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Memory on the Periphery of War: The Life Writing and Uncertainty of Peripheral Witnesses in British Literature of World Wars I and II


This project addresses a corpus of narratives across twentieth century British literature that illustrate the troubling effects of World Wars I and II on the memories and self-understanding of “peripheral witnesses:” people who live through events of potential mass trauma, but feel that they occupy a complex position of marginalization and privilege that simultaneously connects them to the event and distances them from it. The speakers examined in this project—primarily drawn from works by Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, Kazuo Ishiguro—respond to this position by drawing on narrative features of life writing genres from the autobiography to the travelogue. These speakers simultaneously strive to record detailed recollections of a war that has passed, and to interrogate their own memories for mistakes or gaps from the physical or temporal distance of the narrative present. This self-interrogative narrative mode—borne out of a self-questioning mental state that is prompted by culture-specific definitions of what it means to “see” war, and by unrealistic expectations that historically significant memories will be accurate, vivid, and comprehensive in scope—lays bare the imperfect, created nature of memory. By attending to the gaps in their memories, and how the narrators aim to prevent or draw attention to these faults, this project exposes another fracture in memory that global war can reveal and exacerbate far beyond the battlefield.

Memory on the Periphery of War contributes to the interdisciplinary field of memory studies, performing literary analysis in conversation with two methodologies: trauma studies from history and literary studies, and cognitive psychology. Examining texts by Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro that deploy and deconstruct conventions of life writing (with attention to contemporary approaches by Pat Barker and Ian McEwan, and unique approaches to life writing by parents of Isherwood and Ishiguro), this project recognizes a unique subgenre within war narratives and life writing. Taken together, these literary texts and theoretical frameworks invite us to recognize the role of creation, imagination, and self-questioning that are fundamental to memory’s processes, and to understand how particular experiences (like seeing war from the edge) can cast these traits of memory as faults.

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