Friday, August 14, 2020

Beryl Pong's "British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime"

Beryl Pong is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield, where she researches and teaches 20th- and 21st-century literature.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration, and reported the following:
Page 99 of British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime zooms in on a close reading of a short story by the writer-firefighter William Sansom (1912-1976). Sansom, whose prose has often been compared to Kafka, wrote stories with a surrealist and fantastical bent, though much of the content is based on his own experiences of working in the fire services during the London Blitz. The story in question on page 99, “Journey into Smoke”, follows a firefighter’s slow-motion walk through a blacked-out alleyway, only to come upon a fantastical sea of burnt toffee papers floating on water; a fire hose, described as the head of a hydra, snakes back towards him violently. All this is against the faint background explosions of an air raid. The themes and style here are typical of Sansom’s wartime writing: a dramatic set-piece; a focus on psychological fear; a cinematic slowing-down of time; a historical moment presented as deeply personal, distorted, and unreal.

Despite the very specific subject matter, this page gives the reader some idea of the core questions at stake in the book at large, which concern how the idea of wartime is understood by writers and artists in the years surrounding the Second World War. How do the chronological markers of a war—the dates of its beginning or end, for instance, or those of significant battles within—mesh or conflict with the way time is felt by individuals at the time? How are feelings of temporal dislocation or suspension narrativised in the literature and creative arts, and how are these in turn rewritten or revised in subsequent historiographical accounts? The book focuses on the Second World War; but because it discusses works that reflect on the First World War’s legacies, as well as the nuclear future to come, it is really a more conceptual meditation on our methods of framing what, when, and where wartime is.
Visit Beryl Pong's website.

--Marshal Zeringue