Some weeks ago I was in a used-book store – the only one surviving here in the metropolis of Hickory, NC – and the cover of a book caught my eye. The book itself was the memoir of a U-boat commander, but what caught my eye was the advertisement of a foreword by Nicholas Monsarrat.
Nicholas Monsarrat, as a young man, served as an officer of the Royal Navy during World War II, eventually commanding a frigate in the North Atlantic. He wrote a novel about it, titled The Cruel Sea, which was also the first of many books by Monsarrat that I read. Seeing his name made me think it would be interesting to reread The Cruel Sea, since I lost my copy in a move twenty years ago.
Alas, the used-book store didn’t have it. That was disappointing but not surprising. You don’t go to a used-book store for consistency, you go for the delightful surprise, now as much as forty years ago.
It also didn’t surprise me that Barnes & Noble (the only surviving big-box bookstore in my aforementioned metropolis of residence) didn’t have it. They have Hemingway, and occasionally such former lights of the literary scene as C.S. Forester or Robert A. Heinlein, but not The Cruel Sea nor anything else by Monsarrat, a man who enjoyed enormous success as a writer for three decades.
What did surprise me was that, although some few of Monsarrat’s books are available on Kindle, those few did not include The Cruel Sea.
I still remember taking home The Cruel Sea, and opening the first page. One of the things I love most about reading is how one can be in a different time or place, or even a different world, when one opens a book. That experience is what Monsarrat delivered. I spent the next few days aboard HM Corvette Compass Rose and HM Frigate Saltash. I learned something of why the sea is cruel, and men more cruel still. I learned about the convoy war in the North Atlantic, not as broad sweeping history, but from a skilled writer who was an eyewitness and distilled his experience into a message I haven’t forgotten to this day.
In subsequent years I took other voyages with Monsarrat. Not only did I learn why the sea was cruel, but I learned about policing in British Colonial Africa in The Tribe That Lost Its Head, and how a ship (well, a motor torpedo boat) could die of shame, of how a Kappillan of Malta led and comforted his people in time of war, and, finally, sorrowfully, of a Master Mariner who lived for centuries, only to see the lights go out on Nelson’s flagship after Trafalgar. That master mariner was supposed to sail on after Trafalgar, but Monsarrat died before he could complete the tale.
Mark Twain once wrote that if a writer is remembered more than 50 years after his death he’s a great writer indeed, and there may be some truth in that. Homer’s prose has endured for millennia, partly because The Iliad and The Odyssey are good stories, and partly, one suspects, because they provided accessible examples for generations of school-children to learn the Greek language. Would we know Homer today if it weren’t for the latter reason? Possibly; but we cannot be sure of what makes any given body of work endure, or even to exist in the first place. The process of writing requires time, and leisure time was hard to come by for most humans throughout the great majority of human history. It could also be that in any time there are few writers like Shakespeare, whose works are good enough to appeal and so create a market where preserving their work is profitable. Good enough, one might point out, to be printed and read in times when printing was a relatively expensive process,and books accordingly dear and so inaccessible to many even among the relatively educated.
So perhaps in this digital era when publishing is accessible to anyone who cares to make the relatively modest effort required to do so, the observable fact that writers come and go on an even shorter scale than a half-century should not surprise us.
But it is less than a half-century since Monsarrat died in 1981. As far as I can tell I was not the only one to think Monsarrat talented and worth reading. Perhaps not a Homer, nor yet a Shakespeare, even though both writers, apart from the demi-god status posterity has conferred upon them, might find Monsarrat a worthy colleague.
According to Wikipedia, The Cruel Sea is the only one of Monsarrat’s many novels that is still widely read. Perhaps; but if so you would never know from how hard it is to find. Doubtless there are a variety of reasons for that, but for me, I’d like to stand once more on the deck of Compass Rose in the freezing North Atlantic, or the sunnier route to Gibraltar, and see what insights age and experience bring to the reading.