Richard La Ven
Written August 1997
NOTE: The following is an e-mail that Richard La Ven sent me in response to the Nevil Shute Page. I found it interesting as a tool for understanding the organization of Mr Shute's works and asked if I could repost it here. Mr La Ven was good enough to grant permission. I have not changed a word though I did remove headers and reformat the margins.
John R Henry
To John H who developed the Nevil Shute Home page. Thanks for your effort. I always thought I was the only Shute fan in the world. Now I find we could fill a large telephone booth. The counter on the homepage was not operational when I visited the site on August 7th & 8th, so I thought I'd send this overlong e-mail to let you know that you are not alone.
It is indeed unfortunate that most younger readers come to Shute via "On The Beach". It's good Shute, but the young readers probably would not think to ask what drove Shute to write the book. Even more unfortunate is the tendency of many to classify OTB as science fiction. That classification confirms that the reader has missed much of Shute's message.
I have long been a Nevil Shute fan. I first encountered Shute's novels in 1960, coincidentally just after Shute's death. As a 20-year old seaman, I found two in our tiny ship's library. Looking back, they were "Pastoral" and "The Breaking Wave". I was hooked and have read almost everything he wrote at least twice. Except "Vinland the Good". I have only seen that once on a library shelf and was too busy with scientific work to read it.
I found Julian Smith's biography in the UC Davis library and have read that twice, although I don't know why. Someone leaving a note or review on this homepage termed Smith's biography "mediocre". That is a compliment. How could anyone with multiple degrees in literature read "Slide Rule" and the post-war English-Australian novels and fail to get the multiple points as completely as Smith ?
Any good writer must serve an apprenticeship. Clearly, Shute did that with his early novels. When he later wrote that the novellas published as "Stephen Morris" were unpublishable by themselves, he was probably correct. His posthumous reputation is what sold them.
A writer telling stories about life can only draw from his or her life experiences. Writers that stray beyond those bounds are less convincing than those that draw from life. Early on, Shute was earning his living as an aeronautical engineer, doing stress calculations. Economic necessity forced him to remain a "closet" writer. Stress engineers are not permitted flights of fancy. To have emerged in print as Nevil S. Norway would have cost him his job and ended his professional career. At that early "closet" stage in his writing career, Shute was working mostly on becoming a good engineer and to a much lesser degree on his story plots, trying to keep them believable while writing about contrived situations in which he placed his upper class English characters. He was too young and not sufficiently sure of himself to see that his own experiences as a teenage boy during the Easter Rebellion, his brother's death of wounds in WWI, and his own experiences as a conscript headed for the 1919 frontal assaults gave him. He was too young and too busy with gaining his own education and finding a job to be able to write about the problems of readjustment that accompanied demobilisation from the first war.
Shute later wrote of that period "Clearly, I was still obsessed with standard subjects as a source of drama - spying, detection, and murder, so seldom encountered by real people in real life. Perhaps (by the publication of "So Disdained") I was beginning to break loose from these constraints; the reader must judge for himself."
"Marazan" (1926); "So Disdained/The Mysterious Aviator" (1928); and the "Stephen Morris" novellas are clearly in this category, as is most of "Lonely Road" (1932), although Shute's experimental work with the first chapter shows traces of classical Shute development. There is a gap in Shute's publications spanning the Depression years 1932-1937. The end of the airship industry in 1930 or 1931 and founding Airspeed in 1931 took almost all of his time. Production of the Envoy made it look as if Airspeed would succeed and the Ox-box turned the corner. Once Airspeed ceased to occupy all of his energies, Shute once again turned to writing.
"Kindling" (1938) marks a couple of turns in Shute's style. "Kindling", a much better title than "Ruined City", marks Shute's escape from the standard subjects of drama. Trying to raise the capital to move Airspeed forward must have been a real education, along with sales of stock, dealing with a large shipbuilding firm, and peddling Envoys in Greece. Shute turned to those experiences with the protagonist in "Kindling", taking a walk on what was then the criminal side of the stocks and bonds business to achieve a more laudible goal. Shute also used Kindling to partially escape from the English class-bound society. With "Kindling" Shute was trying to see how the other half lived while experimenting with his own cures for England's economic problems. Shute climbed about half-way up on his soapbox and began to get people's attention. It's not a classic, but some of the elements are there.
I have always thought "What Happened to the Corbetts/Ordeal" was another Shute soapbox stand. Shute attempted to give England a wake-up call about what was about to happen, but I find it difficult to think of it as one of his really good efforts. He used "Ordeal" to tell a story about ordinary people and succeeded that far, but perhaps not much farther.
