My next book on WW2 can be seen as a companion piece to my previous work The Beauty and the Sorrow. This will also be, to quote the preface of that earlier book, “a piece of anti-history,” in that I have sought to reduce an epoch-making event “to its smallest, atomic component, namely the individual human being and her experiences”. This one too is based on diaries, letters, and memoirs from people who were there. Nothing is made up. I didn’t have to. The material is incredible.
However, there are a number of important differences between the two works.
Whereas The Beauty and the Sorrow sought to capture the entire First World War from beginning to end, November (a working title) seeks to describe what happened during a single month, namely November 1942. That month was the turning point of the Second World War.
At the beginning of November 1942, it looked as if the Axis powers still could win; at the end of that month, everyone realized that it was just a matter of time before they would lose. In between was El Alamein, Guadalcanal, the French North Africa landings, the Japanese retreat from the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea, and of course the Soviet encirclement of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Only one month, but perhaps the most important one in the entire twentieth century, when everything still hung in the balance.
The form of November is more open. The Beauty and the Sorrow was built around quite long chapters, each chronicling what one of about twenty people did and saw and thought over the course of a single day. In the new book, the chapters are often shorter, the characters’ tracks sometimes cross, and there are more flash-backs and flash-forwards. In November, moreover, the reader gets to follow almost twice as many individuals, i.e., about forty.
Just as in The Beauty and the Sorrow, the characters are of the most diverse types, and not only soldiers. So in addition to, e.g., a Soviet infantryman at Stalingrad, an American pilot on Guadalcanal, an Italian truck driver in the North African desert, a partisan in the Belarusian forests, and a machine gunner in a British Lancaster bomber, there is also a 12-year-old girl in Shanghai, a freshman university student in Paris, a housewife on Long Island, a shipwrecked Chinese sailor, a prisoner in a Sonderkommando in Treblinka, and a Korean sex slave at a Japanese “comfort station” in Mandalay. (Almost all the characters are unknown people, way down in the hierarchy. A few familiar names do appear, such as Sophie Scholl, Ernst Jünger, and Albert Camus.)
Just as in The Beauty and the Sorrow, these individuals carry the book, but unlike it, November also has threads about other phenomena: the construction and launching of SS James Oglethorpe, a Liberty ship at a shipyard in Savannah in the American south, the quest and fate of U-604, a German submarine, the top secret building of the worlds first nuclear reactor in a squash court in Chicago (a crucial first step in the Manhattan project), and the production and premiere of the film Casablanca.
However, the same basic idea unites the two books, namely to try to write history based on what people knew then and there, and not let the perspective be informed by what we now know would happen. I have sought to achieve a broader understanding by attempting to reconstruct the uncertainty in which people lived, an uncertainty that often falls away in ordinary historiography, whereby disaster become transposed into simplified and sometimes harmless storytelling.
Finally: there is no lack of books on the Second World War. And there are many very good ones. (I know. Not only am I a historian, I have also been following the genre for many decades.) But this one is different. Like in The Beauty and the Sorrow, I want to depict the war as it was experienced by the individual, in all its contrasts and bewildering uncertainty, and also go beyond the standard narrative form for books in this genre, in which people like the above-mentioned appear, but as no more than tiny specks of light, flickering by in the grand historical sweep.
I dare say that you probably will never have read a book on the Second World War quite like this one. It will be published in the autumn of 2022 – 80 years after the events depicted.