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7 Great novels about civilian life in WWII

BY Chris Petit

1st Jan 2015 Book Reviews

7 Great novels about civilian life in WWII

Author and filmmaker Chris Petit talks to us about seven great books detailing civilian life in the Second World War, that inspired his new novel, The Butchers of Berlin

The Heat of the Day

by Elizabeth Bowen


Set in a wartime London of blackout, two people fall in love in the moment of a bomb falling—a corny notion perhaps, rendered demonic and sublime by Bowen: "the demolition of an entire moment." Not a ghost story exactly but a haunted tale, full of the unspoken; silence and absences, with the female protagonist having the sense of "being on furlough from her own life".

It can even be read technically as a thriller: with the gradual exposure of a hidden truth of deceit and betrayal. Bowen, Irish, was acutely attuned to the foibles and horrors of the English class system (a monstrous mother and a ghastly sister). A book full of emotional triggers, tripwires, and detonations, and matchless set pieces, particularly mealtimes.


Darkness Falls from the Air

by Nigel Balchin


Bombs fall on London as a hellish menage a trois plays itself out, involving a clever but emotionally repressed civil servant, who condones his neurotic, difficult wife’s affair with a hysterical poet, whose unfolding takes on the slo-mo urgency of a car smash about to happen. In marked contrast is the day job, treated by Balchin as a biting satire on constipated bureaucratic inertia and political jockeying.

Bowen wrote after the war; Balchin—in the thick of it, which perhaps accounts for the sense of queasy inevitability, brusque puzzlement and disgust. Apart from the arbitrariness of falling bombs, for much of the time life feels neuralgic and vaguely surreal, almost as though there isn’t a war on at all.


Empire of the Sun

by J G Ballard


Ballard made his reputation as a science-fiction writer, speculating on the future, yet his biggest commercial success was his only novel about the past—an intense and dreamlike working of a Shanghai childhood spent in Japanese internment. The drained swimming pools of the city’s affluent suburbs and the surreal, feral violence, recalled in wide-eyed wonder, formed the template for his future fiction.

It's a book full of wonderful, vivid images, especially those concerning the aftermath of violence: "There were dozens of footprints in the powder, his mother’s bare feet whirling within the clear images of heavy boots, like the patterns of complicated dances set out in his parents’ foxtrot and tango manuals." Along with Treasure Island and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, this is one of the great adventure stories of wild boyhood. 


The Human Kind

by Alexander Baron


Wartime sketches of ordinary serving soldiers by Baron, who came out of the East End of London and was a member of the Communist party. Based on his experience of moving up from Sicily through Europe, essentially this is the story of mobilisation and civilians in uniform.

Observations are low key and alert ("the disjointed quarrel of machine guns"), and especially attuned to the mix of conformity, camaraderie and rebellion among soldiers at the bottom of the heap, plus general bolshiness. Baron’s stories were appropriated for an altogether brasher film, The Victors, by producer Carl Foreman, which made the experience entirely American and left Baron feeling justifiably bitter and cheated.


The Stain on the Snow

by Georges Simenon


Simenon left France pretty quickly after the end of the war, fearing questions might be asked about his cultural dealings with the Germans whose film companies bought rights to his books. His usual urgency of telling moves up a register in this bleakest tale of occupation, set in cafés and bars and hotel brothels, in a dangerous cusp where gangsters and black market shade into collaboration with the enemy.

Frank, thief, pimp and murderer, aged 19, inhabits a world of moral dankness, fatally at ease with punishment and death. An acute psychological study, made more intense perhaps by authorial guilty conscience.



by Louis-Ferdinand Céline


While Simenon slunk away, hoping to be given the benefit of the doubt, Céline, one of France’s greatest writers, departed in noisy disgrace after spending the war denouncing everyone, including Jews. Chaos and glee at the impending apocalypse are Céline’s true subjects and here the whole phantasmagorical whirligig parades itself as he and his wife and cat flee to a lunatic Germany on the brink of collapse.

Written shortly before his death, North perfects the author’s wild and raving inner voice, which had chased him down the years. The nihilism of war and destruction found its match in Céline.



by Anna Seghers


Written in 1942, Seghers’s existential fable about the stuckness of wanting out remains one of the most remarkable books of the Second World War. Set among exiles and refugees in Marseilles hoping for a boat, Transit is the perfect story of boredom, waiting, dread, shifting identities (the protagonist is confused with a dead writer whose wife he meets) and the skewed observations brought on by desperation and hunger.

It captures entirely what a life of occupation must be like: "A tireless pack of officials, like dogcatchers, [was] intent on fishing suspicious people out of the crowds, so as to put them into city jails from which they’d be dragged off to a concentration camp if they didn’t have the money to pay the ransom or to hire a crafty lawyer who would later split the outsize reward for freeing the prisoner with the dogcatcher himself."   


About my new book...


The Butchers of Berlin is set in wartime Berlin, at the start of 1943 when it became too late for the Germans to go back. The battle of Stalingrad had been lost, followed by the mass arrest and deportation of Berlin’s Jews at the end of February. Goebbels banged on about total war, and in the austerity drive that followed, a big crackdown on official corruption took place—especially in the food market. In March, a huge bombing raid left much visible evidence of damage.

In terms of research, the point about Berlin in 1943 is that there was almost no civilian record, beyond what the propaganda machine churned out, because the Nazis had banned most of the country’s leading writers and burned their books. (Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was written after the war).

An exception was the diaries of Marie "Missie" Vassiltchikov, which provides an essential flavour of those times—women took to wearing headscarves instead of hats once the bombs started to fall because of all the dust. For The Butchers of Berlin, I did a lot of reading around the subject of life in wartime. This list, therefore, excludes the usual war classics and fighting records (Mailer, Graves, Hemingway, Orwell, Heller, Remarque and so forth) in favour of novels with a civilian base.

The Butchers of Berlin by Chris Petit is out now in paperback, £7.99


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Feature image via NPG/TonyGibbs/wikivisually


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