There is one Shute novel that I don't enjoy, and I have almost reached the point where I can't read it anymore at all. I can read and reread all the others an infinite number of times. This odd-novel-out is Beyond The Black Stump.
My main objection is this books obsessive anti-American flavour. I am an Australian and, when we are not beating up on the English we are usually attacking the Americans so, normally, an anti-American stance would not ruffle any of my feathers, but the message and the tone of Beyond The Black Stump seem to me to be beneath Nevil Shute's high standards. Shute's daughter Heather will affirm that Shute admired and loved to visit America, yet somehow this book has an overwhelming and unreasonable whining and condemning tone that is just not balanced.
In BTBS I see none of the genuinely positive feelings that Shute must have felt from his own fascinating trips to the US and his own great friendships there. By the time he wrote this book he had visited America at least three times and spent several months there, yet BTBS is relentlessly critical and wherever American virtues are extolled in the book, they are immediately shot down again by some even stronger contrasting fault.
Without going into it chapter and verse BTBS seems basically to say:
The Irish are lovable, roguish whackos.
The Australians are a likable breed of battlers.
The English, as exemplified by the young man the heroine finally marries, are stiff-upper-lipped stoics.
These thin stereotypes seem almost acceptable when made by a man who has made a name preaching the humanity of all people and who has fought for racial tolerance. The Americans, on the other hand, are all tarred as shallow moral hypocrites who, while claiming to be wild pioneers, live in extraordinary luxury and have a buttoned down and racist moral code more inflexible and far less tolerant than 19th Century English Victorians.
To me this book has a strange jingoistic tone that seems to say "only the English are truly sane". As an Anglophile myself, I tend to agree with this idea but it doesn't sit very well in a Nevil Shute novel. Many English authors get into deep trouble when they venture into writing about America.
The Englishman's natural inability to understand Americans may be one explanation for this out-of-character Shute novel but perhaps there was another reason. Perhaps Shute was at a strange point in his life where he was having doubts about his Englishness. After abandoning his own country and having lashed England savagely with In The Wet, maybe he was having a mild case of second thoughts. Taken as a group, the three novels that Shute worked on in 1953 when he began Requiem For A Wren, 1954 when he was writing BTBS, and early 1956 when he was writing On The Beach, seem to me to signify a period of catharsis and transition for Shute. Putting on my Junior Sigmund Freud Club hat, I would speculate that he was less than normally happy during that period.
Requiem For a Wren was, as we all now know, the third attempt to make Shute's post war experiences work for him as a novel. The Seafarers, written in 1945-47, came out at 100 pages, too short to be a novel while another version, Blind Understanding, written in 1948, eventually descended into an unfinished and abandoned bad spy/gun running melodrama, so it must have been with both determination and not a little trepidation that Shute made a final attempt in 1953. I can't imagine that he was flushed with unbounded enthusiasm to find himself trying for a third time to make a success of the same material that had earlier produced two unsuccessful works.
When Requiem For A Wren was published and wasn't ecstatically received by the public, Shute expressed surprise but the theme is so black it's hardly surprising to me. There's a comfort in the situation of everyone dying in the not-yet-written On The Beach that is missing in the far more depressing situation in Requiem of a single young woman committing suicide alone amongst people who quietly loved her.
If you are already melancholy and wish to stay that way, Requiem For a Wren is a very beautiful book and is, in my opinion, very well written. However, there is something inconsistent in it. It is a book about the badness of war written by a man who seemed to quite enjoy the war. Part of me believes that Shute only used the melancholy overlay on Requiem as a final device to make publishable the same material that he had used in The Seafarers and Blind Understanding. I think that Shute, himself, was a realist who accepted events, like wars, when they happened and didn't pine over what should have been. I'm not faintly convinced that he believed a lot of the negative things that Janet Prentice said about war in her diary. I believe Shute was like the characters she described who were predisposed to war and, while he may have felt some faint pangs of guilt at enjoying the preparations for D-Day, I don't believe he really thought that it was wrong for humanity to have healthy happy people enjoy making and using all that wonderfully destructive technology. I don't believe he thought war was actually evil. I think he saw it as something that happens, and I don't for a second think that he ever doubted the correctness of England's position in fighting in World War Two.
Taking this even further, I'm not sure that he really believed that people like himself and Janet Prentice needed to die before peace could go on because I think he was enough of an egotist to feel that the peace was as much for his enjoyment as was the war and that people like Shute and Janet were the active people for whom the world exists. If they must die to have peace then whatever is left when you kill off all the Janets and the Shutes to get peace is not really worth having. I suspect that any hint at antiwar sentiment in the novel was a really a form of window dressing. By having Janet Prentice commit suicide I believe Shute gave himself and Janet's generation, who enjoyed most of the war, an out as far as war guilt was concerned because Janet was off the rails when she wrote the diary and therefore her critical judgment is obviously somewhat clouded. Basically I think Shute was interested in the theory of, but not personally convinced by the validity of, Janet's war guilt complex. I believe Shute decided that, for Requiem, his usual fairly cheerful approach to the war, which had worked for him before, would not work this time so he decided to use what, I believe, seemed for him seemed the greatest tragedy of all as a device to give the novel the weight it needed. This is not war, but female suicide.
Female suicide reoccurs frequently in Shute and is a major factor in Round The Bend, On The Beach and The Rainbow and The Rose. Without rechecking I think I remember that drug induced female suicide is even hinted at in Marazan. On the other hand, if the overlaying of the suicide theme was not decided cold bloodedly then perhaps it was because Shute had an unsettled and melancholic turn of mind around this time. This wild theory could be born out by the overwhelming negativity of his next novel, Beyond The Black Stump. BTBS seems to bubble with an intense negativity towards the American brand of humanity and seems like a volcanic vent for all of Shute's long pent-up frustration. There seems to be no positive reason for the writing of this novel. BTBS lacks all the usual interest, enjoyment and love of life that seems to inspire all his other work.
"Ah Ha ! !" I hear you say. "So Richard, what you are really saying is that this negative theme found its high point in On The Beach's destruction of the entire world ? " Here I will disappoint you when I say that to me On The Beach is back to the old optimistic and happy Shute. I suspect that the 1955 publication of Requiem ended forever the ten frustrating years of Shute being haunted by the Seafarers/Blind Understanding/Requiem material, and that with the 1956 publication of his irritatingly cranky and spleen-venting BTBS, he finally had mentally cleared the decks for On The Beach, which was to be a fresh, new project in which he could find the good and the admirable in people and would not be re-covering old ground. In On The Beach he has a new and fresh idea peopled by a set of noble and admirable characters who all do their best and never give up. They, like all of us, are faced with their own deaths and face them bravely. They dig gardens and look after the people and the animals that they love. On The Beach is, deep down, a strangely contented and happy book with none of the overlaying gloom of Requiem and none of the seething and carping annoyance at Americans in BTBS.
I rather suspect Nevil Shute just had a bad couple of years from around mid 1953 till early 1956 when he could finally get his teeth into On The Beach.
It just took the end of the world to really cheer him up.
Tuesday, 2nd December 2002