The Conflict Revisited

The Second World War in Post-Postmodern Fiction

by Marco Malvestio (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 222 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 10


This book traces the development of literary poetics after postmodernism and outlines the most important features of what is defined here as «post-postmodernism». This new literary form simultaneously recovers the characteristics of the traditional novel and abandons the ironic approach of postmodernism, while also retaining some postmodern narrative devices such as autofiction and metafiction. To render the global dimension of this phenomenon, this book focuses on the theme of the Second World War, an increasingly pivotal subject for historical novels in the twenty-first century worldwide. The study analyses the work of a variety of authors from several national literatures, focusing mainly on Roberto Bolaño, William T. Vollmann and Jonathan Littell, and drawing comparison with other authors, such as Rachel Seiffert, Sarah Waters, Laurent Binet, Ian McEwan and Giorgio Falco.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface: Global War, Global Literature
  • Introduction: Post-Postmodernism and the Second World War
  • Chapter 1
  • Board Games, Serial Killers and the Banality of Evil: The Part about Roberto Bolaño
  • Chapter 2
  • A Collection of Parables: William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central
  • Chapter 3
  • ‘A Real Morality Play’: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones
  • Conclusion: The Second World War and the Post-Postmodern Novel
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This work started in 2015 as a doctoral thesis conducted at the Department of Linguistic and Literary Studies of the University of Padua under the supervision of Emanuele Zinato. At the department, I received the constant support of professors, colleagues and friends. I am thankful to Alvaro Barbieri for inviting me to the XLVII Convegno Interuniversitario di Bressanone and for all the discussions on the ‘Western way of war’ we had through the years; to Gabriele Bizzarri for reading my chapter on Roberto Bolaño; to Alessandro Metlica for reading parts of this work and to Annalisa Oboe for providing useful suggestions on Sarah Waters and Andrea Levy. My colleagues Stefania Santoni and Valentina Sturli made a hard and challenging path if not enjoyable, at least more than bearable.

During the course of this research, I had the opportunity to spend two long periods as a visiting graduate student at the University of Cambridge and at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL). I am thankful to those who supervised my work there and read it: Pierpaolo Antonello and Robert Gordon in Cambridge and Stefano Jossa at RHUL.

Both the members of my thesis committee and the external reviewers of the thesis provided precious feedback on my work. I am especially thankful to Alessandro Cinquegrani, Daniele Giglioli and Pia Masiero.

Christopher Coffman, Françoise Palleau-Papin and Filippo Pennacchio read a first draft of this book and provided me with countless suggestions on how to improve my work (and, in Christopher’s case, my English). I am also thankful to Giuseppe Carrara and Daniel Lukes for the interesting and enriching exchanges we had about Vollmann.

I completed this book while I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto and my gratitude goes to this institution. I am especially thankful to Eloisa Morra, who read the conclusion of this work, and to Konrad Eisenbichler and his ‘Halfway House for Wayward Scholars’.

Finally, I am deeply in debt with my friends of the ‘Accademia’. They know who they are, but, most importantly, they know why I own them my gratitude.

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I already discussed some of the ideas contained at pp. 82-94 in ‘Europe Central tra raccolta di racconti e romanzo massimalista’, Nuova prosa, 67 (2017), 99-122. Some earlier reflections on mythology in contemporary fiction can be found in ‘Mito e romanzo negli anni Zero: Littell, Roth, Vollmann’, Classicocontemporaneo, 3 (2017), 14-30. An earlier and shorter version of the discussion of The Third Reich and 2666 in Chapter 2 can be found in ‘Wargames, etica e responsabilità: la Seconda Guerra Mondiale in El Tercer Reich e 2666’, Orillas, 6 (2017), 85-97.

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Global War, Global Literature

Considerations on the Choice of Texts

The primary aim of this book is to connect the interpretation and treatment of a prevalent literary theme in twenty-first-century global literature, the Second World War, with the evolution of post-postmodern poetics. I contend that the increasing popularity of the Second World War as the subject of many important post-postmodern literary works signals growing anxieties over derealization and a lack of agency and purpose, which manifest in several aspects of contemporary everyday life, digital technologies, and warfare. The specific mobilization of the Second World War to counterbalance these anxieties can be attributed both to its historical importance and the peculiarity of its memorialization.

Expanding on current conceptions of the period that followed post-modernism, I argue that post-postmodernism is characterized by a renewed preoccupation with the relationship between reality and fiction and a non-parodying reprise of the narrative techniques of the traditional novel (such as plot, characters, temporality, mimetic effort), together with features of postmodernism (metafiction, autofiction, the reprise of genre literature). I elucidate how post-postmodern poetics treats history in a radically different way to postmodern deconstructivism and historiographic metafiction. Specifically, I contend that post-postmodernism recovers the materiality of history, whereas postmodernism reduces history to the textual.

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My analysis focuses mainly on three authors. Chapter 1 discusses Roberto Bolaño’s El Tercer Reich [The Third Reich] (1989/ 2010), La literatura nazi en América [Nazi Literature in the Americas] (1996), Estrella distante [Distant Star] (1996) and 2666 (2004), Chapter 2 explores William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (2005) and Chapter 3 examines Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes [The Kindly Ones] (2006). These authors are compared with several others: Ian McEwan (Atonement, 2001) in Chapter 1; Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, 2006) and Rachel Seiffert (The Dark Room, 2001) in Chapter 2; and Laurent Binet (HHhH, 2010) and Giorgio Falco (La gemella H [The H Twin], 2014) in Chapter 3. With the exception of Bolaño’s first books, all the novels I consider were written in the new millennium and the authors belong to the postwar generations. Authors like Norman Mailer, who was alive during the Second World War but wrote novels about it in the 2000s (The Castle in the Forest, 2007), were excluded. This distinction is not arbitrary. My enquiry analyses the Second World War as a literary theme and not as a personal experience. Although Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest can hardly be considered a memoir (it explores the devil’s corruption of Adolf Hitler’s childhood), I restrict my enquiry to the generations born after the war that have no personal involvement with it. As such involvement can be memorial or postmemorial, I also exclude books that focus on the experiences of the parents or the families of the author, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). In sum, this book focuses solely on novels that thematize the Second World War without drawing upon personal experience, however mediated.

