Q: The Beauty and the Sorrow is not a typical history of World War I. What led you to structure the book from the point of view of ordinary individuals?
A: In one sense the most difficult part was finding the form of the book. I have written several shorter pieces on WW1, I have taught on that subject at my old University in Uppsala, and so I was familiar with the subject. But I was also quite determined that I didn’t want to write a book following the standard format, i.e. with an over-arching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences, mainly because that has already been done, and often quite well. Instead I was interested in the war as an individual experience, to give some kind of sense on how it was (and is) to experience history from below and within, without the hindsight and the rationalisations that inevitably comes afterwards.
Q: Why the First World War?
A: What made me interested in World War One in the first place, and still has a grip on me is not just that it is THE big disaster of the 20th century, the one that started all the other ones (without WW1 no Hitler or Stalin, no WW2, no Cold War even), actually the single most important historical event in European history after the Fall of Western Rome 476AD. It is also that this war can’t be reduced to a story with a simple moral, like WW2. In 1939-45 everything was much more clear cut: light against darkness, good against evil, democracy against fascism, etc, and even the story itself is so exciting, almost archetypal in its narrative curve: at first the monster rises, sets out to conquer to world, but after much hardship is forced back into his lair and eventually defeated…
Q: What do these personal stories reveal about the nature of World War I that a standard history of battles and campaigns would not?
A: For one thing I think it tells you how extremely difficult it can be to understand something that you yourself are taking part of, is swept along with, submerged in. And the top-down perspective of a battle often tells you very little of what it is really like. I could say so also from my own limited experience.
Q: Could you be a bit more specific?
A: I have been a war correspondent in four wars (Croatia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq) and here I want to quote from the English preface to the book: As a historian there have been many times when I have longed to be present where and when events happen, but once I had arrived in, say Kabul (I was there some time before the Talibans took the city in 1996), I discovered the same thing as many other people in the same situation: to be right in the middle of things is no guarantee of being able to understand them. You are stuck in a confusing, chaotic and noisy reality and the chances are that the editorial office on the other side of the planet often has a better idea of what is going on than you do.
Q: In writing the book did you come to have a favorite character—one whose story you found most compelling or most identified with?
A: Tricky question, as most of these persons have interesting and even endearing sides to their personalities. Perhaps it would be Kresten Andresen, a young and sensitive Dane drafted into the German Army, who – like many of these persons – at first finds a strange allure in war, but soon feels depressed, trapped and sceptical. Eventually he went MIA on the Somme in August 1916.
Q: Why did you choose to write The Beauty and the Sorrow in the present tense?
A: I played around with the tense a bit, but I found out that the present tense worked best as the individual chapters are all based on individual days, and I wanted to give the text the feel of a collective diary, the feel of something happening right here and right now.
Q: What sources did you use and where did you find them?
A: I have used sources left behind by these persons: letters, diaries, memoirs. The book contains nothing that I’ve made up. (Of course. I AM a historian, and this is a work of history, albeit an unconventional one.) The problem was not so much finding sources – there is an abundance of material left behind by eye-witnesses to that war. The problem was choosing which persons to concentrate on. WW1 was as we all know a very “literary” war in the sense that people were more than in any other conflict using writing and literary means of different kinds as their main means of remembrance. (Already in WW2 people had started to use other media than writing for remembering, mainly photography. Then we have radio, the movies etc.)
Q. How did you select the stories that you chose to tell? Did you find that they brought special significance to the events of the war? Did you attempt to cover each theater of the war?
A: My original intention was also to show the multiplicity of war – not least when it comes to peoples own reactions. So I wanted to find people of both sexes, different nationalities, different ages, different attitudes, different functions – obviously not just military men. And I also wanted to give some sense of the scope of the war, and not get bogged down in the mud of the Western Front, which (not without justification) has come to dominate the memory of the war. So the others theatres of war are here as well: Italy, the Balkans, the Eastern Front, Africa, Mesopotamia, Palestine. But still, we are just talking about twenty individuals here, and I don’t pretend that they are representatives of anyone but themselves. No, the problem was not finding interesting individuals but instead deciding upon which one to use! The book could have easily been ten times, or even a hundred times as thick. I was a bit troubled by all those that I got aquiented with but eventually had to leave out. But there is still hope for them!
Q: What do you mean?
