"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, March 3, 2023

Whistling past the graveyard: On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute

          Dwight hesitated for a moment, choosing his words. "It seems that I'm the senior executive officer of the U.S. Navy now," he said. "I never thought I'd rise so high as that, but that's the way it is. You'll excuse me if I don't put this in the right form or language, sir. But I have to tell you that I'm taking my ship out of your command."

  The admiral nodded slowly. "Very good, Commander. Do you wish to leave Australian territorial waters, or to stay here as our guest?"

  "I'll be taking my ship outside territorial waters," the commander said. "I can't just say when I'll be leaving, but probably before the week-end."

  The admiral nodded. He turned to Peter. "Give any necessary instructions in regard to victualling and towage to the dockyard," he said. "Commander Towers is to be given every facility."

  "Very good, sir."

  The American said, "I don't just know what to suggest about payments, sir. You must forgive me, but I have no training in these matters."

  The admiral smiled thinly. "I don't know that it would do us much good if you had, Commander. I think we can leave those to the usual routine. All countersigned indents and requisitions are costed here and are presented to the Naval Attaché at your embassy in Canberra, and forwarded by him to Washington for eventual settlement. I don't think you need worry over that side of it."

  Dwight said, "I can just cast off and go?"

  "That's right. Do you expect to be returning to Australian waters?"

  The American shook his head. "No, sir. I'm taking my ship out in Bass Strait to sink her."

*   *   *

Readers unfamiliar with On the Beach may prefer to read these notes only after reading the novel.

*   *   *

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of  the world.

From: "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold

*   *   *

Whistling past the graveyard: On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute

What happens to the "man in the gray flannel suit" when facing imminent species extinction? He fishes or prepares the flower beds for next year; he spends every penny on a second-hand racing car; he dreams of sailing home to see his wife and kids; he drinks-dry his club wine cellar.

Extreme survivor reactions to such calamities are a staple of apocalyptic potboilers. There are usually Pentagon megalomaniacs, Christian screwballs, and ignorant hoards of the lumpenproletariat on hand to demonstrate that "man is the real monster." In novels like Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon, communities of the good are beset by refugee wolves in sheep's clothing who want to freeload, rape, and exploit.  Generally in these stories, values of comradery and solidarity go out the window: cannibalism and arena bloodbaths quickly replace bourgeois niceties.

But not so in On The Beach. Shute instead gives us a world remnant where people show up for work, pay for store purchases, and ride Melbourne Trams - which still run on time.

The Australian government still functions. City living conditions remain clean, electrified, and hygienic until a day or two before the populace take their suicide pills. The navy has the logistical wherewithal to send an allied US submarine on two patrols, the second reaching the Arctic. 

There are no riots or pogroms. Because survivors have a chance to live with the prospect of certain death by the end of August, priorities are simplified. And most life on earth has already ended, confirming the scientist's predictions.

Like soldiers or the condemned on the eve of certain death, the people of Melbourne, residents and foreign guests alike, want to remember and celebrate what is passing; if some succeed too well in deceiving themselves, it is never for very long.

*   *   *

On The Beach's class insularity places it behind-times in relation to other post-apocalyptic novels. There is none of the society "red in tooth and claw" we get from later works like John Christopher's The Death of Grass. At the same time, no ground is given to an almost biological yearning for personality's obliteration, as depicted in Ballard's The Drowned World

Were it not for the fact that every character on On The Beach knows from page one that humanity will soon be forever finished, the story might achieve a pastoral equipoise: unsustainable cities abandoned as their citizens move to the land. We get a glimpse of this when Dwight Towers pitches-in to help Moira's father on the farm, and again when fishing season opens early (for "one year only").

*   *   *

Some reviewers have found fault with Shute's perfunctory descriptions of World War Three. But a novelist is not required to give readers an A. J. P. Taylor-level view of international events. Shute's treatment fits with the partial views of all events confronting his women and men. Understanding their war's origins seems as daunting as unraveling 1914's "guns of August".

Peter Holmes shrugs off  the question in his last hour: "....something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough" to educate people about the potential risk of  human extinction. That's a nice example of ameliorative petty bourgeois sentiment.

*   *   *

In Shute's body of fictional work, On The Beach initially recalls earlier wartime crisis thrillers. But the war crisis is over before On The Beach begins. Shute allows his characters a few months at loose ends to try tidying the everyday messiness of their lives. 

The fact that none of his men and women reflect upon this is certainly testament to their stoicism. It is also in keeping with the depiction of middle-class professionalism Shute shares with artists as diverse as Hemingway and Howard Hawks.

Shute is too strong a writer to entertain notes of hysteria, much less invent an aura of mourning and belatedness: his characters have no interest in entertaining such ideas, and the reader's vanity will not be indulged.

The novel's ending is elegant in its balance and simplicity: when the last person in Melbourne or Tasmania takes their suicide pill,  humans are finished: the millenia-long rate race will not be repeated. Or remembered. 

*   *   *

"The Universe, at present, contains billions upon billions of spiral galaxies. In one of them is a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead."

-- Paul Dehn, "Beneath the Planet Of The Apes" (1970)


4 March 2023

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