I’ve been asked more than once why I’m writing a novel about someone attached to the WWII German Wehrmacht. My dear wife, too, seems worried about my subject matter. I have one huge, personal reason: the pilot in question, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, surrendered to the US Army Air Force unit that included my father. Too, Rudel seems to be a cult figure among pilots, and his book Stuka Pilot has taken on classic form among such readers.
But why write about war at all? The sad truth is that most events people consider historically significant involve the lead-up to war, the after-shocks of war, and the actual events of the war. Maybe suffering is the primary human response. At any rate, it serves as a subject of fascination for a broad spectrum of people, from the “war crazies” to serious historians.
But I’m not a historian. I don’t have the necessary language skills – my French is weak, and I know only a little German, even fewer words of Finnish (thanks to a former student colleague), and a smattering of Spanish. I’m a fiction writer with an interest in history. My Rudel project is an opportunity to take the writings of this intense, obsessed, but otherwise rather reserved ex-pilot, and try to interpolate the reaches of his personality while I weave into his experiences a bit of WWII’s history.
At the time of this post, I’m almost halfway through a first draft of my manuscript, and it’s flowing well. The first ten chapters (about one-fourth of the total) have been vetted in a writing workshop, and by an incisive reading and commentary by respected North Carolina writer, Tommy Hays. I’m always less sure of the first hundred pages or so of my manuscripts – these being the part one normally sends agents and editors. So I was happy to have such input, and am now gratified—with some insightful suggestions regarding how to better the piece—that it’s been well-received so far.
For the following two weeks, I’m going to review here two more books concerning this conflict, both by Christer Bergstrom, a widely respected military aviation expert and scholar. The first book concerns the air war over Stalingrad, arguably the pivotal, extended battle in Germany’s eventual defeat. The second book has to do with a subsequent battle – that of Kursk. If Stalingrad didn’t convince German citizens and soldiers that the end was on them, then certainly Kursk did.
Much has been written about the war in the East, although not as much as concerns the western Allies’ war. (Despite this growing body of historical scholarship, there’s been only one novel published in English concerning the eastern theater of WWII.)
What separates Bergrstrom’s work from other scholarship is his attention to the impact of military aviation on the battles of the Eastern Front, and his perspective from these two books is what I’ll present over the next two weeks.
These days, non-fiction writing isn’t so different from the skills and structure of fiction. Or at least it doesn’t seem so on the surface. But one of the ways it remains a separate entity (aside from the skunky sort writers make up and claim to be the real thing) is in way it's structured. I recently read an article in the May/Summer 2008 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle on non-fiction books structures. The author, Douglas Whynott, perceives a number of increasingly complex structural formats for non-fiction, particularly N/F books. These can be reduced to something like this:
The piece’s opening subject
Provisional connections between the opening and the digression
Tightening the connections at the end
After delving into this article, I dusted off a copy of The Best American Essays – 2007 that had been sitting around for too many months and began to read with Whynott’s structures in mind. I had known something about N/F structure, but nothing as elucidating as the WC piece, so I decided to skim-read. Normally I’m a rather slow reader, because I like to savor the word use of good writing as I tackle the content. Skim-reading, though, pushes me too fast for that – but it allows me to see the macro structure of these “best of” pieces. But first, let me dispense with content.
David Foster Wallace, author of several critically acclaimed novels, had the wheel for this issue as guest editor and, no doubt because of his personal interests, this collection ends up being heavy on journalism-style essays of the sort Joan Didion might have written. Actually, some are more nearly editorial, similar to longer pieces found in news magazines. All of these are well written and cover most of the newsworthy topics of the past two years or so: Iraq. Religion. Liberalism (of the historic, political kind). Others are more nearly of the pop/social ilk: Philanthropy. Technology. Child sex. I’m not demeaning by categorizing, mind you; some are truly essays, i.e., they make the effort to bring into language some sort of intellectual resolution for the conundrums of our day. But back to structure and two examples.
Cynthia Ozick writes here in a braided essay (alternating two disparate subjects that slowly come together as one) about her mother and Mary Delany, a woman Ozick’s mother’s age who prospered creatively in old age.
W.S. Di Piero writes initially about music. His digression has to do with being diagnosed with Anklyosing Spondylitis, a painful condition that breaks down ligaments and tendons and fuses them to bones. He in turn speaks of fusing pain with his response to music. Next come the painful plaints of some of his favorite jazz artists, of the “inseparability of sublimity and pain,” as he closes.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that such structure in the hands of capable writers helps bring perspective to life’s seeming chaos as it amplifies the learning experience for the reader. After all, as an elder vein of literary criticism goes, literature should either entertain or instruct—and N/F is meant largely to instruct, particularly those forms of it that Wallace has assembled here.
My favorite? Di Piero’s: it’s elegant, instructive, and deeply revealing about both author and subject.
It's hard to categorize war memoirs by lower-level warfighters – most are written and published with little or no editorial help, so they vary in style, content, and tone. Too, most are an unpredictable mixture of personal remembrances, marbled with more widely dashes into known history.
Red Star Airacobra won't deviate from that rough format to any significant degree. What does set it apart from its kind is that Mariinskiy has worked in the publishing field, and he's picked up a thing or two over the years about literary writing. He's not a skillful writer, mind you (or maybe the writing suffers in translation), but he has a sense of how to translate the drama of his wartime flying experiences to the page.
He manages to pull the blur of air combat into focus for the reader, and one also gains a vivid sense of the gamut of emotions for these warfighters – on the ground as well as in the air -as the Soviets slowly push Germany back past the Oder River.
One touching moment evokes Hemingway: Mariinskiy discovers after a near fatal crash of his own that his female plane mechanic is in love with him. And while he was being shot down, she was wounded seriously back at their aerodrome. He visits her in the hospital, where he acknowledges her feelings for him. Clearly he hasn’t thought much about her and has noticed her very little, but wartime makes for time-compressed emotions. He returns the next day, less unsure of his feelings for her. There, he discovers she’s died.
In other episodes, the pilots discuss – elliptically – little known Russian poets, and they compare their experiences to those of Tolstoy's characters in War and Peace, even pretending to take on his characters' roles.
For these reasons, this one has been a unique and pleasurable read, and hardly the chore of reading many like memoirs.