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A Time In Between

Éadaoín Lynch
Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’, by Gill Plain, Edinburgh University Press, 300 pp, £70, ISBN 978-0748627448 Gill Plain’s first line, “There are many ‘1940s’”, is an illustration of not only the complexities of the decade, but of the difficulty of dividing history into arbitrary digestible ten-year periods. Despite this difficulty, Plain’s study offers an accessible, engaging overview of the decade’s literature. By placing texts parallel to historical settings, she allows for a greater understanding of the ways in which they overlap, and offers succinct insights that could be subjects for further studies in their own right. Take for example this observation: “The horror of 1945 is both anticipated and avoided by literature.” This paradoxical viewpoint, which many authors of the 1940s adopted, is a useful starting point in understanding the tensions apparent in the literature of this decade, when combatants and non-combatants were facing a Second World War within the great shadow of the First. The general preface to the book, written by series editor Randall Stevenson, advises that, “history in the twentieth-century perhaps pressed harder and more variously on literary imagination than ever before, requiring a literary history correspondingly meticulous, flexible and multifocal”. It was because of this felt need that Edinburgh University Press began its History of Twentieth-Century Literature in Britain. Plain’s new monograph is Volume 5 of this series, and as its subtitle suggests, it divides the 1940s into three separate sections, with each further subdivided into themed chapters: “Documenting”, “Desiring”, “Killing”, “Escaping”, “Grieving”, “Adjusting”, and “Atomising”. This organising principle lends itself to a closer reading of Plain’s choice of texts, and a fuller understanding of the decade as a whole. “Lucid abnormality”, as proposed by Elizabeth Bowen in Collected Impressions, is the basis of Plain’s characterisation of the decade. In the first section of the book, “War”, Plain outlines “the problem of déjà vu” for those writers who had lived through 1914-1918, or been directly affected by it, and explains “the fear that the writers of the First World War had somehow had the last word on the horror of war”. This fear is exacerbated by the increasing media attention on the writers of this period, and the call for them to respond to mounting tension in Europe. Writers turned to documentary form to bear witness to the events of the decade; this was the only alternative when there was an obligation to say something,…



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