It’s weeks into 2007 already, and I don’t really know what I’m going to read this year.
Ronald Knox, maybe. He died fifty years ago, on August 24, 1957, and the coming months should see their share of anniversary revivals of his writing. I’ve never quite known what to make of Knox. There’s no doubt he did some significant work, notably his single-handed translation of the Bible. His apologetical and explanatory works, such as The Mass in Slow Motion , are first-rate. His detective fiction is fun¯probably at its best in the two short stories¯and his essays and letters are always charming.
And yet, charming is an odd, limiting kind of word. I always have the feeling, reading Ronald Knox, that he had the power to be something more than what he was. Make no mistake: His accomplishments are great, and most of humankind would be proud to have achieved them. But each of them has always felt to me, somehow, like a great literary and intellectual power flitting from one minor or eccentric topic to another, without ever quite finding its proper task.
Maybe I’m wrong. His niece, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, wrote a fine biography of Knox and his brothers , and it’s worth reading again this anniversary year. Evelyn Waugh wrote of him , as well. Most of his detective novels are out of print¯I tried, a few years ago, to bring them back and found out that the copyright holders want a fortune for reprinting them¯but if you can find copies, they too may be worth a second chance.
This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach . One can hardly say that Shute has disappeared. Many of his books are still in print; film versions of Lonely Road , Pied Piper , and No Highway are still accessible; and plenty of viewers remember the 1980s television miniseries of A Town Like Alice . Still, Shute himself seems to have faded since his death in 1960, just before his sixty-first birthday, and it might be worth remembering him this year.
Has anyone done a taxonomy of the middle-brow conservative British novelists of the twentieth century? They were surprisingly popular, from Ian Fleming on down. James Hilton is probably¯no, certainly¯the best of them; if you haven’t read his Random Harvest , you should give it a try.
But Nevil Shute was good as well. On the Beach , a post-apocalypse story of people in Australia waiting for the radioactive fallout that has destroyed the rest of the world to reach them, is not entirely typical of his work¯and the 1959 movie version played up the atypical elements. Shute was an aeronautical engineer by training, and his fiction is usually about a kind of engineer’s morality: the origins of virtue in hard work, attention to detail, commitment to a task, and, generally, a desire to see the job through. That’s far from the sum of human ethics, of course, but it’s admirable in its small, precise way, and Shute’s books¯ Round the Bend , Ruined City , Trustee from the Toolroom , A Town Like Alice ¯are well worth reading again this year.