If I had to pick an early Shute novel to recommend, it would be "An Old Captivity" (1940). Shute's experiences at Airspeed were clearly unpleasant and stressful. He had learned to use his own experiences for background or "filler" detail and his character development skills had blosommed. He used a variation of what might be described as "the expert older witness" approach to introduce the story. This is a classic Shute technique. Shute's travels to the Jura Mountains provide the background for the introductory setting here (and appeared again in the "Pied Piper"). The character of Donald Ross is developed with all the detail that only years in the aircraft industry in stressful positions could provide. Flying the Atlantic in the R-100 gave Shute the experience needed to describe the land under Ross' wings. A stressful job, insufficient sleep, drugs with side effects, and a Norse site in Greenland set the stage for time travel. At least three stars for this one. Shute tried to follow up with "Vinland the Good" (1946), but the theme was weak when compared with the immense wealth of WWII material at Shute's disposal.
Shute's "war novels" are a group that includes "Landfall", "Pied Piper", "Pastoral", and "Most Secret". All were written under British censorship, undeniable patriotism, and with a literary style much more restrained than that which developed in post-war novels. The war allowed Shute to escape almost entirely from the English upper class, and his work is better for it.
The first year of the war and a hope for brighter things to come brought "Landfall" in 1940. The war continued to provide stories for Shute's typewriter until 1954, when he finally said "Enough!" with Requiem. "Pied Piper" was a tale of the invasion of France using Shute's trip to the Juras for detail. "Most Secret" was apparently written in 1941 or 42, but was based to some extent on Shute's war-time engineering work and was siezed by the censors until the war was as good as over. "Most Secret" is the best of the set, at least in my opinion. Three stars for this one, too.
The next batch of novels, those that I call his "anti-war set" were not produced sequentially. I include "The Chequer Board" (1947), "A Town Like Alice" (1950), and "Requiem for a WREN/ The Breaking Wave" (1955) solidly in the early part of this group. "On the Beach" (1957) is the late solid inclusion. Parts of "The Far Country" (1952) and "Round The Bend" (1951) qualify themselves for inclusion.
Shute began to take a look at the problems of readjustment with "The Chequer Board" (1947). With the end of the war, Shute had the opportunity to travel to India and Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and Australia. Shute's world was expanding and here his work took on the multi-layered polish that those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool Shute fans love. Clearly, "A Town Like Alice" gets as many stars as they hand out, but in spite of the gritty beginning, it's a sort of "they all lived happily ever after" tale.
My vote for the most complex of Shute's work goes to "Requiem for a WREN". If you intend to read this in detail, make reference to the first chapter of "Slide Rule", wherein Shute writes of his brother Fred's death, and to the first paragraphs of Chapter 2, where Shute writes about Kamikaze pilots. There is an immense amount of meat in this work, but the reader needs to think about the writer's environment to understand it. They do not all live happily ever after in "Requiem". One of Viola Dawson's lines may be the most penetrating Shute ever wrote. "When you and I are dead, and all the rest of us who served in the last war, in all the countries," she said, "there'll be a chance of world peace. Not till then."
I classify four of Shute's novels as work that I attribute to his "anti-English government" period. That Shute was unhappy with England's attitude towards "the colonies" is reflected in "The Chequer Board" (1947) and "Round The Bend" (1951). Shute's disenchantment with post-war England and Socialist governments in general is evident in his treatment of England in "The Far Country" (1952) and "In The Wet" (1953)
"The Far Country" brought Shute to his "Australia First" period. Also included are "In The Wet", "Beyond the Black Stump", and "On The Beach". His Anti-American bend peaked with "Beyond the Black Stump". Relations were about normalized with the publication of "Trustee from the Toolroom". Requiem, BTBS and Trustee used Shute's travels in the Pacific Northwest as background material. BTBS drew upon his Easter Rebellion experiences for the first time.
"No Highway" (1948) does not seem to fit too nicely into any particular category. Shute's use of metal fatigue in airframe failures virtually predicted the DeHavilland Comet crashes of 1953-54. Mr. Honey's use of his daughter's abilities would come perilously close to child abuse in today's politically correctness. Would it even be publishable today?
Shute used a "time travel" device well, first in "An Old Captivity", and then in "In The Wet" and finally in "The Rainbow and the Rose". Long ago I read a review of one of Shute's books and recall that the reviewer wrote that "people who enjoy Nevil Shute are the same ones who are prepared to believe three unusual things before breakfast". Perhaps this is what the reviewer had in mind. I must plead guilty.
By 1958, with the publication of "The Rainbow and the Rose", Shute had worked almost all of his soapbox stances and well-disguised exposition out of his system. In Rainbow and Trustee, he was just telling stories and doing his usual excellent job of it.
Another of Shute's common themes was some sort of religious experience. "Round The Bend" was a full blown treatment. "In The Wet" backed off more than a bit. I have heard rumors of an uncompleted novel with a savoiur who returns to Australia as one of its themes. I would like to track this down. At one time, the Syracuse University Library was supposed to have acquired the manuscript, but it is not mentioned in their latest Internet listings. Where is it?
What were his best works? For the serious Shute student, I nominate "Requiem for a WREN". For the new reader, "Trustee from the Toolroom" or "Round The Bend".