Life & Culture

The Jewish war novelist who told the stories of soldiers, not officers

The republishing of Alexander Baron’s books is a reminder of just how outstanding his fiction is


There’s No Home and
The Human Kind

By Alexander Baron

Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics, £8.99

There’s a fascinating moment in his memoir, Chapters of Accidents, when Alexander Baron (1917-99) describes how he changed his name when he published his first novel, From the City, From the Plough. He was born Joseph Alexander Bernstein in 1917, the son of two East End Jews. His father was a fur cutter, born in a shtetl in Poland, who came to the East End in 1908. Baron’s mother was born in Spitalfields, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His publisher, Jonathan Cape, had asked him to change his name to Baron. They clearly thought it sounded less Jewish.

The novel was a huge success. Published in 1948, it sold over half a million copies. The writer and literary critic V.S Pritchett said it was: “The only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me”. Years later, the historian Sir Antony Beevor called it “undoubtedly one of the very greatest British novels of the Second World War”.

It was the first of a trilogy of war books, followed by There’s No Home (1950) and The Human Kind (1953), a book of short stories based upon Baron’s own wartime experiences. He wrote later, “I have come to be regarded as a kind of spokesman of the voiceless British soldier of World War II.”

Following a new edition of From The City in 2019, There’s No Home and The Human Kind have now been republished, with new introductions by Stephen Walter. The former is based on Baron’s period of war service in Sicily with the Eighth Army. It begins in August 1943 when Catania was taken by the Allies after a brutal fight against the German and Italian forces. But it is a war novel with a twist. There are no battles or combat scenes. Instead, it focuses on the relations between the British soldiers and the local women with whom they become increasingly involved. There’s No Home is as much about the impact of war on women, both those in Sicily and the women the soldiers have left behind in Britain, as it is about its impact on the soldiers. Sicily becomes a kind of code for what men do when they are far from home, so far from home that it has ceased to exist.

Baron had a rare gift for creating characters, bringing to life a disparate group of soldiers. There is the vicious thug, Broom; the cheery Jobling brothers, and Craddock, the only one who takes the trouble to learn Italian.

There is one striking absence in the novel. There are no references to Jews, antisemitism or the Holocaust. Does this reflect a larger silence, widespread in post-war British culture, or is this a more personal decision by Baron, keen to make himself a more mainstream English writer?

There is another question. Are Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning better known as war writers because of their emphasis on officers, whereas Baron is always interested in the infantry?

The stories in The Human Kind follow a group of British soldiers from training in England to Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and the deep disillusion that follows the end of the war. It didn’t have the same kind of impact as his masterpiece, From the City, From the Plough, but all of Baron’s strengths are here. His ability to bring to life a group of soldiers, his skill at dialogue and storytelling, and, above all, his gritty realism, describing a soldier’s life, warts and all, from dysentery to shell shock. This is war without illusions or sentimentality told by one of Britain’s best war writers. It was a brave book to write so soon after the war.

Again, what is striking is how little actual combat there is in the two dozen stories. The emphasis instead is on relationships, within the platoon, but especially between the British soldiers and a number of fascinating outsiders – a hunchbacked woman, a young Italian boy (“Cicciolino”), an Indian soldier, and various exotic women. There is also the relationship between the narrator, Alex, and the other soldiers. Alex is cultured, well-educated, an outsider among the working-class soldiers, “a tough, turbulent crowd,” mostly working-class Londoners, heavy drinkers and womanisers, very different from the gentle, bookish narrator, who bears a striking resemblance to the author.

It is good to be reminded what an outstanding writer Baron was, the man the Guardian once called, “the greatest British novelist of the last war and among the finest, most underrated, of the postwar period”. These are powerful and moving books, immensely readable, and we should be grateful to The Imperial War Museum for republishing the trilogy.​

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