Absent Friends: Nicholas Monsarrat

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.jpg

It’s a truth of literature that many books are unjustly forgotten. Contracts expire, reading fads shift, publishers merge or go out of business—and as a result, books disappear. Formerly, these forgotten friends would languish in library stacks and crop up haphazardly in second-hand bookstores. But the age of the Internet has dramatically changed this landscape. Thanks to a multitude of online used book sites, it’s now possible to obtain a copy of virtually any book ever printed. And thus it’s no longer quixotic (or sadistic) to recommend out of print authors.

Hence this feature, which will examine and recommend authors whose work has all but disappeared from common view. There’s vast treasure to be found beyond Books in Print; consider these essays pieces of a map.

A debatably wise man once said that the best-seller was a gilded tomb for a mediocre talent. As with all easy aphorisms, it’s only 90 percent true. 
The riddle is solved one of two ways: either the writer of the best-seller stumbled blindly upon a winning formula that one time only, or the writer always knew what they were doing and some combination of chance and synergy caused that one book to take flight.         
The practical approach here is to go straight to…well, to everything else the writer in question wrote, everything that exists in the shadow of the bestseller. Writing is a business, after all, and the professional author must write for his livelihood. Mundane financial necessity has forced many a writer to raid his limited creative stores far too often, with repetition and cannibalism as the inevitable results.

Some authors deal with this pattern by embracing it, repeatedly giving the public what it wants, trying nothing new (naturally others, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Anthony Burgess, have vigorously resisted this comfort). The best-selling author has found a way to get money out of the notoriously indolent reading public; it’s surely understandable why so many would be loath to stray. The world has no searching, multi-faceted stream-of-consciousness novel from Agatha Christie, but Agatha Christie never lacked jam for her toast.

One of the biggest bestsellers in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War was Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel The Cruel Sea. It’s the story of the Compass Rose and the Saltash, two corvettes escorting British convoys during the height of German U-boat predation. The book was an enormous popular success, garnered rapturous reviews (the critic for the Boston Herald likened it to War and Peace), and was made into a movie. From its appearance onward, whenever Monsarrat’s name appeared in print, it was inevitably followed by “author of The Cruel Sea.”

Monsarrat (John Turney) was born in Liverpool in 1910, so his bestseller happened to him relatively close to the beginning of his writing career. He was to go on writing books until his death in 1979, sometimes at the rate of one book a year.

The books that follow The Cruel Sea are a noteworthily variegated lot, although certain commonalities resonate. In his autobiography Monsarrat confesses to being drawn to islands and island life, for instance, and several of his novels center their action on islands.

Likewise the author of The Cruel Sea is not entirely comfortable portraying women; they tend to be either paragons or thwarted, stunted copies of men. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 1953 novel The Story of Esther Costello, in which the title character, deaf, dumb, and blind, is literally remade by men and their science. Likewise in the 1965 novel Something to Hide, in which a man takes pity on a pregnant woman and takes her into his home—the reader no sooner closes the book than he instantly forgets the woman’s name, because while reading he has been mentally referring to her as “plot device.” No doubt connectedly, Monsarrat excels in capturing the difficult nuances of relationships between men—of the generation of fiction writers to emerge from the war, only Mary Renault has a keener ear for this tricky subject. Female characters appear in virtually all Monsarrat’s novels, but as wives and sweethearts and harbingers of woe, never as characters in their own right. Julie Hallam, who is both sweetheart and harbinger of woe to one of the male characters in The Cruel Sea, goes so far as to comment on the strength of the bond between the men on board the Compass Rose:

“I’m jealous.” He heard her laugh. “I don’t mean jealous. I mean that women don’t often have that relationship, and if they do there aren’t many first rate things it can be applied to, like running a ship or fighting a war.”

Female readers must feel their blood boil at such fawning, traitorous words being made to come from one of their own sex, but Monsarrat appears not to notice his own double standard (the “relationship” mentioned is at one point compared to that between David and Jonathan, apparently without irony).

It should be pointed out that while Monsarrat gives us no viable female characters independent of the roles they fulfill for the men around them, when writing about those roles, Monsarrat is unerringly good. The dynamics of marriage are an especial strong suit, something seen most strongly in the 1965 novel The Pillow Fight, in which a young writer is matched with a wife so brittle and avaricious the reader can practically hear her mandibles clicking. It’s much more touchingly on display in the invigorating 1961 novel The White Rajah, in which the hero of the story falls in love with a sheltered princess, a relationship etched in a series of surprisingly delicate, touching scenes.

