The Longest Day
by Cornelius Ryan
I don’t have a ton of experience reading history. I know what Adler wants a reader to ask of a historical text—questions of narrative, structure, and actionable theses—but it’s hard to apply.
The subject is, obviously the landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. But more specifically, the subject is the human experience of the landings. Instead of presenting events and then relaying our characters’ reactions to the events, Ryan presents us with people to whom the day sort of… happens. If that makes sense.
I was surprised at how effective this was as a narrative technique. Like I said, I haven’t read a ton of history, so I don’t have many references to back up the following claim, but I’ve sometimes felt that historical narratives that focus on individual experience, rather than a sort of third-person omniscient-type view, can tend to lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes this is what you’re looking for: Sam’s reading through de la Bédoyère’s The Real Lives of Roman Britain right now, and while it’s a fantastic account of an individual’s life in Roman Britain, I don’t think that anyone is going to take it for the authoritative account of life in the British Isles ca. AD 150.
The Longest Day, however, doesn’t suffer at all for recounting the story of the Normandy landings exclusively through individual eyes, however. Maybe it’s because he skips so nimbly from character to character, it feels less like viewing the event through someone’s eyes so much as viewing the event from an altitude of maybe like 15 ft up.
If there’s a downside to this sort of historical account, it’s that, while the characters are our sort of locus of perspective, flitting between them so quickly means that we get to know precisely none of them. Maybe that’s not fair: the story about the french lady who witnessed a paratrooper dropping into her garden was memorable; as was the soldier who won a bunch of money gambling the night before, then realised that winning the money was a bad omen and proceeded to lose it again. I enjoyed returning to the Germans every few hours as the realisation of the invasion dawned on them.
Another thing that surprised me: the number of pages given to the German experience of the invasion. They were there too. I have a tendency to just write off the German side of the war, generally. As if Germany was sort of faceless and emotionless, as if they lived some sort of reduced experience somehow.
That all being said—something, somehow, seemed off about the tone in general. I’m going to chalk it up to a change in the times—The Longest Day was written in the 1950s, when language and style was different. But through the lens of all of the WWII media in the intervening time—from Saving Private Ryan to Call of Duty, I guess I’m used to a good ol’ postmodern Gritty & Dark representation of history. Kowtowing to the human damage done. Putting on display the menagerie of psychic pain inflicted without discrimination. The opening shot of Saving Private Ryan is Tom Hanks’s shaking hands; his trauma is a major plot point.
And yet: when Ryan recounts how the men were sick and lethargic and depressed on the boats heading for the beach—somehow, I just couldn’t show up, emotionally, for any of it. The human suffering is held at a bit of a distance. Instead I was left with a sort of steely-eyed sense of it’s-a-dirty-job-but-someone’s-gotta-do-it… machismo? But not even that. Lightheartedness, maybe? Here’s an example: when one of the davits lowering a landing craft malfunctions and strands the boat just below the toilet waste drainpipe, it felt like it was played for laughs. Or at least a sort of ribbing.
But then the novel ends with a long list of everyone who died, so I can’t harp on the book for not weighing the scales of human pain too much.
If you’ve got any interest in WWII beyond playing that game where you try to get from a random Wikipedia page to Hitler: read it.
I know we’re inundated by WWII media. I know that we can barely move for the amount of it. But The Longest Day is an account of the people who were actually there, by a remarkably comprehensive researcher, told with heart.