A: The book has a sort of ”modular” structure in that sense that each chapter is centered upon a single person. A thing that struck after the book had been finished, and when the book (to my own great surprise and joy) was sold to a number of different countries, was that this gave me the opportunity to change the book when it is translated. This is done quite simply: I take one of the persons in the original, lift them out the text, replacing him or her with someone else, often an individual more ”close to home” to that of the new edition. E.g. in the UK and US versions there are two persons that were not in the original Swedish edition: the scotswoman Sarah Macnaughtan and Laura de Turczynowicz (who grew up in New York, but was in Poland at the outbreak of the war). In the German edition one person who was on the Russian side is replaced with a German artilleryman, and in the Russian version three persons that were connected with the Western Front have been replaced by three other individuals all connected to the Eastern Front, etc. So you can say that the book is still a ”work in progress”. Whenever I have time and opportunity I write material on a new person.
Q: Are you working on an ”additional” person right now?
A: Right now – when I have time – I am actually writing about Franz Kafka and his experiences 1914-1918. He of course never saw fighting, was never near any front and wasn’t even in uniform, but he, like everyone else at this time, was in his own way caught up in it. For instance his work for shell-chocked soldiers is quite unknown but actually of importance at that time in Austria-Hungary. And it is vital for me that this a book of more than just the experiences of fighting men. The civilian side of it is not to be forgotten, not if you want to understand the war, and what it was like. And all the infra-ordinary things and events that comes with them – to use a word much cherished by the late Georges Perec. I have also finished the extra materail for the South Korean editions, where you get to follow a German Naval leutenant, Franz von Levetzow, who was part of the crew on that famous German cruiser, SMS Emden, who raided the Indian Ocean, bombarded Madras etc, but was eventually sunk at the Cocos Islands in november 1914. von Levetzow was one of those killed.
Q: Do you see any problems with the approach you used in this book?
A: Well, yes. I have to agree with Geoff Dyer that in this manner you are of course chained to these individuals, and certain important dates or events gets left out, inevitably, like the first day on the Somme 1916. You only meet it in a oblique way, as in the case of, Kresten Andresen who get sent to the battle later that summer and eventually disappears there.
Q: Do you have some historians or authors who inspired you in writing ”The Beauty and The Sorrow”?
A: When I wrote my Ph D thesis in the Eighties, I was inspired by the French Annales School, and the whole concept of micro-history. Another source of inspiration is the German author Walter Kempowski, who has written a number of highly original books on WW2 that builds solely on individual experiences. And the remarkable work of the the French historian Claude Manceron showed me how you can write history without necessarily having an over-arching grand narrative. The American Paul Fussel has of course also been important, both in his writing about WW1 as a literary experience and about the nature of war, not least as an individual experience.
Q: Do you think that there is a different reception to World War I history in the United States as opposed to in Europe?
A: Yes, I suppose so. The Great War was a momentous event in the history of both the USA and in Europe, not least because it catapulted the USA onto the world stage – and without the USA Germany and her allies would probably have won. At the same time it was fought here in Europe, at a tremendous cost, not just in people and materials, but also in a moral and ideological sense. Europe in a way has never fully recovered from the tragedy of WW1, and so it is not really surprising that this period in history often attracts more interest over here.
Q: You are a Swede, and Sweden didn’t participate in the Great War. Isn’t a bit odd that you choose this subject?
A: I think feel that historywriting, when it is properly done, is set above national categories, know no borders. And my aim has been to write a from a trans-national perspective – and my nationality has hopefully made that part easier. I have had no national bias to struggle with, not least in yourself, something which I think is quite hard to avoid if you are, say, a French, British or Serb historian. I could also point out that the book is dedicated to memory of Carl Englund, who was a volunteer in the 3rd Australian Division, a man who fought at Passchendaele and was mortally wounded outside Amiens in the autumn of 1918. There WERE Swedes in WW1 as well… But the main point is that we ALL live in that messed up world that came out of The Great War, we all still live with it’s consequences.
Q: As we head toward the 100 year anniversary of World War I, do you think that there are forgotten lessons from the war that we as a global community should reflect on?
A: One important lesson is about how easy it can be to start a war, especially in a frenzy of emotion, and how terribly difficult it can be to end it. Because the horrible logic of human conflict makes men lose control over it: wars follow their own, supremely unpredictable course, almost never achieving those goals that they set out to achieve originally. And sometimes war even destroys those very things people originally set out to defend.