Indeed, all of Monsarrat’s strengths as a writer shine through in The White Rajah, as they do in half a dozen novels written after The Cruel Sea. Monserrat may be weak on gender, but he is nothing less than masterly on genre, one of the most sure-footed adventure yarn-spinners since Robert Louis Stevenson. In The White Rajah, Richard Marriott, a classic adventurer-type who might have stepped fresh from the pages of Rider Haggard, becomes embroiled in political and social conflicts on the Javanese island of Makassang, and the prose is so strong and headlong that, as in Stevenson, the reader is carried along effortlessly to the last page. This is a narrative skill by no means to be despised; far fewer writers possess it than claim to.

Another vein that runs through The White Rajah, the joys and corruptions of postwar British colonialism, are given their fullest expression in ‘The Tribe that Lost Its Head’ and its 1968 sequel Richer Than All His Tribe. Monsarrat belonged to the foreign service after the war, and his treatment of the British officers in his island protectorate in these novels is entirely sympathetic without being maudlin. But it’s his depiction of the island’s native people, the Maula, that stands apart—Monsarrat imbues them with a wit and spirituality that turn the jingoistic potentialities of the books upside down.

This sensitivity to colonial geo-politics is given a much broader canvas in The Kappillan of Malta, very much Monsarrat’s best work of non-nautical fiction. Set during World War Two on the war-battered island of Malta, the book’s narrative uses the heroic efforts of its title character, a simple man of faith sheltering bombing-survivors in catacombs, as a springboard to delve into the long history of Malta. The effect is Micheneresque, but only initially; it’s the Kappillan’s humble personality and steadfast faith that command the story.

Monserrat is at his best when depicting good men in adversity; he does so with a controlled understatement that can be lacking from his more ham-fisted forays into social criticism. Although his vignettes from Malta’s past are never less than involving, it’s his portrait of what happens to simple human good will when the bombs start falling that is the novel’s most stirring element.

Monsarrat’s unfailing ability to wring his manichaeism for every drop of pathos is his singular gift as a writer. And nowhere is this more strongly and successfully seen than in his nautical fiction.

Monserrat served in corvettes during the war, and he writes about it with an able lack of sentimentality in his volumes of autobiography, Breaking In and Breaking Out. But when he comes to the same subject matter in the arena of fiction, an alchemy is invoked the effectiveness of which on the page can’t be overstated. Monsarrat’s non-nautical fiction is uniformly confident and readable—indeed, The Kappillan of Malta is a work that would do credit to the career of any author. But Monserrat’s nautical fiction is an enterprise of an entirely different order. Here an undeniable kind of genius creeps in, and it’s the presence of that genius in the pages that makes Monsarrat’s currently obscured print-status such an injustice.

The marvel here is what Monsarrat does with sheer economy. Two of the great works of this time and type, The Ship That Died of Shame and HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, are only novellas in length, but in their eloquence and sheer muscle they far exceed most of the full-length novels written about the war, such superficially exciting but ultimately unsatisfying works as Edward Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep or the Nazi Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s The Boat.

The Ship That Died of Shame is the weaker of the two works, the more open to the sentimentality that always kills serious fiction. In it, the captain of a Coastal Forces gunboat and his lieutenant engage in the undocumented guttural underside of the war, the nighttime raids they make across the Channel, sinking and blowing up everything they encounter. The captain falls into despondent penury after the war—for all the vigor of his narrative, Monsarrat can be an insightful painter of hopelessness—and so is willing to join his former lieutenant in a smuggling operation. In a plot twist that strains credulity (there are many throughout the story), the two men manage to acquire their old Coastal Forces ship for the enterprise, and it’s that eponymous ship that gradually stops working as the men’s smuggling activities grow more and more sordid. The clockwork way the smugglers’ culpability worsens (from canned goods and wine to drugs to guns to dead bodies to child molesters) betrays a curious naivete found nowhere else in Monsarrat’s fiction, but it fails to thwart the narrative, which is throughout effective despite the narrator’s confessed contention that ships can’t, in fact, die of shame.

HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour plays much more explicitly to Monsarrat’s strengths (although in both cases he gives the work a title that reveals its ending). The title ship is cracked apart by a German torpedo in the first sentence of the novella, and in the tense, deft passages that follow, the reader is introduced to the captain and crew and drawn into their struggle to reach port. This is a large, twofold gamble for any writer—not only does the reader have no chance to invest emotion in any of the characters before the crisis is upon them, but the reader only has to glance at the story’s title to know that the ship will not, in the end, founder. Either of these should be fatal to a book, but Monsarrat’s narrative is so taut and engrossing that they’re turned into strengths before the story ends.

