Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
It is a heart-wrenching love story. That alone would put it in the category of “good summer read.” It is a short book, clocking in at one hundred and fifty-one pages in my edition. It’s thus an easy book to stick into a beach bag or to carry on the train.
It is also highly appropriate to read in the dying days of this summer, the summer of 2014. That’s because this summer is the hundred-year anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The guns started firing on June 28, 1914. By mid-August, young European men were dying by the tens of thousands, victims of a war that redefined organized, industrial killing for the modern age.
The book I am speaking of, Coup de Grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar, does not actually take place during WWI. It takes place during the Baltic wars (1918-20) that emerged directly out of WWI. The Soviets attacked Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, taking advantage of the chaos left by the Great War. The Germans got involved – defending their own damaged imperial interests – as did the Brits. The Baltic wars quickly turned into a nice, vicious and now largely forgotten little series of wars.
Still, Coup de Grâce is, at its heart, a WWI book. It explores what happens to individual lives as those lives came up against historical forces of massive destruction. It shows us the remnants of an older, pre-war European sensibility in its dying gasps. WWI killed off what was left of the 19th century and ushered in the modern world to come. That’s been repeated so often it has become a truism, a cliché. So how do you tell a real story of the traumas of the WWI era without being trite and abstract?