The Beauty and The Sorrow

They are all gone now, the combat veterans of World War One. The last one, Claude Choules, who served in the British Royal Navy, died in May this year, aged 110. The battlefields themselves are also all but gone now, or turned into carefully tended monuments. And in a couple of years  we stand before the 100 year Anniversary of the outbreak of this war, a war that could very well be the most momentous event in European history since the fall of Western Rome.

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”The Beauty and The Sorrow” is a book on the Great War. And it is a historical work – I am after all a historian, and I have been teaching this subject at Uppsala University – but it’s a historical work with a twist.

In this book you as a reader will follow twenty real people – pretty unknown or now forgotten – among them an Australian woman who drove a lorry for the Serbian Army; an Italian soldier who ended up in a Mental Asylum; a French civil servant who never saw the front; a German school girl who grew up close to the war on the eastern borders of Germany; a South American adventurer who fought for the Turks and witnessed the Armenian genocide; a Belgian fighter pilot; a Russian nurse; an American field surgeon; a Hungarian cavalryman; a British winner of the VC etc. The main source material is diaries, letters and memoirs these persons have left behind.

The book consists of short chapters, only a couple of pages long, where I try and give a picture of what one of these persons did or saw or felt during a single day. (All in all 227 chapters.) These chapters then follow one another in a simple chronological manner, starting in August 1914 and ending – no surprise there – in November 1918.

I like to think of it as a sort collective diary, or twenty intersecting, intertwined biographies. But that sounds more fancy than it actually is.

My intention with this book is not in the first place to show the Great War as an Historical Event – there are scores of books that does this, and in an admirable way: there is no grand narrative to be found here. What I have been aiming for is mainly the war as a human experience, trying to capture the bewildering and complex multiplicity of war – not least when it comes the actions and reactions of the individuals.

Some general facts

The books was first published in Sweden, in november 2008. It has since been sold to eighteen countries, including USA, The UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Poland, Holland, Denmark, South Korea, Brazil and Serbia.

The US edition is published by Alfred E Knopf in New York, the UK edition by Profile Books in London. The UK edition is 532 pages long, is illustrated with 66 photos.

The book is now available both in the USA and the UK and I’m glad to say it has received very favourable reviews. For instance, it was named as one of ten best books of the year in Washington Post, San Fransisco Chronicle and New York Daily News.

Here are some other reactions:

  • ”Intense and bighearted . . . The best books about World War I have often been oblique, like Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory, or novels, like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, rather than comprehensive histories. Englund’s volume joins an unconventional pantheon . . . The accounts of [these] lives can be terrifying or stirring, but are most alive in Englund’s accumulation of small moments, stray details . . . His book has the most devastating ending I can remember in a piece of non-fiction.” – The New York Times
  • “In four decades of studying war, I’ve never read such a remarkable book . . . Twenty lives, told in parallel, convey the war’s complexity better than any of the grand histories so far written . . . What makes these characters so extraordinary is their eloquence. Englund knits their achingly evocative accounts into a riveting diary of war. He fills in the gaps with background research but grafts this onto his characters’ testimony so seamlessly that it seems as if the narrative is theirs, not his.” Washington Post
  • ”Powerful and compelling . . . Of the many books about the First World War this is among the most strikingly original . . . Almost every page of Englund’s book is fresh adn revelatory.” – Daily Express
  • “Englund frees individual experience from the collective cloak of history and geography [in] this extraordinary book . . . The details build like a symphony.” — Mail on Sunday
  • “Though the beauty in ”The Beauty and the Sorrow” may be fleeting, overwhelmed by extraordinary loss, Englund has brought back to life, on the page, a small group of people who endured that loss, resurrecting them in both simple and eloquent testimonials. That, in and of itself, is a beautiful tribute.”  — San Fransisco Chronicle
  • ”By turns pithy, lyrical, colourful, poignant and endlessly absorbing. An exquisite book.”  — Kirkus Reviews (starred)
  • ”A brilliant feat of retrospective journalism” Publishers Weekly (starred)
  • “The Beauty and the Sorrow is history in the raw, an unconventional look at the war that did so much to shape the last century . . . Englund succeeds admirably in conveying these [individual] takes . . . He gives us a profoundly evenhanded sense of how global the conflict was . . . He has uncovered the stories of a myriad of fascinating characters . . . There are many quietly powerful moments.” Boston Globe
  • ”Whether considered as history or as literature – it is, of course, both – The Beauty and the Sorrow is radically original in form and epic in scope — It seems to me that it’s not only a new way of doing history, it’s a new way of giving form to people’s lives without relying on the, I find, increasingly weary conventions of novelisation. But in terms of the prose, the visualisation of scenes and the imaginative rendering of documented events, it’s very novelistic.” Geoff Dyer