Writing World War II


Why did the Second World War not produce a specific literature, as did the First? The course will explore possible answers to this question. It will also consider to what extent World War II, due to its scale and the variety of its forms of mass suffering and death, continues to shape the experience of, and writing about, later wars in which Britain, Europe and their former colonies have been involved. The theme of terror - and of literature produced at the outer limits of human expression and capability - will be our focus as will its cause: bombing or the threat and fear of the bomb’s effects.

Beginning at mid-century we will look first at the literature of the London Blitz, and at how the work of late modernist 1940s writers (Bowen, Sansom, Green) is challenged by, and responds to, the new bomb-wrought prospect of mass civilian death. In these authors’ works terror and flame are exhilarating as well as destructive, with unexpected follow-on effects. The war’s ending with a larger terror-bomb and the continuity of suffering wrought by the advent of the atomic bomb will be explored through Muriel Spark’s darkly comic Memento Mori (1959).

The third section of the course addresses World War II as an event that is still being historically processed through writing. The assiduous sifting of layers of meaning generated by the Holocaust and an attention to the architecture and logistics of combat in Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) is one such response to the war’s ongoing history, as is the tracking of the legacies of empire in Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). The filmic and novelistic modes of response of our own time are deconstructed in AL Kennedy’s Day (2007), a novel about the communality of bombing and the bonds formed between men by the war event.


Coursework only

Availability 2022

Not taught in 2022




ENGLISH 707: 30 points