An intimate narrative history of World War I told through the stories of twenty men and women from around the globe--a powerful, illuminating, heart-rending picture of what the war was really like.
In this masterful book, renowned historian Peter Englund describes this epoch-defining event by weaving together accounts of the average man or woman who experienced it. Drawing on the diaries, journals, and letters of twenty individuals from Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Venezuela, and the United States, Englund’s collection of these varied perspectives describes not a course of events but "a world of feeling." Composed in short chapters that move between the home front and the front lines, The Beauty and Sorrow brings to life these twenty particular people and lets them speak for all who were shaped in some way by the War, but whose voices have remained unheard.
Excerpted from The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Englund. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Peter Englund received a Ph.D. in history at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He has been given a number of literary prizes in his home country, including the most famous one, the August. In 2002, he was elected to the Swedish Academy (who awards the Nobel Prize in Literature), and in 2008 was appointed its new Permanent Secretary. He has also worked as a war correspondent, in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
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.
Praise for The Beauty and the Sorrow:
“In four decades of studying war, I’ve never read such a remarkable book.”
—Gerard J. DeGroot, The Washington Post
"They call them the lost generation, but you'll find their story here."
—New York Post
"Intense and bighearted. . . . The accounts of [these] lives can be terrifying or stirring, but are most fully alive in Englund's accumulation of small moments, stray details."
—The New York Times
"History in the raw, an unconventional look at the war that did so much to shape the last century. . . . Englund has uncovered the stories of a myriad of fascinating characters."
—The Boston Globe
“An unforgettable and unprecedented view of the war as seen by 20 people who took part in it but, were it not for Englund’s remarkable job of unearthing and arranging their journals, letters, and memoirs, would probably have remained forever faceless, forgotten by time. . . . Lets us in on astonishing details of the war one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. . . . Shatters the mold . . . A beautiful tribute.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Conveys the war’s complexity better than any of the grand histories so far written.”
—The Washington Post
“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.”
“A brilliant feat of retrospective journalism. . . . Englund’s deft collation provides insights into more than the carnage. . . . This book fleshes out the grim statistics of the Great War. . . . The eloquence of everyday participants will link the reader to the era when the origins of the ensuing century’s conflicts became apparent.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“An exquisite book. . . . There are adventures and battles, of course, but also many moments of quiet contemplation with closely observed details of street scenes, restaurants, railway stations, and deserted battlefields. . . . By turns pithy, lyrical, colorful, poignant, and endlessly absorbing.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“A wonderfully wide and rich mosaic of personal experience from the First World War.”
—Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
“Englund covers a lot of ground in The Beauty and the Sorrow, geographically, topically, and in point of view. . . . He succeeds in his goal to humanize the war.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Peter Englund is one of the finest writers of our time on the tactics, the killing and the psychology of war. In The Beauty and the Sorrow he superbly and humanely brings to life all the tragedy, chaos, death and gunsmoke of battle.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin and Young Stalin
“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 and revelatory.”
—Daily Express (UK)
“A literary as well as a historical achievement.”
—The Guardian (UK)
“These lives are anything but ordinary, and the stories are absolutely riveting. . . . A fresh, varied, thoroughly convincing picture of the war. . . . There are some wonderful details. . . . Englund has chosen his voices with great care, and the resulting picture of the war in the round, with all its sorrows but also its joys, is made all the more vivid by the eloquent translation from the Swedish by Peter Graves.”
—The Telegraph (UK)
“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 (UK)
“[There are] hundreds of eerie, moving, upsetting, and surprising incidents from the First World War within this extraordinary book. . . . Like a great novel, The Beauty and the Sorrow manages to be both more universal and more particular [than other books on WWI]. Peter Englund frees individual experience from the collective cloak of history and geography. . . . The details build like a symphony. . . . Englund writes with a calm clarity, beautifully conveyed by his translator.”
—Mail on Sunday (5 stars, UK)
“Anthologies of war reminiscences are often lazy stuff, mere compilations of extracted passages from diaries and letters. . . . [But] Englund’s choice of witnesses and his use of their material are admirably judged. This is an anthology well above the common run. . . . This is a book about men and women living at the outer edge of human experience.”
—Sunday Times (UK)