Attentive readers may have gathered that I love Nevil Shute’s writing. When I’m tired and I just want a familiar old friend to sink into for a while his books are some of the first I turn to, and yet I hardly ever recommend him. There are reasons for that, and though they’re not great reasons I’ll defend them later. First, though, why would I recommend Nevil Shute?
He had a beautiful, spare style of writing, clear and undemanding without being simplistic or patronising.
He had a way with commonplace tragedy (Elsie sat waiting for him all that afternoon. I believe she is waiting for him still.), and a way of telling you things gradually, so that you hardly know what you’ve been told until one simple, unpretentious phrase (I couldn’t possibly have been in love with her myself) ties it all together and throws it, like a javelin, through your heart. I’m the girl who never cries when I’m reading; Nevil Shute gets me closer than most, even when I already know the text.
He could hint at the future self narrating the tale (that piano stands beside me as I write, and presently, when I am tired of recalling those bad times, I shall get up and I shall play a little to Sheila . . .) in a way that informs without intruding. He could sketch a weary old man spinning the yarn even when he was young: he could write energetically and with sympathy about the hectic lives of the gilded youth between the wars even when he was older.
Having said all this, why don’t I praise him to the rooftops at every opportunity? Well, partly because I tend to assume that if I know something it must be common knowledge, but there are other reasons.
One of those reasons is not that I’m afraid you’ll find him a sexist writer, because I’ve got more confidence in you than that. I’ve heard it suggested that he was, but I can’t see it myself. I admit that Stenning makes some awful remarks about the role and usefulness of women, but Stenning – fond of him though I am – is clearly a very flawed hero, and is in any case proven wrong by the admirably capable and level headed Miss Stevenson. Shute did, of course, write some really remarkably silly women (On the Beach’s Mary Holmes stands out), but where they are silly there is a recognition of the forces in society that have made them silly (Mary is matched against university educated Moira Davidson, who has to take a shorthand typing course to get a job), which you might expect from a man who married a GP in 1931 – even where his women are strong and capable, they often become so only as a result of being shaken out of the normal constraining circumstances of their lives.
So what am I afraid of? Well, a lot of you are rather more left leaning than I am and Shute – was not. That he espoused paternalistic rather than greed-is-good capitalism (Nevil Shute didn’t really do villains; about as close as he gets is in his description of the owners who took money out of the shipyards hand over fist in the good times, only to cut and run in the depression) is not, I know, going to excuse him in everybody’s eyes. But let’s agree to differ on that one. It shouldn’t bother you too much as long as you steer clear of Ruined City (or Kindling, as it is more optimistically known as in America).
And that leaves race. Now Nevil Shute was not, I think I can say with confidence, racist – you only have to read The Chequer Board to know it – but particularly in his early works there’s a lot of language, and some attitudes, that sit very uncomfortably with a modern audience. I could argue that when Henry Warren calls his wife’s lover a n***** it only illustrates how far from his usual self he is, helping to explain the somewhat rash behaviour that precipitates the rest of the plot. I could argue that the occasional slighting references to Jews are usually in the context of a narrator who finds, to his surprise, that this particular Jew is not actually a bad chap. I could probably even come up with some defence of the description of the bulk of the Italian population given in Marazan, but I’m not going to try. For myself, I’ve read enough early twentieth century fiction to turn a blind eye. I know that might not make me a good person, and I know it doesn’t wash with everyone, but if I’m happy that there’s no malice in it, then in a writer who was born in 1899 that’s good enough for me.
There is one last reason that I rarely recommend him – and remember that I did warn you that these are not necessarily good reasons. If you’re reading this there’s a fair chance that I know you and I’m fond of you. I’d hate to find out that you didn’t like Nevil Shute.