time passages

Diana Athill is an English writer and editor, born in 1917, who has recently written a memoir about aging called Somewhere Towards the End. A fine title, that. She has just written an essay about Vera Brittain’s famous memoir of her service as a nurse in the Great War, Testament of Youth. Here’s an excerpt:

I must confess that, reading this book soon after its publication in 1933, . . . what came across to me . . . was her self-importance and heavy earnestness, and I (a very new-fledged pacifist) disliked the way she wrote as though she alone had suffered in the war, romanticising it even as she abhorred it. . . . Of course war was unspeakably vile — but what a tiresomely melodramatic woman this one was!

So it was a surprise to pick her book up now and discover how very good it is.

I’m trying to wrap my mind around this, but it’s not easy: to read a book in 1933 and then come back to it in 2009 . . . to have a sufficiently good memory to recall the first experience, seventy-six years ago, and to compare one’s current experience to it . . . that’s pretty remarkable. To read it the first time when Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, the Weimar Republic was collapsing, and virtually the whole world was in a deep economic depression — and then to come back to it now. It boggles the mind, is what it does.

I have always thought that, among famous people anyway, the one who lived through the most extraordinary period of change in human history was George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was born in Dublin 1856 and died in 1950. That is, he was born when the railroad was still a new technology and died when the Space Race was just beginning. When Shaw came into this world, there was still hope of averting civil war in America, where Franklin Pierce was President; he lived into the Truman administration, and saw on film the Holocaust and Hiroshima. I have never quite been able to get over this.