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My choice to focus on Bolaño, Vollmann and Littell is motivated by the critical acclaim their novels have received and the pre-eminence that these authors accord the theme of the Second World War. In the cases of Bolaño and Littell, the reputation of their novels among critics and the debate they generated made them a somewhat obligatory choice. This is also true of Vollmann, though to a lesser degree; I chose him primarily because of the originality in his representations of the Second World War. I devote less space to the other authors I consider due to the marginal place war occupies in their works (e.g. Falco and McEwan) or their lack of stylistic complexity in comparison with the three authors I focus on. Moreover, this selection is international and offers an account of different national literatures (Chilean, American, French) and the interrelations between them. The same can be said of the authors I compare: Binet is French, Falco is Italian, McEwan and Waters are British and Seiffert is of Australian and German heritage. My selection of texts aims to facilitate as wide an exploration as possible of the processes of memorialization of the Second World War and of post-postmodern poetics.

That said, I am painfully aware of the two main risks of literary criticism when the analysis involves contemporary writers: abstractness and imprecision. I believe that the content of a book should be explained and its coordinates extensively charted. For instance, those who wish to critique Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle ought to provide an explanation not only of the theory of alternate history, but also of what the I Ching is and what function it performs in the novel – no matter what their approach to the text is. Therefore, the reader of this book will find digressions on board games, Kabbalistic parables and Norse epics, because these subjects are contained in the novels I discuss and are intertwined with the role that the Second World War plays in my literary corpus. At the same time, I understand that the risks of this rigorous approach are that I could devote too much individual attention to the novels and, consequently, neglect the general framework in which they are inserted. In order to avoid these risks and combine the two approaches, which we can characterize as close and distant readings, in the monographic chapters I try to balance the close readings of the novels by making wider comparisons between the novels, especially in relation to their stylistic features.

Global War, Global Literature

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When we refer to the Second World War, it seems clear what we mean: the conflict fought between the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan and their allied and satellite countries) and the Allies (mainly the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, the United Kingdom and members of the Commonwealth) from 1 September 1939 to 8 May 1945 (in Europe) and 2 September 1945 (in Asia). From a strictly formal perspective, this is correct; however, the reality is much more complex. More than any other war, the Second World War was not an isolated conflict that occurred between two precise dates. It was composed of several distinct parts. In fact, as Chris Bellamy suggests (2009: 3–4), the Second World War appears to be the sum of at least four separate wars: the ‘cabinet war’ that followed Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939; the war in the Mediterranean and North Africa; the war on the Eastern Front, which can be backdated to the 1939–1940 Soviet–Finnish War; and the war in Eastern Asia, which started with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 and attained global proportions in 1941. The dates of these wars reach beyond the chronological limits of the established narrative of the Second World War. The hostilities in Asia, for instance, can be backdated to 1931 (Calvocoressi, Wint and Pritchard 1989: 618); indeed, in Japan, the Second World War is called ‘the Fifteen Years War’. Although German aggressions and annexations started in 1938, the soldiers of the Axis powers had already fought the Allies during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). The date of the end of the war is similarly controversial, not only because it ended on two different dates in Europe and in Asia (as Germany surrendered on 7 May and Japan on 2 September). The series of conflicts that we call the Second World War could be considered to have terminated in the year 1947, which marked the beginning of the Cold War, or perhaps 1948, when the economic restrictions in Germany came to an end, or even 1989, when the Cold War ended (Rousso 2010: 5).

Bearing in mind the spatio-temporal scale of the Second World War and the diversity of opinion regarding when the war started and ended, it is unsurprising that literature about the Second World War includes a vast number of different narratives. Tales set on the Russian front, in Japan after the nuclear attack, in the Appennines where the Italian Resistance occurred, during the London or Dresden bombings, on the Thai ‘Railway of Death’, in Berlin surrounded by the Red Army, in Iwo Jima or Pearl Harbor, in Manchuria, in Alsace, in Spain, in Norway, in Greece or in Stalingrad all belong to the category of ‘novels about the Second World War’, despite their experiential and narrative heterogeneity.

←4 |

At this early point, I want to clarify that I am not concerned with war literature, but with the Second World War in literature. In other words, I do not limit my analysis exclusively to texts that narrate the experience of soldiers fighting. I also include texts in which the Second World War merely appears and is thematized as a structural element of the plot and a precise historical fact (rather than through metaphors or symbols). By way of example, this book considers novels that narrate the active war (such as Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell and Europe Central by William T. Vollmann) and novels in which there are almost no depictions of actual conflict, but in which the presence of the war is essential to the plot and its meaning (for example, Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch or Giorgio Falco’s The H Twin).


VIII, 222
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Comparative literature Second World War World War II ; postmodernism post-postmodernism The Conflict Revisited Marco Malvestio
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Marco Malvestio (Author)

Marco Malvestio is EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Padua and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Padua and was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto.


Title: The Conflict Revisited
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