“I certainly draw as a writer on those writers from the 1940s. I use war correspondents more than most historians do, partly because I feel some kinship for them, and partly because they’re so damn good,” Atkinson said. “I think Alan Moorehead is fantastic, and I use him a lot. I use him at the very end of the book because he’s got not only a gift for narrative, but he’s got a very keen eye. And that cast of characters who became war correspondents, one sort or another — British, American, Australian — influenced me a lot as a writer about war.”
In addition to Moorehead, readers will see the likes of Martha Gellhorn, Ernie Pyle and a host of others in Atkinson’s telling.
That emphasis on narrative shines through on the pages. It’s not easy to make sing a list of supplies that an allied soldier has to pack for the trip to Normandy. But Atkinson seemed to have picked up a few techniques, not just from those war correspondents, but from other masters of the English language.
“I was an English literature graduate student ... so I’m marinated in the classics, and particularly in 20th century British and American literature. I was a big reader of Faulkner and Joyce, the usual list,” he said.
Liberal arts majors, rejoice! Your efforts might not be all for naught.
Not Just Good for You, But Good
If all of those influences sound a bit heady, consider that it hasn’t hampered the popularity of “The Guns at Last Light,” either with critics or the public.
The book debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, and has spent 12 weeks on the list overall. Reviewing the volume in The Times, author Ben Macintyre wrote, “Atkinson is a master of what might be called ‘pointillism history,’ assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative.”
It’s a statement that reflects the literary merit of the work, as well as Atkinson’s influences. “Pointillism history” could just as easily apply to Shakespeare’s England or Faulkner’s South.
“I think I was looking in part for a story to take me out of the newspaper world as a narrative writer,” Atkinson said. “I’d written a couple of books previously, narrative histories, but I was interested in the darker world, deeper world, of history, and World War II had been something that has been part of my life, all of my life.”
The Magnitude of the Thing
Atkinson’s success with the trilogy shows the lasting effect of World War II. Particularly during a time when the government seems incapable of fulfilling its most basic role, it’s hard to fathom the kind of effort, planning and cohesion required to wage such a war.
“Yeah, I think magnitude has something to do with it. Sixty million dead. War fought on six continents for six years. In America, a country of 130 million during World War II, we put more than 16 million in uniform,” he said, adding that the war continues to define world culture and geopolitics.