Saturday, January 26, 2013

Something really solid to bite on

In a British Red Cross shop, the Dr found me a lovely 1956 World Books monthly edition of Nevil Shute's Requiem for a Wren (1955) - at least, it would have been if the price sticker hadn't torn the cover. I loved Shute's bleak tales of earnest people facing all the horrors that life can fling at them when I'd borrowed them from the shelves of my late grandfather's house. On the Beach (1957) is an especially extraordinary post-apocalyptic miasma of despair.

In Requiem for a Wren, Alan Duncan (no, not the MP for Rutland & Melton) returns home to the family farm at Coombargana, outside Melbourne. Alan is a war veteran who lost both feet in a plane crash, but the shadow that really hangs over him is the death of his brother Bill, killed in Normandy helping to prepare for the invasion. Alan has spent the years since the war struggling to get used to his disability, and also trying to track down Janet Prentice, Bill's girlfriend who Alan met only once.

When Alan arrives home to the farm, he finds his elderly parents quietly distraught over the suicide of their maid. As Alan concludes late in the book, 
"a war can go on killing people for a long time after it's all over."
Nevil Shute, Requiem for a Wren (1955), p.246.
We follow Alan's efforts to piece together what happened to Janet, and failure to track her down. With Janet's faith in providence and justice, and the grief not merely for the war dead but also the excitement and freedom of the war, it reminded me a lot of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1951), and it has the same chilling bleakness that lingers long in the mind.

There's plenty to like here: the stark, no-nonsense prose, the eye for quirks of character and speech, even the way on page 216 Janet contracts "it would" as "it 'ld" - with a space and an "l". She and the other Brits all speak in the clipped accents of In Which We Serve and A Matter of Life and Death, and are admired for their steely, practical manners through the conflict.

Throughout the book, it's underlined how much better it is to be doing things rather than dwelling on the past, and of the despair that sets in when there's nothing to be done. That's laid out early on, for instance, when we learn that Alan's younger sister,
"had picked up with a chap called Laurence Hilton who worked for the B.B.C. and put on plays for the Third Programme. She married him in 1947 and had not been home since; they had one child, rather an unpleasant little boy ... She seemed happy with [Laurence] and had adopted most of his views, including the one that Australia was a cultural desert that no decent person would dream of living in. His earning capacity, of course, was quite inadequate for the life they wished to lead. They have a very pleasant house in Cheyne Walk overlooking the river where they entertain a lot of visitors from ivory towers, and Coombargana pays.
I annoyed Laurence very much one day by referring to my father as a patron of the Arts. I'd probably have annoyed my father too if he'd known."
Ibid., p. 13.
Much later we learn that Alan's sister felt little of the war's effect at home in Australia - if anything, the prospect of doing war work in industry gave her and her friends the excuse to escape home, live in the city and go to more parties. There is a gulf between them on Alan's first return home - her flighty and silly, he morose with his injury. That helps us to understand her and her choices, but it also comes late in the story and so doesn't redeem her.

In contrast, there's Janet, and Viola Dawson and the other girls Janet served with in the Wrens. Janet takes great pride in cleaning and expecting guns and ensuring everything works properly for when "the balloon goes up". She's also a very good shot - which is also the start of where things go wrong.

At one point, Janet is involved in what might be a case of friendly fire (Shute nicely makes the dilemma more difficult because we're never quite sure). In need of someone to talk to, and with Bill out on operations, Janet goes to see her father - an Oxford professor who missed serving in the first war but has just been called up to help with the Normandy landings. His glee over this means Janet can't bring herself to share her own woes. As she says, her father is having the time of his life:
"'You know,' he said in wonder, 'really - I believe I am. It's having to do with things, I suppose, after spending one's life dealing with ideas. It's having something really solid to bite on. Something definite to do."
Ibid., p. 108.
When Bill dies, his colleague Albert Finch writes to Janet to tell her. There are three short, matter-of-fact paragraphs - Albert isn't allowed to say how Bill died - and the last is that Albert will have to shoot Bill's dog unless Janet can find a place for it. Again, it's a blunt and practical concern, but it's an awful thing to put on her, and we really feel the pressure and guilt as she struggles to convince her superiors to let her keep a dog where she's stationed; we also feel the desperate relief when something gets arranged. Shute perfectly judges the awfulness of something so simple and real, and the whirl of emotions under the stiff upper lip.

But there's also something darker going on about the shared experience of war. On Alan's first return home after the war, he's morbid and drinking too much. His father comes to meet him at the harbour to drive him back to the farm (it's a long way, but Alan is too fearful of flying). On the way, Alan's father matches his son's heavy drinking and they share war stories. It's a mark of understanding between them, a strong and male bond in the face of such horror. But it's also telling that for all he experienced in the first war, Alan's father was delighted by his sons both joining up.

Viola Dawson tells Alan,
"until we're dead, we Service people, the world will always be in danger of another war. We had a good time in the last one. We'll none of us come out into the open and admit it. It might be better for us, if we did. What we do is to put our votes in favour of re-armament and getting tough with Russia, and hope for the best ... For our generation, the war years were the best time of our lives, not because they were war years but because we were young ... Everyone looks back at the time when they were in their early twenties with nostalgia, but when we look back we only see the war. We had a fine time then, and so we think that if a third war came we'd have those happy, carefree years all over again. I don't suppose we would - some of us might."
Ibid., p. 185.
The ending is a little glib, and in the last two pages Alan turns things round to win the girl. It doesn't sit true with the bleakness of the rest of the book, and a note of uncertainty - that he hopes to win the girl but doesn't know if he can - would maybe have sat better. But apart from that, it's an enthralling, disturbing read.

I also liked the ad on the back cover for the next titles in the World Books monthly series. How strange to see a James Bond book being sold without mention of Bond.

No comments: