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 a form for the book. I have written several shorter pieces on WWI and taught the subject at my old University in Uppsala, so I was familiar with the subject. But I was also quite determined not to write a book that followed the standard format, i.e. with an overarching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences, mainly because that has already been done, and sometimes 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: 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 in, are swept along with, submerged in. And the top-down perspective of a battle tells you very little of what it is really like. Q: In writing the book did you come to have a favourite character—one whose story you found most compelling or most identified with?
A: Tricky question. Most of these people 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 the persons in the book - at first finds a strange allure in war, but soon feels depressed, trapped and sceptical. Eventually he is killed at the Somme in 1916.
Q: Why did you choose to write The Beauty and the Sorrow in the present tense?
A: I played around with the tempo 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 that these people left behind: letters, diaries, memoirs. I haven’t made up anything in the book. The problem was not so much finding sources – there is an abundance of material left behind by eye-witnesses – as to choose which people to concentrate on. 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 theatre of the war?
A: My original intention was 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 a sense of scope 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, and Palestine. But still, we are only talking about twenty individuals here, and I don’t pretend that they are representatives of anyone but themselves. 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 probably would 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 WWI, and so it is not really surprising that this period of history often attracts more interest over here. 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, and how terribly difficult it can be to end it. The horrible logic of human conflict makes men lose control of it: wars follow their own, supremely unpredictable course, almost never achieving those goals that they set out to achieve originally. Q:You became the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in 2009. What is it like to participate in the selection of the laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
A: It’s a big responsibility, of course, but it is also pretty exhilarating. Reading all these great works of contemporary literature, and constantly getting in touch with new ones, is a reward in itself.