Book Review: Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-century Europe at War

Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-century Europe at War Peter TAME, Dominique JEANNEROD and Manuel BRAGANÇA (Eds) Journal of Contemporary European Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 1 (2015), pp. 163–164.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4438-5158-9
£49.99 (hbk), 385 pp.

(Review originally published in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 1 (2015), pp. 163–164)

A foreword by Jay Winter precedes an introduction that emphasises this volume’s transnational perspective, which allows it to ‘probe the extent of the very rich aesthetic and intercultural exchanges that characterise representations of war in Europe’ (7). However, there is little on the German experience or material that deals with twentieth-century European conflicts occurring after 1950 and seven chapters deal exclusively with French material. Yet, within its range the volume is replete with rich perspectives and includes analyses of figures and subjects comparatively under-researched or less known to an English language readership.

Peter Tame’s excellent chapter, from which the volume takes its title, examines French writer (and Minister for Cultural Affairs during de Gaulle’s presidency, 1959-1969) André Malraux’s Antimémoires (1967) asking, among other things, if the Antimémoires attest to a continuation of culture during wartime and how it reflects culture’s post-war fate (259). Malraux’s writing of the Antimémoires emerges as a refuge of culture, encoded in the structure, language and imagery of the text and through Malraux’s recourse to myth and metamorphoses as agents of change.

Martyn Cornick’s study of relatively unknown French writer Armand Petitjean explores Petitjean’s strong reactions to the threat posed by the Anschluss (1938) and his responses, ‘en situation’ (11) during his tenure as soldier, while Caroline Perret reveals the broader socio-political charge of Jean Dubuffet’s Tableaux et Dessins, exhibited shortly after the liberation of Paris during World War II, which, by repudiating the academic style favoured by the Nazis acknowledged and gave voice to those who had suffered at the hands of the regime. Comparison of Dubuffet’s art with that of internees, dealt with in further chapters exemplifies the myriad, diverse configurations of artistic resistance: Monica Bohm-Duchen explores what compels people to creativity in the most antithetical of conditions. Her foregrounding of aesthetic impulse over aesthetic merit in works by Holocaust victims and internees on both sides acknowledges this art’s significance as historical document. Additionally, she provokes debate on the uneasy relationship between aesthetic value and historical document in appraising works of art. Similarly, Joanna Lusek defines French composer Olivier Messiaen’s (and others’) embodiment as prisoner-creator-resister as the matériel of the pedagogy of memory in developing the memorial site of World War II prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A at Görlitz (Zgorzelec).

European nations’ evolving ‘coming-to-terms’ with World War II occupies several chapters. William Kidd illustrates how the power of revisionist film Lacombe Lucien (1974) was achieved through juxtaposing disconcerting visual and verbal motifs which confronted official myths surrounding Vichy France, while Margaret Attack’s redress of the homonyms ‘Résistantialisme’ and ‘Résistancialisme’ (the latter spelling first used in the 1980s to signify the Resistance myth) conveys the enduringly political charge of resistance memory in France. Helena Duffy shows that despite growing scholarship on the Holocaust and Russian anti-Semitism, the topics remain peripheral and played down in the work of Franco-Russian writer Andreï Makine. The battle over Romanian memory, as Gavin Bowd reveals through his examination of the initial reception and subsequent fate of Marin Preda’s controversial novel Delirul [The Delirium] (1975) in Communist Romania, is far from over. Elli Lemonidou’s analysis of fictional cinematic representation of Greece’s involvement in World War II (and the bloody Civil War that followed) shows how the policies of successive political regimes meant that a one-sided historical narrative was usually promoted while reiterating the role of cinema in shaping collective memory and managing traumatic experiences. Personal histories are recalled by Nicole Thatcher to show how two French writers used literature as a means by which to cope with the persistent, traumatic memory of the French occupation (Charlotte Delbo’s deportation to Auschwitz) and the shameful (in Marie Chaix’s father’s collaboration with the invader).

With regard to wartime masculinity and femininity, the role of World War I resistance heroines in Belgium and France is a subject all but absent from scholarship; they are discussed here as symbols of bravery and idealised visions of their countries in peacetime (Emanuel Debruyne and Alison S. Fell). A nuanced re-reading of Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) by T. G. Ashplant traces in Graves’ use of comedy and irony an earnest critique of national ideologies regarding masculinity, which so effectively compelled young men to go to war, challenging the view that such works are of limited historical value because of their ‘reworking’ of memory and retrospection. An assessment of the iconography of the World War II British fighter pilot in official art (Jonathan Black) reflects the endurance of such ideologies, while a further chapter on Italian post-1945  literature disputes the primacy of the narrative of the victim brought about by ‘total war’ (Marco Mondini).

In other chapters, Christina Theodosiou’s consideration of popular as well as ‘high’ culture reveals a much more diverse response to the Armistice of 11 November 1918 in interwar French fiction and theatre than generally supposed and illustrates the value of fictive narratives in the (re)writing of cultural history, while Nancy Sloan Goldberg’s examination of two film adaptations of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s pro-war propagandist novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1916) – both of which projected war as an opportunity for redemptive self-sacrifice – illuminates how the films’ emotive power reframed wartime accountability as individual responsibility, thus negating the culpability of national leaders or national ideologies. Hanna Trubicka’s re-assessment of Polish writer Jozef Wittlin’s World War I novel Salt of the Earth (1936) reveals how Wittlin’s soldier-protagonist reflects the problem of individual identity in face of industrialised warfare. Finally, Marzena Sokolowska-Paryż analyses the diverse (international) meanings attributed to World War I in grand-historical narratives (in television and literature of the 1970s and 80s) through the ideologically defined roles of the protagonists, cast as agents or victims of historical change.

Overall, this is very interesting collection. One may lament the absence of a German perspective but it is certainly a positive to encounter a volume that refreshingly under-indulges the usual figures within English language scholarship and in agreement with the editors, probes one to question much more deeply accepted notions on the experience and memorialisation of war.

Ann Murray

University College Cork

© 2014, Ann Murray