Thursday, 8 November 2007

Ben Elton and WW1 lit

Yesterday, at book group, the question was inevitbly asked – have you read Birdsong? Everyone had but me.
It’s the whole First World War thing – I’ve found it all horribly emotional ever since I became a bit obsessed with Wilfred Owen in my mid-teens.
Now, I can’t bear to go near literature about the Great War. I feel as if I did all my outraged grieving for it in my adolescence and I don’t really want to go back.

And yet…
I read Ben Elton’s book set in the 1914-1918 horror, The First Casualty and enjoyed it very much. Admired it and liked it, even. I remember being struck by the way he managed to convey the horrors (and it felt as if he’d really done his research in this one, from the pips on the generals’ shoulders to the privates’ conerns as to where their next decent opportunity for a crap was going to occur) in a way which managed to leave you at one remove from the action and didn’t twist your guts or your heartstrings.
Maybe it’s because The First Casualty is more a detective story than a first world war story and the central character – a conscientious objector - ends up in France almost by accident. Truth, as I’m sure everybody out there knows, is supposed to be the first casualty of war. In Elton’s book, the truth is that somebody has used the carnage of war to kill somebody on their own side. Except, clearly, not quite on their side enough.

Some people (clearly not the millions who make him a best seller) are very sniffy about Ben Elton’s books. As if, just because he had a successful career as a stand-up comedian and actor, he couldn’t possibly be a good novelist as well.
But why not? It’s all writing, all communication with the audience and I would imagine that you learn pretty quickly how to pitch your material to your audience when you’re standing in front of a couple of hundred drunken students, or belligerent men in northern working men’s clubs. No point being precious and sticking to your clever modish, avant-garde material in those circumstances. The sort of death you’d die, theatrically speaking, would be one you couldn’t possibly resurrect a career from.

What Ben Elton is good at, it seems to me, is understanding how people see certain kinds of situation - the First World War (The First Casualty), being infertile (Inconceivable), being stalked (Blast from the Past) – and portraying it in a way which subverts all the emotional assumptions we make about it. Inconceivable, for instance, far from being a heart-breaking misery memoir of infertility is hilarious and made a great film, without ever betraying its subject.

Reading Human Traces which has its very own little slice of WW1, and being challenged about Birdsong, made me wonder whether I should overcome my adolescent hang-overs and have a little foray into First World War lit.
But refreshing my memory on The First Casualty and realising how much of the Elton oeuvre I have yet to read, looks set to send me on a much more fun journey. With my birthday coming up and the inevitable book tokens, I think there may be a run on Monsieur Elton in my local Waterstone’s.


Leigh Russell said...

Hi Alis
What an interesting blog. I'm always being recommended books to read but as a teacher, I need all my spare time for writing. I'm addicted to it - and I blog too... I must confess I don't read as much as I'd like to these days. (I hope the organising member of my book club doesn't read this. I've been threatened with unspecified penalties if I don't read the next book!)

I completely understand your teenage obsession with Wilfred Owen. He's an iconic tragic figure of his generation and what poetry! It's amazing that before he fought in WW1 he was all in favour of war which he indelicately referred to as "culling". The experience of the war changed all that. But I'm sure you read his letters in the days of your obsession. Wonderful poet. Tragic story. Sigh.

I just dropped by to say congratulations on your book coming out in January. Is it your first? I'm very excited for you either way. Well done!

Please feel free to visit my blog where comments from fellow writers are always welcome. I hope to hear from you soon and congratulations again.

Alis said...

Leigh - how very kind of you to visit and to leave such a lovely post. Many congratulations to you too on your three-book deal (so jealous...!)From reading your blog your books sound right up my street so i shall be waiting with bated breath for April.
Your blog has also gone on to my favourites list - at this rate i may never find time to write at all...