The central dilemma is whether or not to abandon ship, and the question is answered midway when the solid, dependable captain finds he loves his ship too much to give the order:

“He knew her [the ship] from end to end, not only with the efficient “technical” eye of the man who had watched the last five months of her building, but with an added, intimate regard for every part of her, a loving admiration, an eye tenderly blind to her shortcomings.

Now she was going. No wonder he could not phrase that final order, no wonder he stared back almost angrily at the Chief, delaying what he knew must happen, waiting for the miracle to forestall it.”

It’s to Monsarrat’s credit (though readers familiar with his works will scarcely find it surprising) that no miracle occurs. As in The Kappillan of Malta, in place of miracles there is only hope and industry, both so skillfully portrayed that the novella carries the emotional heft of a work twice its length. 

Nevertheless, though a survey of Monsarrat’s literary career demonstrates that the author’s success with The Cruel Sea wasn’t an isolated fluke, it is to that novel any such survey must inevitably come, for in it subject matter, tone, and execution reach a virtually flawless tempo unmatched anywhere else in Monsarrat’s writings (the author himself considered The Master Mariner series—unfinished at the time of his death—to be his greatest work, but authors are notoriously unreliable judges of the merits of their various books, as anyone who’s ever read Mark Twain’s favorite among his own books, Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc, can attest).

This is accomplished in large part by Monsarrat putting a memorably human face on the war. The crew of the Compass Rose are brought to life with a marvelously effective economy, especially the ship’s captain, Ericson, and his two lieutenants, wry, observant Lockhart and doubting, bumbling Ferraby (in sharp contrast, for instance, to HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, during which we learn nothing at all about the civilian lives of the crew—indeed, during which we scarcely learn their names, since most of the characters refer to each other throughout by their positions onboard, Chief, Number One, etc). These three and others are so lifelike on the page that they help to personalize the war, even while Monsarrat is taking pains to point out its impersonal aspects:

“For sailors, the Battle of the Atlantic was becoming a private war: if you were in it you knew all about it—you knew how to watchkeep on filthy nights, how to surmount an aching tiredness, how to pick up survivors, how to sink submarines, how to bury the dead, and how to die without wasting anyone’s time.”

The Cruel Sea follows the Compass Rose through the entire life of her service (that service ends when she’s torpedoed halfway through the book, something Monsarrat again tells the reader up front in a “Before the Curtain” note that begins the novel), and the narrative is at its most effective during the early years of the war, when corvettes put to sea with light weaponry, a limited knowledge of the enemy, and only a very primitive means of detected lurking U-boats. The emotional toll this takes on the characters is pitilessly drawn, as in the scene in which the decent, peaceful Ericson confronts the captured captain of a U-boat sunk by the Compass Rose:

“You took my ship by surprise, Captain,” he [Von Hellmuth, the Nazi captain] said slowly. “Otherwise …”

“His tone hinted at treachery, unfair tactics, a course of conduct outrageous to German honor: suitable only for Englishmen, Poles, Negroes. “And what the Hell have you been doing all these months,” Ericson thought, “except taking people by surprise, stalking them, giving them no chance.” But that idea would not have registered. Instead he smiled ironically and said:

“It is war. I am sorry if it is too hard for you.”

Von Hellmuth gave him a furious glance, but he did not answer the remark: he saw, too late, that by complaining of his defeat he had confessed to weakness. His glance went round the cabin, and changed to a sneer.

“This is a poor cabin,” he said. “I am not accustomed—”

Ericson stepped up to him, suddenly shaking with anger. In the back of his mind he thought: “If I had a revolver I’d shoot you here and now.””

Ericson feels debased by his anger, and this is of a piece with the rest of the novel, where the war is viewed as an unmitigated tragedy all around, not as an innately heroic pitting of good against evil. Monsarrat shows the reader as many sides of that tragedy as come within the scope of his story; a surprising amount of the narrative takes place on land, following characters into the chaos and destruction of wartime England. In the end it’s this panoramic grappling with the war, Monsarrat’s masterful handling of it all, that leaves its mark on the reader. In a writing career filled with good prose and good books—books that deserve life and readers—this best-seller earns its spot at the top. 

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.