n Britain and the US, the war is thought of as a righteous war, stout-hearted democrats against genocidal aggressors. It is not to deny the essential truth of that, or the wickedness of the Nazi and Japanese missions, to recall the more nuanced reality: the fact that Britain began and ended the war as an imperial power, withholding democratic rights from millions of subjects, the fact that the US fought with a racially segregated army and made use of senior Nazi scientists and Japanese officials after its victory, or the fact that to beat Hitler it was necessary to appease Stalin, to the point of allowing his murderous prosecutors to sit in judgment on Nazis at Nuremberg. The best novels of the war, like Gravity’s Rainbow, Catch-22 or The Tin Drum, are informed by a sense of the fragility of the concept of ‘enemy’, showing characters being systematically betrayed by those on their own side. Unlike Hollywood’s versions of the war, which inflate American valour in inverse proportion to America’s shrinking enthusiasm for personal risk, this year’s flood of war novels are aware that living through a war, as opposed to watching it from a distance of time or space, involves living with rumour, lies, ignorance and prejudice, and that dignity and righteousness are more to be pasted together afterwards than experienced at the time. It is for historians, biographers and screenwriters to write the bardic tales of military heroism which rocked the Sumerians’ world. For novelists, war is the bass line, not the melody.
‘The war is in fashion. There’s still money to be made,’ says Anna, one of the twins in Tessa de Loo’s book (they were separated as children, experienced the war on opposite sides, and met by chance as old women in present-day Spa). I don’t know whether de Loo meant to be ironic – her book has sold more than a million copies – but the success of The English Patient and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the fascination with the war on the part of the human mint that is Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and soon Band of Brothers) must speak eloquently to publishers. In one direct sense at least, the Second World War is about money: it was the last war that materially affected the lives of all the inhabitants of the world’s richest and most powerful countries. It could be called the last G7 war (one of the reasons post-Soviet Russia has been so anxious to make up the numbers to G8 is that it sees the grouping as a club for old war players). It is not just that the rich world’s ancestors went off to fight, but that those who stayed behind were living in a state of war, too.