Saturday, February 7, 2015

So Disdained by Nevil Shute

The novelist Nevil Shute, an Englishman who settled in Australia in 1950 and wrote the famous Australian novel A Town Like Alice, is one of those authors I seem to have spent much of my life for the last couple of years avoiding. Incidentally, I have a few books which glare at me judgementally from the bookshelf, whispering You know I'm an Important Novel. That's the only reason you aren't reading me. Besides A Town Like Alice, the two that immediately spring to mind are To Kill A Mockingbird and The Name of the Rose.

When a friend sent me Shute's early work So Disdained as a gift, I thought that it looked absorbing enough (and obscure enough) to be a painless introduction to Shute's work. Here's the plot:

Peter Moran hasn't flown an aeroplane for ten years, when one night on his way home across the Sussex Downs to the estate he manages, he comes across an RAF pilot he knew in the Great War. At first, Maurice Lenden tries to give a false name, but then bit by bit his story comes out. After years failing to make ends meet in England as a professional pilot, Lenden finally took a job with the Soviets. And when they offered him a thousand pounds to fly back to England in the dead of night and photograph the mysterious installations in Portsmouth harbour, he never imagined he had become a spy until it was already too late to turn back.

As British Intelligence searches for the pilot of the downed spy plane, Peter Moran must choose between his country and his friendship.

So, there was a lot that I liked about this novel, as well as a lot that I didn’t. Chewing over why I didn’t like what I didn’t like has been thoroughly informative, though, so I call it a net profit. I'm going to go into plot details from here on, so if you want to avoid spoilers, go and read the book first.

Parts of it were very absorbing. Shute writes well when his narrator is playing the piano or flying a plane (as an aeronautical engineer, he knows enough to make the planes real characters in the story). The foreshadowing is very effective, and the last three chapters were gripping enough to dim the memory of the rather pedestrian plot up to that point. On the other hand, the characterisation was unsatisfying. The plot depends on the narrator, and many other key characters, deciding to help Lenden to great personal disadvantage, but for no apparent reason. For this to work, the character of Lenden needed to have some palpable charm. But I didn't feel it, and none of it rang true.

Not until the moment at which Lenden regains some moral strength of character. The moment when he did so, and the manner of his regaining it, was one of the really lovely things about this book, a thing that did ring true. When I worked in a law firm, I witnessed enough divorces to know that few things demoralise a man so much as losing his wife. It was so satisfying and touching to read a story in which that process happens in reverse, and I loved that it went hand-in-hand with a resurrection of Lenden's dead patriotism. It was all very reminiscent of GK Chesterton—“The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

I also particularly relished the specific manifestation of patriotism which the book presented. The narrator feels nothing for England, but he feels a very particular love for his own small part of it, Sussex. His patriotism is not a jingoistic affair, because it isn’t ideologically motivated. Instead, it’s motivated by thoroughly practical, solid things: Cows. Land. Neighbours. Also, there were a few other thoroughly lovely things in this book—meditations on beauty, courage, and perseverance. But there was one thing that rather spoiled it for me.

I got my first inkling that something was wrong within the first few pages of the book, when an Author’s Note cropped up in which Shute rather apologetically explained that he wrote this novel in his early days, you know, back in the days when he still thought it was a good idea to write about spies and adventure and similar conceits. As someone with a rather melodramatic and unabashed love for these things, I began to read with a sense of foreboding.

(Shute’s Note reminded me of all the Amazon reviews I read of one of my least-favourite books ever, Zorro: A Novel. All those Amazon reviews apologised, blushing, for having stooped to read a swashbuckler. But it’s alright! This one actually had literary pretensions! We were able to enjoy it in a highbrow manner!

The novel was, of course, the worst swashbuckler I have ever read).

So Disdained was not, to my relief, the worst thriller I have ever read. Shute makes periodic attempts to write a spy thriller, and in those passages, he mostly succeeds, although I thought the character of Stenning (who turns up in the last couple of chapters and oversees the climax with two-fisted zeal) was equal parts uncomfortable and cheesy, like an escapee from a particularly fruity Alistair MacLean novel. But despite periodic success with the thriller, I felt Shute’s heart wasn’t truly in the genre. He didn’t have a good ear for what worked, and he was much too interested in lengthy discursions on unrelated topics, more suited to realist lit fic. The plot just doesn’t hang together well; the law of conservation of detail is abandoned from the start. I tend to think that most lit fic has terrible plotting, but for a thriller, this was particularly bad. For example, somewhere around the midpoint of the novel, the narrator meets a supporting character who only appears in that scene. They have a long discussion, and then as an afterthought the supporting character gives the narrator a letter. That letter turns out to be a crucial link in the plot. Nothing else in that scene—the supporting character, the long discussion—ever comes up again.

