Sol­dier’s sim­ple tale of sur­vival

Lloyd Jones wel­comes the reis­sue of a no-non­sense Aus­tralian war novel that com­pares with the best

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE paths of two war nov­el­ists, John Hep­worth and Nor­man Mailer, crossed in a ge­o­graph­i­cal sense, as well as in lit­er­ary for­tune. Mailer spent a muggy Christ­mas Day in 1944 aboard an Amer­i­can troop­ship in Hol­lan­dia Bay, in Pa­pua New Guinea. At the same time, Hep­worth was ashore, dodg­ing snipers and wish­ing for a bath.

Both Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Hep­worth’s The Long Green Shore be­gin in the hold of a troop­ship. In Hep­worth’s ac­count, “There is al­ways a stench, a slave smell.’’

Fresh from the war both Mailer and Hep­worth are told by pub­lish­ers that the last thing any­one wishes to read is a book about the war. Mailer per­sists, shop­ping his man­u­script around un­til it finds a will­ing pub­lisher. The Naked and the Dead will go on to oc­cupy a spot on The New York Times best­seller list for nearly a year, and pro­vide the young writer and his new wife with enough money to sail to Paris and live the ex­pat life at a dol­lar a day while at­tend­ing the Sor­bonne on the GI Bill.

Hep­worth, back in Aus­tralia, is less for­tu­nate. He seems to ac­cept the ver­dict of the one pub­lisher he has sent the man­u­script to, Macmil­lan in Lon­don, as the fi­nal word on the mat­ter. He shoves his man­u­script in the drawer, where, ac­cord­ing to Bob El­lis, a friend and col­league of Hep­worth, it will re­main for many decades, un­til its even­tual pub­li­ca­tion by Pi­cador in 1995 _ not long af­ter the au­thor’s death.

In El­lis’s pref­ace to the first edi­tion we learn that the 28-year-old Hep­worth wrote the novel in re­sponse to a lit­er­ary com­pe­ti­tion run by The Syd­ney Morn­ing Herald. (It was highly com­mended in 1949.) It is hard to be­lieve that a com­pe­ti­tion could have pro­vided sin­gu­lar mo­ti­va­tion for such an as­sured de­but.

Fifty years on from the 1948 re­lease of The Naked and the Dead, writ­ing in the pref­ace to the an­niver­sary edi­tion, Mailer de­scribes his novel as the work of an “am­a­teur’’. He also refers to him­self in the third per­son, as I sup­pose one might view one’s cal­low youth from the dis­tance of old age. But as Mailer notes, “the book had vigour. That is the felic­ity of good books by am­a­teurs’’.

Hep­worth’s novel has none of the same de­fects; no lac­ing of nouns with ad­jec­tives, “none of the best­seller style’’ that Mailer charges his own book with. I think it is safe to say that nei­ther novel would have been writ­ten with­out the au­thors’ re­spec­tive war ex­pe­ri­ences. But by tem­per­a­ment and lit­er­ary am­bi­tion the two works fly in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

The am­bi­tion be­hind The Long Green Shore was never to “out-write’’ oth­ers or to launch the au­thor into the lit­er­ary fir­ma­ment. Hep­worth’s project is more mod­est, but no less se­ri­ous for it. His aim was to tran­scribe an ex­pe­ri­ence as truth­fully as pos­si­ble. And per­haps it is true to say of sol­dier-nov­el­ists that they have two au­di­ences: those of us con­tent to read from the arm­chair at home and those they went to war with. The sec­ond au­di­ence is bound to have a chas­ten­ing ef­fect on any ex­u­ber­ance or overeg­ging of the re­al­i­ties of war.

The tone of the young Hep­worth’s prose is en­tirely trust­wor­thy. Un­doubt­edly some se­ri­ous read­ing lies be­hind its un­der­stat­ed­ness. A hard-earned ex­pe­ri­ence tran­scends its lit­er­ary style. Hep­worth’s task is to speak hon­estly about the man­ner of a sol­dier’s death: this of­ten ar­rives with­out any warn­ing, al­though the march along the long green shore might be re­garded as one long re­hearsal for such a mo­ment; at times it is as though death al­ready oc­cu­pies a sol­dier’s soul and he is sim­ply wait- ing on his fi­nal dis­patch. Fear sits dif­fer­ently in soldiers. Hep­worth seems well ac­quainted with its vary­ing thresh­olds and black hu­mour. Whis­per­ing John, one of the older char­ac­ters, snig­gers with sat­is­fac­tion at his good luck to date. “The young blokes crack up and the old sol­dier keeps on go­ing, eh?’’ It is a false boast, as he well knows; his own end is sim­ply fore­stalled.

Now and then the pre­sid­ing eye of the nar­ra­tive takes a step back, such as in the open­ing scene, declar­ing this is no or­di­nary war novel: We sailed that last night through the tail end of a hur­ri­cane sea. We came up and ran naked on the open can­vas square of the bat­tened hatches, stand­ing taut and breath­less against the ec­stasy of clean­li­ness in the driv­ing rain ... There was a spirit of car­ni­val, a revelry of clean­li­ness and naked­ness in the rain, with the combed wind sweep­ing the open deck and voices shout­ing and laugh­ing in the storm while the dark­ened ship plunged through the rolling seas.

Be­tween mo­ments of bar­bar­ity and ba­nal­ity are oc­ca­sions of great beauty, and for much of the time The Long Green Shore is a young sol­dier’s paean to the puz­zling thrill of be­ing alive.

The most en­dur­ing nov­els about World War II turned out to be satir­i­cal — Joseph Heller’s

— and, for cap­tur­ing the vul­gar­ity and ab­sur­dity of war, Kurt Von­negut’s Slaugh­ter­house-Five is in my view with­out peer. The most talked-about war novel in re­cent times is The Yel­low Birds by Kevin Pow­ers, which draws on

Soldiers on pa­trol make their way through dense bush on Karkar Is­land in pur­suit of the Ja­panese dur­ing World War II

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