Culture  /  Book Review

Writing Under Fire

For a full understanding of any historical period, we must read the literature written while its events were still unfolding.

“Punctual literature,” as Heffernan calls it, is a narrow category, especially when it comes to World War II, for practical reasons: it isn’t easy to write and publish while being bombed. To fortify his argument Heffernan further narrows his definition of “punctual,” limiting his survey primarily to fiction, poetry, and plays set or composed or published in 1939 (which happens to be, he gallantly declines to mention, the year of his birth) “and one or at most two of the years that followed.” Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, and Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags are novels about historical events, but they’re not historical fiction, strictly speaking, because they were written in the early years of the war, before the conclusion was known—before the chaos of those years could be sealed and wrapped and ribboned in a tidy narrative. “The uncertainty of being in medias res,” writes Heffernan, “is precisely what punctual literature aims to represent.” Ignorance of the war’s outcome does not count as a deficiency of this literature, as it might to a historian, but as an advantage.

Here Heffernan risks stating the obvious. Of course Hemingway’s novel produces a very different account of the Spanish Civil War than what can be found, for instance, in Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain. Most readers of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française will feel no compulsion to fact-check its account of the exodus from Paris against Julian Jackson’s The Fall of France (2003). Hemingway made this point himself, in his introduction to Men at War (1942):

A writer’s job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.

Heffernan calls this argument “startling,” but it is fundamental to fiction. Facts tell us little or nothing about the experience of an age, for experience resides in the minds of those who lived it. Beevor’s book tells how the war was won. Hemingway’s novel tells us “how the war felt,” or at least how it felt to one volunteer fighter.

Heffernan must therefore take a more daring approach. He directs his argument not to readers of literature but to historians. Brazenly he trespasses into their territory, their cleared jungles and straightened rivers, as an emissary from the shadowy realm of make-believe who dares to suggest that their scrupulous volumes, no matter how impressively researched or dramatically written, cannot match the honesty of fiction, poetry, or theater. “Histories tell us much…about the origins of World War II,” he writes. “But the literary works…examined in this book tell us even more.”