All this would be bad enough, except that by the end of the novel, I began to suspect that Shute had abandoned the idea of writing a thriller and had decided to write a deconstruction of a thriller. There is a thrilling, death-defying journey taken by the narrator from England, where he kisses his fiancee tenderly goodbye, wondering if he'll ever see her again, to Italy, where after a couple of hours she turns up, having followed him by a laughably easy route. She brings with her the aforesaid Alistair MacLean escapee, who then takes over and does all the theatrical stuff we would expect from the narrator, which is a shame because the narrator would not have been half so hammy, him being more of a classic antihero and all.

What made me suspect most strongly that this book was a deconstruction, however, was the fact that the plot achieves very little. By the end of the book, three main stakes have arisen in the plot. The two biggest are resolved around halfway through the book, leaving only the third for the climax. Lenden rushes off to Europe to catch the photographs which he doesn’t realise have already been sabotaged. The narrator rushes after to waylay him and prevent him walking into certain death on a fool’s errand, arriving just in time to witness Lenden's perfectly pointless death.

At the end of the book, I think I’m supposed to find it touching that Lenden insists on opening the packet and destroying the photos as he lies dying—unaware that the narrator has already destroyed them. I don’t find it touching. It's a shoot-the-shaggy-dog-story.

That is if you look at this novel as if it’s a thriller. However, if you look at it as lit fic—that is, if you cease to see the external action as a metaphor for the internal action—if you look at it as lit fic, and just pay attention to the characters’ inner journey, then it becomes apparent why this is a triumph for Lenden. He has gone from being someone who doesn’t care at all, to someone who will give his life self-sacrificially for a cause. He dies at the end, but he dies complete.

So Disdained is an odd creature. It’s a terrible thriller, but it’s actually a nice bit of lit fic. In a thriller, we expect the outer action to be an outworking of the inner action. A thriller about a man regaining his patriotism would see him achieving some great goal for his country, with or without the cost of his life. The triumph of his inner journey would be expressed in the triumph of his outer journey. In lit fic, the rules of the thriller genre don’t apply, and we’re able to focus on and appreciate the inner journey despite the total futility of the patriot’s attempt to serve his country.

Or can we? Can the inner journey really be detached from the outer journey like that? So Disdained is basically unsatisfying, because no matter which way you slice it, Lenden dies on such a fool's errand that the patriotic message is rendered hollow and cynical.

Is Shute's discomfort with the thriller genre the thing that makes this novel so uneven and undecided between genres? Do his more "literary" works succeed better in making a point without sacrificing good storytelling? Maybe I'll have to read A Town Like Alice to find out.

Find So Disdained on Amazon or The Book Depository.

4 comments:

Kim Marsh said...

Very wierd I logged on to check your index and see whether you had ever reviewed a Shute novel. Of course it was one I hadn't read and now probably won't !
Shute is much better when he concentrates on character .
Regards Kim

Jamie W. said...

Hm, sounds like an interesting novel -- maybe it's because I'm American, but I've never heard of this author or his work. I'm half tempted to look him up now, though.

(But do read To Kill a Mockingbird! It's not by any means what I would describe as Dismal Lit Fic -- it's really good.)

I tend to agree with your observations about genre, etc., and it being better to write a good 'genre fiction' work than one that tries to be lit fic and thus loses its own identity. But I was waiting for the sentence beginning: "John Buchan, on the other hand..." :-) He could do both at *different* times, which is ideal, I think. It must be lots of fun, too, to be able to write several different types of work!

Joseph Jalsevac said...

You won't be disappointed by to Kill a Mockingbird. Its a gem.

In Canada our lit fic is called CanLit. In fact I never heard the term lif fic before, but I hear the term CanLit too often. Reading CanLit would make you assume Canada is (and if you read historical fiction, has always been) a dreary postmodern wasteland.

Suzannah said...

Kim - how serendipitous. I did enjoy reading and chewing over this novel, but I look forward to reading some of his other stuff.

Jamie, yes, Nevil Shute is I think more of an English/Australian name. I hear that some of his other works, like LANDFALL, are good. And hey! I DID have a "John Buchan, on the other hand..." sentence in an earlier draft of this review, but took it out because I thought it was such a predictable kind of comment to make :D.

Joseph, Australian lit is pretty much as bad. As for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, it's (perversely) the wonderful things I've heard about it that make me reluctant to read the thing. Shocking, I know. Now where's that science fiction novel I'm reading?

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