Friday, March 27, 2009

"Farewell to arms, but hello to fascism"

Congratulations to Mark Thompson, whose marvelous book The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 (Basic, 9780465013296) has been named a finalist for this year's Orwell Prize for the book judged to have best achieved Orwell's aim of making political writing into art. Well earned, I say.

It can't be that much of a surprise to see it on short lists (it was also a finalist for the Duff Cooper Prize) -- it was the best reviewed nonfiction book in the UK last year. And it's my favorite book of the Spring season. It's beautifully and propulsively written, and eye-opening in the extreme.

Alone among the nations allied against Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy had no defensive reason to enter World War One -- their aims were purely expansionist. It was a nationalist mania among the ruling elites and certain key public figures (the poet D'Annunzio, the journalist Mussolini) that got the nation into the war, but their enthusiasm did not give them competence, and it was a thorough disaster. The generals had no understanding of how technology was changing warfare, and no appreciation of the impossible terrain on which the armies engaged; as a consequence, the sufferings of the soldiers were epic, even Russian in measure. And they achieved no significant territorial gains -- but, as Mr. Thompson deftly shows, they did create Mussolini's fascism. In The White War we see it all develop, in the parliamentary debates, the secret diplomacy, the propagandistic journalism, and in the barracks and the battlefield; but -- and this is what makes the book so magnificent -- we also see it in the diaries, private correspondence, and poetry of ordinary soldiers, many of whom turned out to be Italy's greatest writers (Marinetti, Ungaretti).

I am generally not a reader of "military history," and I picked this book up somewhat reluctantly. Within a couple pages I was hooked, and when I put it down I felt enriched -- not just informed but enlightened, and wiser about the world. I can't recommend it enough, and I do sincerely hope it wins the prize.

For good measure: here are links to a few of the UK reviews -- all profoundly impressed:

The Independent - "Farewell to arms, but hello to fascism"

The Guardian - "a masterly history"

The Telegraph - "a compelling, penetrating book, not just about the 'forgotten front' of the First World War, but about the psychological, political and cultural condition of a nation tussling - even now - with the price of sacred egoism"

(And I might also mention: this marks the second consecutive year that a Perseus book has been on the Orwell Prize short list -- last year, it was Clive Stafford Smith's Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side (Nation Books, 9781568584096).)

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