Soldier’s simple tale of survival
Lloyd Jones welcomes the reissue of a no-nonsense Australian war novel that compares with the best
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