If you hate spoilers, wait till the end of the novel to read its prologue, "Before the Curtain." The prologue reveals a major event in the novel.
The nIf you hate spoilers, wait till the end of the novel to read its prologue, "Before the Curtain." The prologue reveals a major event in the novel.
The naval war scenes - and particularly the event mentioned in the prologue - were chillingly authentic and wonderfully written. If the novel had centered primarily on scenes like that, I'd have given it five stars. But the overall plot meandered, and the only theme seemed to be "War is hell." The friendship between two of the male characters deserved more screen time than it received. The heterosexual subplot, alas, was filled with cliches. The minor characters were interesting, but because there were so many of them, we barely got to know them before they were whisked offstage. I really wish an editor could have sat down with the author and helped him tighten the plot, because the author was working with excellent material, and his well-done scenes will remain etched in my memory....more
This collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or meThis collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or meaningful - sad because his first novel, "H.M.S. Ulysses," was in fact both literary and meaningful, and all the more entertaining as a result. Alas, he reports that a couple more of his meaningful novels didn't go over well with the readers. (I suspect that one of them must have been "The Last Frontier," which, for all its virtues, includes long monologues about the benefits of peace between nations.) MacLean concluded from the readers' reactions that "messages are for Western Union," rather than concluding, as he should have, that a skillful writer must make his messages entertaining and must integrate them carefully into the storyline.
Fortunately, Alistair MacLean's disavowal of meaningful content was not applied to many of the works in this collection.
The subtitle "Collected Short Stories" is misleading, because eight of the works in this collection are actually narrative nonfiction on World War II maritime disasters . . . but are no less compellingly written than MacLean's fiction.
When the Hood was with you, nothing could ever go wrong. Every man in the Royal Navy knew that.
And not only in the Navy. It is seventeen years now since the Hood died but none of the millions alive today who had grown up before the Second World War can forget, and will probably never forget, the almost unbelievable hold the Hood had taken on the imaginations and hearts of the British public. She was the best known, best loved ship in all our long naval history, a household name to countless people for whom Revenge and Victory were only words. The biggest, most powerful ship of the line in the inter-war years, she stood for all that was permanent, a synonym for all that was invincible, held in awe, even in veneration. For millions of people she was the Royal Navy, a legend in her own lifetime . . . But a legend grows old.
And now, with the long night's high-speed steaming over, the dawn in the sky and the Bismarck looming up over the horizon, the legend was about to end forever.
In these accounts, MacLean shows himself to be a first-rate nautical history writer, with a fine eye for detail and for the human aspects of the story. I suspect (though I can't verify it, since he usually doesn't cite his sources) that he is also demonstrating his talent for investigative journalism, digging down to find the deeper reasons why the disasters occurred.
The remaining stories include a quietly moving fictionalization of a typical day for minesweeping boats during World War II; a boating melodrama that first won him his fame; and four light comedies, including the wryly witty story, "McCrimmon and the Blue Moonstones."
Shocked into comparative sobriety and hoarsely uttering the war cry of his clan, McCrimmon leapt back. A high-speed camera would have recorded but a blur as his hand streaked for his Stilson wrench. Wild Bill Hickok, at his best, would have stood in silent wonder. Alas for McCrimmon, the miraculous speed of his draw was grievously hampered by the plethora of assorted cutlery in his pocket. True, it caused but a second's delay: but it is a scientifically established fact that a heavy stool, impelled by the arms of an enraged Armenian, can cover a distance of four feet in less than half that time.
But the star of the fictional works in the collection is surely "Rendezvous," a World War II naval espionage tale that begins with as effective a hook as any of MacLean's novel-length thrillers.
It was quite dark now and the Great North Road, the A1, that loneliest of Europe's highways, almost deserted. At rare intervals, a giant British Roadways truck loomed out of the darkness: a courteous dipping of headlamps, immaculate hand-signals, a sudden flash of sound from the labouring diesel - and the A1 was lonelier than ever. Then there was only the soothing hum of tyres, the black ribbon of highway, and the headlights of the Jaguar, weirdly hypnotic, swathing through the blackness.
Loneliness and sleep, sleep and loneliness. The enemies, the co-drivers of the man at the wheel; the one lending that extra half pound of pressure to the accelerator, the other, immobile and ever-watchful, waiting his chance to slide in behind the wheel and take over. I knew them well and I feared them.
But they were not riding with me tonight. There was no room for them. Not with so many passengers. Not with Stella sitting there beside me, Stella of the laughing eyes and sad heart, who had died in a German concentration camp. Not with Nicky, the golden boy, lounging in the back seat, or Passiere, who had never returned to his sun-drenched vineyards in Sisteron. No room for sleep and loneliness? Why, by the time you had crowded in Taffy the engineer, complaining as bitterly as ever and Vice-Admiral Starr and his bushy eyebrows, there was hardly room for myself.
MacLean does such a good job at depicting the shifting fortunes of the characters in "Rendezvous" that one yearns for a theme which is equally memorable - one of those Western Union messages which MacLean deliberately dropped from his later fiction. But the reader can remain grateful that, over the span of his lifetime, MacLean gave us as much as he did. This collection is testimony to that fact....more
Alistair MacLean's first novel was also his best. In place of the cardboard villains in his later war novels and thrillers, MacLean offers an enemy "fAlistair MacLean's first novel was also his best. In place of the cardboard villains in his later war novels and thrillers, MacLean offers an enemy "far more deadly than any mine or U-boat": the weather.
