Guenther Grass writes about the second world war, by actually writing about his campaign trail during the 1969 German elections. But the star of his memoir-cum-novel—not himself, but Doubt, the man at his shoulder—keeps appearing in Grass’ present. Flashbacks rub shoulders with the 1960s Grass walking with 1930s Doubt along the beach.
At the same time Kurt Vonnegut is writing Slaughterhouse Five, in which the Trafalmadorians kidnap poor Billy Pilgrim and force him to live in a human zoo on their planet and—oh, but he’s actually writing about the second world war. Billy’s ability to experience his own life is disabled, and he must flit from one period of his life to another and back, experiencing his death, the firebombing, his incarceration, his childhood, the firebombing, his escape, the firebombing….
Later, Martin Amis writes Time’s Arrow. The unnamed narrator lives inside someone else’s head, someone who does inexplicable things. Even when you realise that time is running in reverse for this mute, anonymous symbiote—that doctors kill and bullets bring to life—some aspects still don’t make any sense, until we are slowly dragged into the second world war, to phenol-coloured skies, mud and ovens, and the sun forever setting in the east.
Now Sarah Waters has written about the second world war. And her novel is ostensibly all about lesbians in history. But it’s about London being torn apart, and people’s lives and bodies being taken with it, and the order of events in the book has been reversed, just as one of the characters Kay enters a cinema part-way through the screening, to watch the last half first and then the first half afterwards.
Why do so many people, writing—arguably the most powerful—books about WWII, feel compelled to chop up and dislocate time? The literary device is excused by all sorts of premises by the writer, but why is the writer using it? Avoidance, in the same way as writing about an election campaign or alien abduction instead? Is he—simplistically put—running away? Or is the war too psychologically big to write about all at once? Are we tiptoeing around emotional minefields? Or are we trying to make sense of events which, chronologically, defy man’s capacity to understand himself?
Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter ego and occasional co-scuttlebutter, once said in conversation:
Trout: …Giraffes can only have come from the future. There’s no way evolution in the past would have let something that defenseless and impractical live for 15 minutes.
Vonnegut: If you say so.
Trout: Try this: The First World War was caused by the second one. Otherwise the first one makes no sense, wasn’t about anything.And all Picasso had to do was paint pictures that were already hanging in museums in the future.
Trout: Just trying to be Einstein. You never know….