It is commonly said that every human being has in him the material for one good book, which is true in the same sense as it is true that every block of stone contains a statue. What is perhaps more to the point is that anyone able to hold a pen can write a fairly good novel of the unpretentious kind, if only at some period of his life he has managed to escape from literary society. There is no lack nowadays of clever writers; the trouble is that such writers are so cut off from the life of their time as to be unable to write about ordinary people. A “distinguished” modern novel almost always has some kind of artist or near-artist as its hero. There is, however, one experience that happens to nearly all human beings alike, and that is war. The “intellectual” has a chance of seeing war at close quarters as he will never see, for instance, stockbroking or marine insurance, and good war-books are in consequence fairly common. The present war, owing to its peculiar character, has not yet produced a literature of its own, but Mr Nevil Shute’s Landfall is a beginning. It is a straightforward, convincing story, and I shall keep an eye open for Mr Shute’s books in future.
What makes it interesting is that it brings out the essential peculiarity of war, the mixture of heroism and meanness. The whole story turns upon the jealousy between the navy and air force over the control of the Coastal Command. The hero, a young airman, is accused of bombing and sinking a British submarine. He has not in fact done so, but is found guilty by a board of inquiry composed of naval officers who are faintly prejudiced against him. Later in the book he is exonerated by a roundabout but curiously convincing chain of circumstances in which the chief link is a dirty joke about contraceptives. The way in which the author handles him shows what an advantage it is for a thinking man to live sometimes on equal terms with men who are not “thinking”. The young airman is completely unintellectual. His hobbies are getting difficult stations on the wireless and fitting together model ships of which he buys the parts ready-made. He is conducting a flirtation with a barmaid, whom he finally marries, and there are whole chapters of the kind of conversation that one hears flung to and fro across saloon bars, full of doubles entendres and “Oo, aren’t you awful!” But the author treats none of this ironically. He sees the young airman’s point of view, because, presumably, he has at some time shared his experiences. He can stand inside him as well as outside him and realize that he is heroic as well as childish, competent as well as silly. The result is a good, simple story, pleasantly free from cleverness, and at times genuinely moving.Nailcruncher, on the other hand, is one of the most pretentious novels I have read for a long time. It is an enormous, deliberately farcical story about some semi-imbecile Jews, first in the Greek island of Cephalonia and later in Switzerland. What is chiefly remarkable in it is the length and disgustingness of its scatological passages. As soon as I came on the first of these I turned back to the blurb on the dust-jacket, well knowing what adjective I should find, and, sure enough, there it was — “Rabelaisian”. It is curious that this word is invariably used as a term of praise. We are forever being told that whereas pornography is reprehensible, “hearty Rabelaisian humour” (meaning a preoccupation with the W.C.) is perfectly all right. This is partly, perhaps, because Rabelais is nowadays seldom read. So far from being “healthy” as is always alleged, he is an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psycho-analysis. But people who lead strict lives have dirty minds, and Rabelais had a considerable underground reputation in Victorian times. Archdeacon Grantly read him on the sly, it will be remembered, and the bachelor in Browning’s poem possessed “a little edition of Rabelais”. Perhaps the only way of making him respectable was to maintain that there is something “normal” and “hearty” in coprophilia, and the legend has survived into an age when few people have glanced at his dirtier passages. At any rate “Rabelaisian” is a correct description of Nailcruncher. If you like scatology, this is the book for you; if you don’t, I should steer clear of it, for long passages in it are calculated to make any ordinary person physically sick.