Oral narratives, especially from people who are not professional writers, can offer powerful insight into the age that produced them. Often you wade through pages of insignificant discussion of personal and mundane issues, and then happen on a phrase, a sentence, an image that plunges you into the mind and times of the writer. Last night I read a paragraph from a letter written by a seventeen-year-old girl about her encounter in 1834 with the frontiersman Davy Crockett. More than any biographical study, certainly more than Crockett’s self-inventing narratives, this one paragraph gave me a personal and physical sense of Crockett as a human being.
So I came to The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War (Knopf, 2011), by Peter Englund, with anticipation. This book promised to be an account of the First World War told through the experiences of 20 random participants and spectators—soldiers, medical workers, businessmen, displaced mothers, and so on. Their stories would, I hoped, plunge me as a reader into the war in a direct and vicarious way. Not so. Instead of presenting their oral or written accounts, Englund treats them as characters in a narrative that he constructs. He does the narrating, sometimes quoting and sometimes paraphrasing diaries, newspaper accounts, published and unpublished journals, letters and other documents to construct the thoughts and activities of his characters on a particular day of the war. He moves from one individual to another, following the war’s progress chronologically, comparing and contrasting and interweaving until a comprehensive overview, of sorts, emerges. Individual accounts here can be powerful. Others seem banal. The power of the individual voice, whether through oral or written narrative, is replaced by Englund’s authorial voice, which surely, inevitably, must take some license as he constructs the lives and thoughts of these people as they experience the war. This patchwork approaches comes at the cost of narrative effect—we’re constantly moving from one person’s perspective to another, and there are so many participants, flung far and wide across the globe, in so many contexts and roles, that coherence never emerges. Perhaps that was Englund’s intention. Even as I enjoyed this book, I was disappointed.