Revisiting the First World War

February 25, 2014 | By Alicen Hubert

As the centennial of the First World War approaches, French publishers have begun to release an outpouring of titles in all genres dealing with diverse aspects of the war. The push began as early as 2012, gaining momentum during France’s rentrée littéraire in fall 2013, and continuing with an exciting lineup of titles announced for 2014, with re-editions of old works [such as Henri Barbusse's Le feu (Gallimard, New Edition 2014)] and a myriad of new books on the subject. Luckily, several of these works will be available to American readers. Among them, Jean Echenoz’s masterful 14 (Les Editions de Minuit, 2012) was recently translated into English and published in the U.S. as 1914 (tr. Linda Coverdale, The New Press, 2014). Pierre Lemaître’s much-celebrated novel Au revoir là-haut (Albin Michel, 2013), winner of both the Prix Goncourt 2013 and the Prix Romans France Télévisions, will also be translated and published in English by MacLehose Press.

The majority of these new titles, however, have not yet been translated into English. Below is a selection of untranslated works on WWI that we hope will soon be made available to Anglophones, for they provide a unique cultural perspective on our first global conflict. French historians, sociologists, novelists, and cartoonists have taken a decidedly new approach to la Grande Guerre, with an emphasis on the repercussions of the war and its effects on modern society [see Max Gallo’s 1914: Le Destin du monde and 1918: La terrible victoire from XO Editions], and a heavy focus on the experience of the individual from 1914 to 1918. This wide range of new books on WWI provides a fresh look at a subject that has been extensively examined for a century, and indicates the many contexts in which the war is understood in 2014.

Prizewinners
In addition to Au revoir là-haut, several new works on WWI were honored at last year’s rentrée littéraire.  In non-fiction, Louis N. Panel’s Les Gendarmes dans la Grande Guerre (Nouveau Monde Editions, 2013), which proposes the first real look at the experience of the French police during the war, was the jury’s choice at the 10th Salon du livre d’histoire de Verdun. The politically charged 1914-2014: l’Europe sortie de l’Histoire by Jean-Pierre Chevènement (Fayard, 2013) was a finalist for the Prix des députés. Chloé Cruchadet's Mauvais Genre, a bande dessinée about a deserter forced to crossdress to avoid arrest, was also highly praised by critics. Cruchadet was awarded the Prix Landerneau 2013, Lire magazine's Best BD of 2013, the Grand Prix de l'ACBD, and the Prix du Public at the Angoulême International Comics Festival.

Family Histories
In lieu of examining the major events and milestones of WWI, several authors have decided to study the micro-histories of families during the conflict. After writing for years about WWI soldiers, historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau has taken a new approach and written about his own family's experience of the war, with Quelle histoire. Un récit de filiation (1914-2014) (EHESS/Gallimard/Seuil, 2013). Although the book focuses on the individual experiences of the author's family, this work is not exactly a récit de famille or an autobiography. The main character in Audoin-Rouzeau's work is above all the war, and the way it has touched the author's family for three generations.
Historian and geneologist Jean-Louis Beaucarnot's new work also focuses on personal histories of the First World War. His book Nos familles dans la Grande Guerre (JC Lattès, 2013) combines his vast knowledge of WWI history with over 200 personal testimonies. Drawing from these testimonies, personal correspondances, and family histories, Beaucarnot pieces together the daily life of World War I families in France.

Interpreting Testimonies of the Period
Journalist Bernard Maris also chose to study a member of his family - his father-in-law Maurice Genevoix, an écrivain-combattant who had an enourmous intellectual impact on post-WWI France. ln L'Homme dans la guerre: Maurice Genevoix face à Ernst Jünger (Grasset, 2013), Maris confronts the accounts of two intellectuals: Genevoix, a French novelist and poet, and Jünger, a German writer and philosopher, both of whom fought in the war and wrote of their experiences, providing a broadened perspective of the conflict. Similarly, Nicolas Beaupré and Annette Becker's Ecrits de guerre 1914-1918 (CNRS Editions, 2013) compares the WWI literature of France and Germany through a study of the work of intellectuals like Henri Barbusse, August Stramm, Ernst Jünger, Léon Werth and Maurice Genevoix. The book considers the importance of WWI testimonies and their place in French and German cultural history.
Sociologist and historian 
Nicolas Mariot also studies the testimonies of WWI intellectuals in Tous unis dans la tranchée? 1914-1918, les intellectuels à la rencontre du peuple, (Seuil, 2013), but focuses on the differences between their experiences and those of the vast majority of WWI soldiers. In the trenches, many intellectuels came into contact with the 'popular classes' for the first time. Mariot's extensive research pulls from their correspondences and journals, down to the slightest mention of social relations in the trenches, to examine the impact of social class during the war.

