult more objective works written after the events. Also, I had no intention of writing yet another war novel of the usual militaristic kind. My motives are broadly pacifist and my real interest in WW2 is social rather than military: the way people lived, what they ate, wore and read, how they travelled around, what sort of jobs they had to do, what they listened to on the wireless, what the politicians were up to, what it was really like to live under nightly bombing raids, and so on. Much of this is also familiar, of course. WW2 is well-trodden ground, imaginatively, from wherever you start.

What follows is a sort of informal and annotated bibliography of The Separation, which I hope will be interesting even to those people who can’t stand war novels and couldn’t care less about WW2. At the lowest level it’s simply a list of books, which I feel like placing on the record somewhere. I lived with these books for a long time (I first read some of them while I was still at school), and they were always in the recesses of my mind while I was writing. But as well as that, some of them are works of real literature, others are minor classics of their type, neglected either because of the time that has passed since they first appeared or because fashions and interests have changed, and I found many of the rest enjoyable and interesting to read.

My interest in WW2 began in 1957, when as a schoolboy I read Paul Brickhill’s remarkable book The Dam Busters. In the lists below, this falls into Category 1 (Histories), because Brickhill was not himself a member of the squadron which carried out the famous raid on the dams of the Ruhr valley, although he had in fact served in the RAF during the war. His own story, from Category 4 (Unimportant Participants), is told in another of his famous books, The Great Escape. Brickhill was born in Sydney in 1916 and in the years after the war became the most successful non-fiction writer of the period. He died in 1991. His real name was Chester Jerome.

After that I read many more books about the war, following no particular pattern or plan. My teen years happened to coincide with the first big flood of WW2 books. It seems that the people who are involved in war need about ten years afterwards to clear their heads, take stock, find the words to describe what happened, then (most important) find publishers and a public receptive to the material. Authors who rush into print while the war is still going on, or as soon as the shooting dies down, do not in general make much of a mark. (There are exceptions to this rule, and some of them are listed below.) If you look back at books about the First World War, you have to wait until the end of the 1920s before the first great works of literature start appearing: Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and Graves’s Goodbye to All That (also 1929).

As for the Second World War, the good and lasting and influential books began appearing in the middle of the 1950s. Books on the subject are still regularly appearing today, with no end in sight. TV also reveals an undying fascination with the subject. Indeed, it could well be that we are still too close to that immense catastrophe for any reliable or objective account of it to appear, especially insofar as being able to judge the historical consequences. John Keegan, himself one of the finest military historians, has said that we probably will not see the definitive history of WW2 until well into the 21st century. He cites as a parallel example James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, published in 1988, a one-volume history of the American Civil War, which, according to Keegan, “generally satisfied all shades of historical opinion over its causes, nature, and consequences”. Only the events of September 11 2001, and their currently on-going consequences, appear to be on a scale of awfulness sufficient to move WW2 more emphatically from modern concern into the stasis of old history. Perhaps closure on the subject might at last be in sight.

Now a note about the publication data of the books mentioned here. My own copies were often either original editions found in secondhand shops, or were reprinted as modern paperbacks, sometimes revised or expanded. Wherever I have been able to trace a current edition of any book, I have created a link to the relevant page in Amazon’s catalogue, where more information may be found, and, if you’re sufficiently interested, where you may order a copy. Where there is no traceable modern edition, I have shown as much information about the edition as seems sensible.

Let’s get to the books themselves. They are listed in seven groups. The definitions are not hard and fast and many of these books cross over between two or more categories.