Monday, December 3, 2012

Philip Sington

Philip Sington is the author of The Einstein Girl and Zoia’s Gold. His latest novel is The Valley of Unknowing.

Last month I asked the author what he was reading. Sington's reply:
With two small children working an effective pincer movement on my free time, the reading I do at the moment is almost all of relevance to what I’m writing or plan to write. Right now that means books about the First World War. Navigating through the vast wealth of literature on this subject has been a study in itself, but two books in particular have stood out so far.

Among fictionalised accounts, Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929) is almost unique in recording faithfully the ordinary private soldier’s experience at the front, and often in his own (distinctly foul) language. Ernest Hemingway called it ‘the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read’, and yet for most of the last century it languished in obscurity. This was thanks firstly to its emasculation at the hands of editors alarmed at the obscenities – for which, in those days, they could be prosecuted. An unexpurgated version of the book did not become available to the public until 1977, forty-two years after Manning’s death. The other reason for its absence from the canon of First World War fiction was its author’s aversion to self-promotion. Editions published in his lifetime appeared not under his own name, but as the work of ‘Private 19022’.

Beyond its sheer authenticity, The Middle Parts of Fortune sheds a piercing light on the human response to the horrors and the demands of war: to the ever present possibility of death, the loss of comrades and friends, and the requirement to kill, often at close quarters. Like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, it’s one of those books you’ll be glad you read, even if you never really wanted to.

The other book that’s impressed me hugely is The Unknown Soldier (published in the US as Unknown Soldiers) by Neil Hanson (2005). It tells the story of the millions of men who were classified as ‘missing’ on the Western Front, and who to this day have no known grave. What make’s Hanson’s history so compelling is his decision to follow three individuals (a British ‘Tommy’, a German army officer and an American airman) right through their military careers, right up until the day they too are missing in action. Through their letters and those of their loved ones, we get to know these men and to care about them. This makes their disappearance in the carnage of war almost as appalling for the reader as it must have been for the people who knew them. Among recent histories, The Unknown Soldier brings home the stupidity and waste of war with special force.
Visit Philip Sington's website.

--Marshal Zeringue