Beaux Livres
In addition to the many new studies of period testimonies, publishers have released a number of beaux livres that beautifully present artifacts from WWI. Through letters, photos, telegrams, facsimiles, and illustrations, these books function simultaneously as visual analyses of the First World War and as objets d'art. Seuil released La Guerre expliquée en images (2013) by historian emeritus Antoine Prost. Hachette published La Grande Guerre 14-18 par l'Almanach Vermot (2013), an anthology of the best pages of the famous Almanach Vermot from 1914 to 1918, providing a unique look at French society during the war. Jean Noël Jeanneney's Jours de guerre: 1914-1918 (Les Arènes, 2013) contains 800 previously unseen photos of the war. Beginning in the summer of 1914 and ending with the Treaty of Versailles, these remarkable photos illustrate life as it was on the front and at home.

A New Approach
What can be said about World War I that hasn't already been said? For the centennial, historians have endeavoured to create new conversations around the significance of the conflict. Another work by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, La Grande Guerre si loin, si proche. Réflexions sur un centenaire (Seuil, 2013), examines the relevance of the Great War in a time that seems so far removed from la Belle Epoque, and helps us understand the importance of remembrance. Eric Alary's La Grande Guerre des civils (1914-1919) (Perrin, 2013), focuses solely on the experience of the 36 million French civilians that were left behind, describing the evacuations, separations, strikes, bombings and grief that often go unmentionned in WWI histories. In 1915 : l’enlisement (Perrin, 2013), the second volume of Jean-Yves Le Naour's work on WWI, Naour concentrates on 1915, arguably the bloodiest and most dramatic year of the war. Françoise Thébaud's Les Femmes au temps de la guerre de 14 (Payot, 2013) is one of the first to describe the war from the point of view of the women who lived it. Thébaud's work reveals the daily life of French women during WWI, but also examines the profound changes in gender relations brought about by four years of war.

An equally large number of titles have been released in the United States in honor of the centennial, several of which have gone on to be published in France. It seems only fitting that the centennial of the First World War should be a moment of cultural exchange between France and the United Sates. Graphic novelist Joe Sacco's monumental work The Great War, for example, is to be published in France as La Grande Guerre: Le Premier jour de la Bataille de la Somme (Futuropolis, 2014). French artist Jacques Tardi's utterly original work Putain de guerre! (Casterman, 2008) has been translated into English as Goddam This War! (Fantagraphics, 2013), and has been highly successful in the U.S. Following the example of these two fantastic works, we are hopeful that this impressive profusion of new French literature will be translated and published in America, and vice versa, with the aim of establishing a cross-cultural dialogue around our shared history.

 Please see below for a list of new French titles!                                                                                                   


Jean Echenoz, 14 (Les Editions de Minuit, October 2012)

Pierre Lemaître, Au revoir là-haut (Albin Michel, August 2013)

Stéphane Audouin-Rouzeau, Quelle histoire. Un récit de filiation (1914-2014) (EHESS/Gallimard/ Seuil, August 2013)

Nicolas Mariot, Tous unis dans la tranchée ? 1914-1918, les intellectuels à la rencontre du peuple, (Seuil, September 2013)

Louis N. Panel, Les Gendarmes dans la Grande Guerre (Nouveau Monde Editions, June 2013)

Nicolas Beaupré and Annette Becker, Ecrits de guerre 1914-1918 (CNRS Editions, September 2013)

Antoine Prost, La Guerre expliquée en images (Seuil, October 2013)

Jean-Yves Le Naour, 1915 : l’enlisement (Perrin, October 2013)

Eric Alary, La Grande Guerre des civils (1914-1919) (Perrin, October 2013)

La Grande Guerre 14-18 par l'Almanach Vermot (Hachette Pratique, October 2013)

Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, Nos familles dans la Grande Guerre (JC Lattès, October 2013)

Jean-Noël Jeanneney, La Grande Guerre si loin, si proche. Réflexions sur un centenaire (Seuil, September 2013)

Bernard Maris, L'Homme dans la guerre: Maurice Genevoix face à Ernst Jünger (Grasset, October 2013)

Françoise Thébaud, Les Femmes au temps de la guerre de 14 (Payot, October 2013)

Xavier Boniface, L’Histoire religieuse de la Grande Guerre (Fayard, April 2014)

Jean Giono, Ecrits pacifistes (Gallimard, New Edition 2014)

Henri Barbusse, Le Feu (Gallimard, New Edition 2014)

Erich Maria Remarque, Après et Les Camarades (Gallimard, New Editions 2014)

Antoine Compagnon, La Grande Guerre des écrivains (Folio Classique, 2014)

Aurèle Patorni, Notes d'un embusqué (Fayard, 2014)

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