I’d like to recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Stories.

Please don’t be put off by the title. This is not a straight forward selection.

About four years ago, as I was rushing out of the library, dangerously close to my time limit for car parking, I saw this cover on a display stand. I paused to pick it up only because I wanted to be convinced I didn’t need to read it.

What led me to take a deeper look was the contents list. It was divided into four categories:

  1. Front
  2. Spies and intelligence
  3. At home
  4. In retrospect

I skimmed down the authors within them. Alongside the ones I might have expected, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, for instance, were some unexpected ones: Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy and Radclyffe Hall. There were also plenty that I’d never heard of: Stacy Aumonier, ‘Sapper’ (Herman Cyril McNeile), C.E. Montague…

With one eye on my watch, I paused to skim through the introduction. The traffic wardens at Tewkesbury have a fearsome reputation for diligence, let me tell you.

These were mostly historic authors, should I bother? Then my eye was caught:

While high-street booksellers offer a wide selection of material for the general reader, and academic interest in the war and its literature is also high, the short story is curiously overlooked.’

Curiously overlooked is exactly the way I feel about short stories.

Barbara Korte’s introduction is the kind of writing that I hope to find opening up an anthology. It is beautifully concise. Her description of how the First World War impacted on short fiction is backed up by quotes like this one from Edmund Blunden, in 1930: ‘The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without a conclusion.’

I’d read enough to convince me. I booked out the book and high-tailed it down the stairs and across the road. As always, when returning to the car park in the-nick-of-time, there was no sign of a traffic warden. How is it they always seem to be in the area when I’m a minute or two late?

Over the next four weeks I kept dipping into those four sections, and finding story-gems. As Korte says:

Few stories written during the war and its aftermath were radically experimental or self-consciously modern, but many depart from conventional plot-orientated narration, resist closure and use forms like the impressionistic sketch, the dramatic monologue or the dialogue scene.

I bought my own copy and returned the library one. Since then I’ve shared this anthology with one or two reading groups.

The subject of war is not to the taste of everyone, but the range and comment of this selection is diverse, and far from predictable, and instigates some fascinating discussions. At their heart, most of these stories are subtle and complex studies in character, and draw me back to re-read again and again.

16 thoughts on “I’d like to recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Stories.

  1. This book sounds like a gem. I can see why you needed your own copy as these would be stories to savour. I love short stories for that reason. You can go back to them time and again. I seldom have time to reread a novel no matter how good it was.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I admit, that’s a pretty unique approach to the different kinds of stories! You’ve probably blogged about this later on, but I’m curious if you were drawn to one of those kinds of stories more than others…or found the selection of one kind more effective than others…?

    Like

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