"Do you know what it's like up there, between Jan Mayen and Bear Island on a February night, Admiral Starr? Of course you don't. Do you know what it's like when there's sixty degrees of frost in the Arctic - and it still doesn't freeze? Do you know what it's like when the wind, twenty degrees below zero, comes screaming off the Polar and Greenland ice-caps and slices through the thickest clothing like a scalpel? When there's five hundred tons of ice on the deck, where five minutes' direct exposure means frostbite, where the bows crash down into a trough and the spray hits you as solid ice, where even a torch battery dies out in the intense cold? Do you, Admiral Starr, do you?"
Not content with this magnificent description, MacLean takes us on a voyage into hell.
Our fellow passengers are the officers and crew of the HMS Ulysses, a British naval escort ship doing the Arctic run during World War II. MacLean himself was a crew member on a similar naval ship in the Arctic during that time, so it's no surprise that his description of the suffering undergone by the men on board is authentically horrific.
On board the Ulysses, men for whom death and destruction had become the stuff of existence, to be accepted with the callousness and jesting indifference that alone kept them sane—these men clenched impotent fists, mouthed meaningless, useless curses over and over again and wept heedlessly like little children.
What makes the novel more than bearable to read are the characters: The Kapok Kid, a navigator whose natty outfit and flippant remarks disguise his keen intelligence. Riley, a scoundrel who plots mutinies and saves stray kittens. Ralston, a torpedo operator whose increasing agony serves as a test for the loyalty of the Ulysses' crew.
There are dozens more characters in the novel, all sketched in such a way that the reader is compelled to read on to discover what happens to them. Above all there is Captain Vallery.
Richard Vallery . . . hated war. He always had hated it and he cursed the day it had dragged him out of his comfortable retirement. At least, "dragged" was how he put it; only Tyndall knew that he had volunteered his services to the Admiralty on 1st September, 1939, and had had them gladly accepted.
But he hated war. Not because it interfered with his lifelong passion for music and literature, on both of which he was a considerable authority, not even because it was a perpetual affront to his asceticism, to his sense of rightness and fitness. He hated it because he was a deeply religious man, because it grieved him to see in mankind the wild beasts of the primeval jungle, because he thought the cross of life was already burden enough without the gratuitous infliction of the mental and physical agony of war, and, above all, because he saw war all too clearly as the wild and insensate folly it was, as a madness of the mind that settled nothing, proved nothing - except the old, old truth that God was on the side of the big battalions.
But some things he had to do, and Vallery had clearly seen that this war had to be his also. And so he had come back to the service, and had grown older as the bitter years passed, older and frailer, and more kindly and tolerant and understanding. Among Naval Captains, indeed among men, he was unique. In his charity, in his humility, Captain Richard Vallery walked alone. It was a measure of the man's greatness that this thought never occurred to him.
By the end of the novel, witnessing the willing sacrifices of various characters, one feels proud to be a member of the human race....more
An absorbing, meticulously researched biography of a man who is best known for his pre-Stonewall gay erotic fiction. Through passages that range fromAn absorbing, meticulously researched biography of a man who is best known for his pre-Stonewall gay erotic fiction. Through passages that range from humorous to poignant, Justin Spring uses admirable detail to build up a day-to-day portrait of Samuel Steward. Steward emerges as a man of many facets, who was considered a prime candidate in the 1930s for entrance into America's elite circle of literary authors, but who spent much of his energy instead on "rough trade" and other sexual assignations (including sex with such celebrities as Lord Alfred Douglas). He befriended Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, as well as many gay authors and artists, some of whom ended up in his "Stud File." His carefully-kept sexual records fascinated Alfred Kinsey, who filmed him doing SM in 1952. When Steward turned in the 1950s from a career as a professor to a career as a tattoo artist (back in the years when this was a highly unrespectable calling), he eventually came in touch with a far more dangerous rough trade than had existed in his past. Steward spent his final years trying to convey to a new generation what gay life had been like from the 1920s forward.
"I don't know why [Rudolph Valentino] stopped in Columbus [Ohio], but there he was, absolutely incognito, because he would have been mobbed otherwise. So I went down to the hotel, my autograph book in hand, and knocked on the door, and he signed it . . . [He had been showering and wore only a towel but] he took the book and sat down and signed it. For a long time [after], there was the imprint of his damp palm on the page [of the autograph book]. He stood up . . . and I was about to leave, and he said, 'Is there anything else you want? I'm very tired.'
"I said, 'Yes, I'd like to have you.' And then he really did smile . . . He reached over and pushed the door shut . . . and with the other hand he undid his towel."
Mr. Spring doesn't flinch from the task of depicting Steward's sexual life (he does an excellent job of tracking down Steward's connections with hustlers and leathermen, for example), but perhaps because the sources that the biographer had access to were lacking in this area, I sometimes wished that he had said more about Steward's nonsexual life. For example, Mr. Spring speaks of the "remarkably warm friendship" that Steward had with Emma Curtis, a fellow teacher, and notes upon her death that, for over twenty years, Steward had been "sharing meals, seeing movies, and talking on the phone with her nearly every day." Yet she is rarely mentioned in the biography, which keeps insisting that Steward was incapable of intimate relationships with other people. Perhaps Mr. Spring merely means "with other men," for he documents many of Steward's letters and visits to Stein and Toklas, including a vivid image of Steward sitting by Toklas's bedside in her final years "as she slipped in and out of consciousness."
It is little touches like this that make the biography so moving. On a week in which I should instead have been doing research, I was unable to tear myself away from Justin Spring's tale of Samuel Steward's life....more