It's not often that I happen across a discussion of knock-out blow novels outside specialist literature, so I was interested to see that Gideon Haigh (probably best known as a cricket writer, but also a fine essayist) talks about Nevil Shute's What Happened to the Corbetts (1939) in the current issue of The Monthly. The article itself (which is not online; a precis of sorts is available from the Sunday Telegraph) is about On the Beach, published fifty years ago this month: 'arguably Australia's most important novel'1 since it was the first really popular novel to deal with nuclear war and human extinction, selling 4 million copies worldwide.
In retrospect, 1957 was a hinge point in the Cold War, when passive resignation about nuclear arms began yielding to alarm and horror. It was the year that the CND was founded in Britain and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was established in the US; it was the year that the National Council of Churches warned that the arms race might "lead directly to a war that will destroy civilization". In 1955, fewer than one-fifth of Americans knew what fallout was; by 1958, seven in ten were saying they would favour a worldwide organisation to prohibit nuclear weapons.
How many people during that transition read JB Priestley's 'Russia, the Atom and the West' in the New Statesman? Or heard the Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling rail against nuclear arms? And how many read On the Beach? Nevil Shute's novel was the great popular work on the gravest matter besetting civilisation.2
Haigh is right to see that the two books have a great deal in common.
What Happened, like On the Beach, is a conventional novel on an unconventional, very nearly taboo, subject: the civilian experience of war, with its trials of disaster and displacement. It is not, however, an anti-war novel. To write against war when its coming was inevitable would have struck Shute as pointless posturing. He was arguing not for peace but for preparedness, to ready Britons "for the terrible things that you, and I, and all the citizens of the cities in this country may one day have to face together". On the novel's release in April 1939, a thousand copies were distributed to workers in Air Raid Precautions. It was "the entertainer serving a useful purpose".3
But I don't know that I agree that the subject of the 'civilian experience of war' was 'very nearly taboo'. There were plenty of novels dealing with this subject written in the 1920s and 1930s, at least as it related to aerial warfare. It's just that virtually all of the others were sensationalistic trash in comparison to What Happened to the Corbetts, as I have previously argued.4 Otherwise I like Haigh's take on it.
And what happened to Nevil Shute? After moving to Australia in 1950 and buying the country's first dishwasher, and writing a few more books, he died in 1960. And after that?
The decline of Shute's reputation is unremarkable: it simply attests the perishability of popular art. Shute sold 15 million books in his lifetime, but he aspired to neither literary immortality nor critical approval: "The book which thrills the reviewer with its artistic perfection will probably not be accepted by the public, while a book which the public value for its contents will probably seem trivial and worthless artistically to the reviewer." His obscurity also reflects the contours of the book market: the middle-class, middlebrow novelist of ideas is a discontinued line.5
Still, he wrote one book of almost geopolitical significance; that's more than most writers can aspire to.
Gideon Haigh, "Shute the messenger: how the end of the world came to Melbourne", The Monthly, June 2007, 52. ↩
Ibid., 53. ↩
Ibid., 47. ↩
Haigh has clearly benefited from reading Paul Brians' Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, but doesn't seem to have any comparable sources for the knock-out blow literature. That's ok, but you know, he could have asked me! ↩
Haigh, "Shute the messenger", 46. ↩
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