The practical storyteller
Nevil Shute wrote many very popular, contemporary, gently romantic adventures, mostly to do with flying or with Australia. Plus one vision of the world after a nuclear holocaust.
And it's the latter for which he is most remembered today.
That famous novel of course is On the Beach (1957), made even better known by the Hollywood film produced during the height of the Cold War, as well as by a more recent television miniseries. Despite its warning of after-the-bomb devastation, however, On the Beach, like all Shute's novels, is still a kind story, more sad than horrific, and full of diverse love stories as couples of all ages face the end together or apart.
Its only rival among Shute's work for enduring popularity is A Town Like Alice (1950), also helped by a movie and TV series. Again it's a work that contains quite tragic episodes but which overcomes those to settle into a comfortable romance.
I don't mean to say Nevil Shute is a soppy writer. No purple passages. Quite the opposite. Matter-of-fact actually, with a very light touch when it comes to human relations. In this he exemplifies stereotypical British reserve. There's a reticence in all his works, a holding back of strong feeling in favour of reasonableness.
If his characters ever fall head over heels in love or suffer other great passions, we can't tell. They have bloodless, sensible relations. Note this typically tepid passage—one that's racier than usual for Shute—in which a man's feelings for a woman are revealed:
He lay in bed some time before sleep, deeply happy about Gervase Robertson. He felt that she was a most kind, generous girl. She was physically very attractive, almost unbearably so at times. Moreover, she was interested in the things that he was interested in and talked sense about them.
Everyone in a Shute novel speaks sense, usually in complete sentences, with good grammar and moderate tones, no matter how intense the situation—only occasionally with a smattering of dialect for colloquial colour. And they are all so pragmatic. As a writer Shute is drawn to the complications of personal entanglements but saves himself from being consumed in their emotions by diverting his attention to the mechanics of those relationships or to any technical details that may be available in the story. One is often left wondering after a Shute novel what it must have felt like to be the characters in those situations—we know what happened and probably why it happened but we've never really experienced it. This may be what gives Shute's works their dated quality in an age when writing tends to be heatedly confessional.
But it can also be a charming quality—discreet where other writers shout from the rooftops and focused on practical matters that others ignore. You never wonder in Shute's novels, as you do in many modern novels, how the characters make a living to be able to afford the shenanigans the authors get them up to.
Shute seems himself to have been a practical man. During his early writing career he was an aeronautical engineer, specializing in airships, and founder of a successful aircraft construction company. His real name was Nevil Shute Norway, but he dropped the surname for his published writing, so as not to damage his professional status. In 1938 he resigned from his company to concentrate on his writing for which his reputation was growing. During the Second World War Shute worked for the British government in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve on secret weapons projects and as a European correspondent.
His first novel was Marazan (1926), in which the hero, Richard Stenning, is a pilot, chased by police while in pursuit himself of a drug-smuggling ring. The ordinary-man-drawn-into-intrigue plot owes a lot to the works of John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps), including unfortunate remarks that could be taken as reflecting racism.
Shute's second novel is a similarly structured tale involving ex-First World War pilots, this time concerning espionage, with Stenning making a return appearance as a secondary character. So Disdained (1928) is for the most part a laid-back, spy novel, perhaps the first in which the communists are the villains, albeit tentatively. The second, more exciting half of the book, is marred by the protagonist allying himself with Italian fascists, depicted positively, to oppose the reds.
In all, Shute published seven novels over a fourteen-year period, developing his reputation progressively, before he had his first very big commercial success with Pied Piper in 1942. The novel, about an elderly man who led a group of children to escape from the Nazis in France, has been filmed several times. Pied Piper was followed by two more war stories: Pastoral (1944), ostensibly about British flyers, although it spends more time on fishing and courting than on fighting, and Most Secret (1945), which fictionalized his own wartime naval experiences.
Several novels came after the war, notably No Highway (1948), which places an adventure of sorts in Britain's aircraft industry. It contains some agonizingly suspenseful scenes, as well as meandering relationships and lengthy technical detail. It was three years later made into a much condensed but entertaining movie, No Highway in the Sky, with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.
But Shute's eye was turning to Australia. He gave up on what he seemed to consider an over-bureaucratized and socialized England to embrace the rougher and readier character of Australia and its inhabitants. The change of focus is reflected in his novels of this time, such as A Town Like Alice (also called The Legacy) and The Far Country (1952), both of which feature young women who leave a moribund England to find love and entrepreneurial opportunities Down Under. Even On the Beach holds out some hope for his adopted continent as a possible survivor after the final war.
After 1950 Shute lived full time in Australia. His autobiography Slide Rule came out in 1954. All told, he published twenty-six novels, including at least two posthumously. Almost all are still in print more than fifty years after his death, although On the Beach and A Town Like Alice are clearly the most read now and likely the only two to last once the current oldest generation of readers has departed.