Nevil Shute: a Study in Impeccable Writing

RequiemForAWren

I read a lot of Nevil Shute as a youngster – growing up in New Zealand, it was natural that his books should be in the library. I enjoyed them; he writes a good yarn, with plenty of action and interesting storylines, and his characters are strong and memorable, particularly the women. But it’s decades since I last read him, and the one I’m reading now I have never read before.

Requiem for a Wren is an exemplar of Shute’s work, and in particular his skill in purveying vast amounts of background through a few terse sentences. He’s a master at providing information without the reader being at all conscious that he’s doing so.

In the first paragraph of Requiem nothing much is happening. The narrator is an airline passenger, and the plane is beginning to descend. But look at how much information he packs into the first two sentences.

There was a layer of cumulus, about seven-tenths, with tops at about five thousand feet as we came to Essenden airport; we broke out of it at two thousand and we were on the circuit downwind, with the aerodrome on our starboard wing. I sat with my eyes glued to the window looking out at Melbourne, because this was my home town and I had been away five years.

I don’t mean the obvious – cloud cover and all – but rather the great deal of information which is implied. We now know that our narrator is Australian, and that he is an airman (very likely a pilot, given the breadth and complexity of his observations). As the book was published in 1955, the ‘five years’ remark gives us a pretty big clue that he was away at war, so now we know what kind of airman he is.

[The stewardess} smiled and said quietly ‘Would you like any help down the gangway, sir?’

I shook my head. ‘I’ll wait till the others are off. I’m all right if I take my time’

So… an injury or disability bad enough for him to potentially need help, but she is circumspect and he determined to be independent. That makes me think straight away about wartime injuries – and it turns out that’s exactly right. He goes on to meet the foreman from his parents’ sheep station, and discovers that there has been a death at the farm, but even then he’s more interested in the changes in the landscape since the war.

It’s only on page 12 that we begin get a sense of his injury, and this too is in typical laconic style.

Horses were still used by the boundary riders, but … my father drove all over the property in a Land Rover instead of riding on a horse as he always had when I was young. That suited me, for artificial feet are something of a handicap upon a horse. There was a great deal for me to learn about the property before I could unload some of the work from my parents, and I was keen to make a start.

Shute’s style is one I favour, with long passages of narrative interspersed with briefer dialogue and conversation. It’s somewhat out of fashion these days, when we are all being told ‘do, don’t tell’ and ‘don’t infodump’, although in Shute’s case it’s more like info-infusion, and his laid-back style suits the subject. Our protagonist is reluctant to display his disability, or any of the other ways in which war has changed him, and it becomes increasingly clear that this same reticence applies to the other characters in the novel, including the dead girl, whose story rapidly takes centre stage. So much is conveyed in these sparse, careful sentences that by the time he reaches the revelation at the bottom of page 53, it comes with a sense of inevitability. It could only have been this way.

I’m not going to tell you the story. Not all of you will want to read the book, but you can read the first few pages online. Have a look, and see whether you have anything to learn from this master of understated prose.

Advertisements

So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

mybook.to/treacle

https://www.facebook.com/events/1986209328266203/?active_tab=discussion

https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

 

Musing on Mariposas

564520_393548580700747_1720072316_n

There I was, lying back in the dentist’s chair with my mouth open, trying to resist the urge to bite him. I distracted myself by reading the poster on the ceiling above me – Butterflies of the World.
Now, there are many words in European languages that differ only a little from one language to another. Book is le livre in French, libro in Italian, el libro in Spanish – derived no doubt from the Latin. Of course, the English word is ‘book’ , like the German ‘buch’, but we use the latin derivation in our word ‘library’.
Cat is gato in Spain, chat in France and katze in German. It’s γάτα (gata)in Greek, suggesting that the languages of Europe may have acquired their cat words from Greek, rather than the latin Felis (which nonetheless resembles our common cat name, Felix).

I can play this game for hours. Sad, I know, but true.

But this close resemblance between languages is not true of butterflies. Take a look at this list:

Butterfly (English); mariposa (Spanish); papillon (French); schmetterling (German). There’s no etymological relationship at all. So what is it about butterflies that transcends the shared relationships between the languages of western Europe.

How about further afield? Romanian? Fluture. Dutch? Vlinder. In Italy they are farfalla.

The Greeks called them πεταλούδα (petalouda), which brings up an evocative image of flying flower petals. The Romans, on the other hand, called them papilio. So the French, at least, can identify the forebear of their word. But what about the rest of us? Even the Italians, so proud of their descent from the Roman empire, have chosen their own word (I’ll never be able to cook up another meal of Farfalle in Arrabiata Sauce without thinking about flying flocks of pasta).

What is it about butterflies? This is not a rhetorical question – I really have no idea. Fun to think about, though, isn’t it?