What happened to Nevil Shute

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.

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  1. Gideon Haigh, "Shute the messenger: how the end of the world came to Melbourne", The Monthly, June 2007, 52. []
  2. Ibid., 53. []
  3. Ibid., 47. []
  4. 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! []
  5. Haigh, "Shute the messenger", 46. []

13 thoughts on “What happened to Nevil Shute

  1. Chris Williams

    I've always liked Shute - from the nice chemical warfare expert breaking the Hague Convention to revenge his rabbit, through the Popular Mechanics columnist outwitting the Evil Socialists, to the genius punchline of _Round the Bend_, he managed to tour the 40s and 50s zeitgeist with rare insight.

    As you'd expect, he was as airminded as it gets. The second best bit of _No Highway_ is that it's set firmly, indeed almost exclusively, in a world of corporate-state aviation. It's a novel about bureaucracy as much as anything else. The best bit is of course the description of the accident inquiry, which brings a lump to my throat even though the punchline accidentally invokes the name of a member of Black Sabbath. Shute wasn't to know.

    Forester did the same thing even better, of course, but he had very little to do with aeroplanes, so is off topic here.

  2. Post author

    I may have to take On the Beach with me to read in the anti-Antipodes -- since I read What Happened to the Corbetts in Australia, though it was written and set in Britain, it seems appropriately symmetric to read On the Beach in Britain, though it was written and set in Australia ...

  3. Chris Williams

    Who said "It's a film about the end of the world. It's set in Melbourne" or words to that effect?

  4. Post author

    Ava Gardner, who starred in the film, was quoted as saying "'On the Beach' is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.' Which is such a great put-down that it's a shame to have to point out that a journalist made it up!

  5. Chris Williams

    It was ever thus. By the way, it's called the 'podes'. Prounced 'Po-Dees'.

  6. Post author

    But nobody would understand what that means without having it explained to them. Besides, calling Britain the anti-Antipodes emphasises that it is no longer the norm against which all else is measured: it's just another Other now!

  7. Fiasco da Gama

    Well I've still got On The Beach on my shelf in pride of apocalyptic place, next to the Ray Bradbury short stories and the VHS copy of Dr. Strangelove. I look at it gently, nostalgically, whenever anyone whinges about Islamofascists.
    It's dated, though, you've got to admit. It's sexist, puerile emotive guff that should have been serialised in the newspaper for effect, like Dickens.

    I don't know that I agree that the subject of the 'civilian experience of war' was 'very nearly taboo'.

    Neither do I. Apart from the airmindedness of the 20s and 30s about which you doubtless know far more than I---Tolstoy springs to mind, as does the book of Exodus in the Bible.

  8. Post author

    LOL! Islamofascism always makes me think of McBain's nemesis, the Commienazis ... makes about as much sense, anyway.

    I must admit I'm a total sap who tends to fall for emotive guff, so clearly I must read On the Beach sooner rather than later.

  9. Fiasco da Gama

    Oh, yeah, Brett, if you haven't yet indulged in the sheer proto-emo emotivity of On The Beach, you oughta.
    Put your favourite motor vehicle up on blocks and disconnect the battery, unplug all of your dangerous appliances from the mains, write to all of your friends and to future civilisations in acid on indelible glass, shoot the pack mule, pour yourself a double gin and tonic, self-medicate on your favourite antidepressant, and lie back, thinking of an annihilated England.

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