Anthology of War by Mordecai Richler
Writers on World War II - war anthology - review
The book I'm holding in my hand is not new. It's a library copy, covered in plastic for durability but still battered and falling apart (the first 20-30 pages are not attached to the spine in any way and keep sneaking out of my hand - a quick grab usually saves them from landing on the floor). I don't mind - I like books with history. If history happens to be the book's subject, too (as is the case with 'Writers on World War II') my bibliophile's soul is twice caressed - somehow it all seems to fit as it should.
Yet, no amount of visual or sensual perfection will save the book from a venomous rant if its contents prove to be deficient. Does this apply to Mordecai Richler's anthology? Read on to find out.
War anthology by the greatest authors of our times
Introduction - short and sweet
With some books, the title says it all. What could a book named 'Writers on World War II' be about? Certainly we're not talking mating rituals of European ladybirds here.
Jokes aside, let me give you a short description - 'Writers on World War II' is a brick-like (more than 700 pages) anthology compiled of short stories and excerpts, chronologically arranged and describing all war theatres. It includes big names such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Simone de Beauvoir, Gunther Grass, but also some fairly unknown authors, of grander or lesser skill. Most contributions are quite compact, a few pages at most, so what you get is quite an impressive spectrum of views, genres, national sympathies etc. etc. Diaries and letters are peppered with poetry, seasoned with newspaper reports and served in general-bookishness quality sauce.
Overall, quite edible.
What goes into Mordecai Richler's war anthology
I tend to have mixed feelings towards anthologies'... ehm,authors? Editors? Put-togethers? See, I can't quite see how the act of choosing texts and adding a few words of introduction to your selection justifies putting your name on the cover (and usually, picture and biography overleaf, too). As in - it's cheating, goddamnit! Poor writers have to sweat and exercise their brains and someone else gets all the fame, simply for saying 'Ok, print this'.
Well, I do realise that my judgement here is a bit harsh and I'm quite convinced that if any anthology author ever bothers to try and change my mind, he or she won't find it much of a challenge. All because of the simple fact - fair or not, I like anthologies very much.
In this particular case, I believe Mordecai Richler deserves to be both praised and chastised. Let's start with the bad news, shall we?
I have this tiny theory claiming that all literate people in the world can be divided into two groups: those who read introductions and those who don't. Don't laugh, ask around and you may notice the pattern yourself. I DO read introductions. They often prove to be a goldmine of information and little stories, and once or twice I've read an introduction better than the actual text it was accompanying. Let me just say - Richler's preface does not belong to this group. His introduction is not particularly bad, it simply fails to be remarkable in any way. Now, when it comes to the mini-prefaces to each text in the book... An editorial crime. Some authors show up again and again in the anthology (which is fine, as long as they contribute something worthwhile each time - and here they do). Let me ask you a question - how many times can you write a five-sentence biography of the same person, using different vocabulary but the same information each time? It may be valuable as a literary exercise, but from the reader's point of view it's just an irritating waste of space.
Time for praises.
The selection itself is quite impressive. It never lets you get bored. You travel in space and time, see the world in all kinds of perspective and the journey leaves you full of reflections and impressions. If you don't like one of the pieces, you can rest assured that the next in line will be quite different.
'Writers on World War II' is so full of various styles and genres that whatever your preference, you're bound to find something to your liking.
Overall, it's a delicious mixture.
More books by Mordecai Richler
Anthologies and you
Do you like anthologies?
Importance of war anthologies
An international account of war
The most impressive bit about Mordecai Richler's anthology is its internationality. One conflict, many various points of view. Richler gathers them all (or, to be more precise, enough to give the book its cosmopolitan, impartial feel). War writers speak with many voices - those of soldiers, statesmen, victims, witnesses, bystanders and more. It shows with amazing clarity what a huge, all-encompassing conflict the World War II really was. It touched everyone and it changed most of whom it touched.
Some stories are tragic, some scary. Some are banal, some - very powerful. Just as you would expect from an anthology of war writings.
I'm only wondering whether I'm alone in noticing one, ever present, ever visible motif in those 700 pages. I wonder if I'm the only person who, after reading 'Writers on World War II' wants to ask - is there a thing more ridiculous, more tragically stupid and unfair than dying for somebody else's big ideas?
Hope I'm not.