Peter Englund and the narration of the Great War in "The Beauty and the Sorrow"

The author is a Swedish historian, also permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize for literature. His latest book is The Beauty and the Sorrow (Profile Books) and is about the First World War. The subtitle, An Intimate History of the First World War, lets you understand the aim of the author and his temptative to manage both with the universality of the war and with the particular cases of ordinary people. Like the twenty protagonists of the book, we are caught up by the outbreak of the war in 1914. Who are these people? The threads of their stories come from all the corners of the world and meet the war at a certain point: we are introduced to the English nurse operating in the Russian Army, to the ambulance driver from the United States, to a German child, to the American wife of an aristocrat living in Poland. The reader sits in front of several accounts of the war that stay magnificently together. The prose of Englund is like an accurate knitwear.

There is more than one reason to point out Peter Englund's book among the flood of titles on the Great War and in the avalanche of books and ebooks to come, since we're drawing near to 2014: 1. the ability of intertwining and mixing the genres, better to say the ability of staying away from the most common vices and limits of the genres (fiction, historical essay, pamphlet); 2. the pattern that goes from single cases to the universality of the war; 3. the fact that these are not stand-alone characters, each is able to give a poignant contribution to the narration; 4. the outstanding geography of war that pops up from the pages (from the Dardanelles to the Asiago Plateau, from Verdun to the Piave and Marne areas, Gallipoli and Ypres); 5. the slow and progressive oblivion of the human being that the World War One started to instil into human brains and actions (a territory we are still crossing?). By gathering these stories, Englund shows us a possible approach to First World War narration at present times. Traditional narration has an haggard face, historians probably run out of fuel and of new palimpsests; Englund puts in our hands a compelling book by smelling deeply those four years, without giving a backward glance to the sterile tank of stories of the Great War. That's what we need.

(The book is already translated and avalaible in Italy: La bellezza e l'orrore, Einaudi).