Kindling by Nevil Shute ~ 1938. Original British title: Ruined City. This American edition: Lancer, 1967. Paperback. 319 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
I’m starting to fall out of the routine of posting, what with springtime’s long days and the utter luxury of being able to spend long hours out in the garden. The sabbatical year is going well, aside from the anticipated pinch of much less cash flow.
(For those of you who don’t know my back story, I generally operate a small specialty plant nursery and this year have shut up shop in order to refocus and take care of some outstanding personal farm and garden jobs which can only be properly tackled in the spring. I’m starting to think two years off might be even better, as there is no way I’ll get everything on The List finished this time round…)
Well, I’ve still been reading, though at a slower rate, and mostly in bed at night, so I notice I’ve been gravitating towards slighter novels, the kind one can finish off in an evening or two. No complicated sagas in the springtime! The brain is much too full of other stuff to make sense of anything too challenging.
Which makes Nevil Shute quite a good choice, as one can’t call books such as this last read, Kindling, at all complex. If anything, it was a bit too simplified, and I found myself occasionally annoyed at how briefly the author touched on some major plot developments, and how he introduced some promising characters and then dropped them cold, never to be seen again.
It is the mid-1930s, in England, and the long agony of the worldwide financial depression is grinding away at the status quo. It has even started affecting the very wealthy business class, who are, by and large, dealing fairly well with the money market difficulties, though those lower in the hierarchy are losing their grip.
Competently keeping his feet at the top of a shifting pile of lesser men, we have the successful, middle-aged merchant banker, Henry Warren, who deftly keeps in order a whole puppet show of various enterprises, handling staid English investors and dramatic Balkan politicians with absolutely level-headed aplomb. This involves frequent long nights in London, and many trips abroad, and Henry seems never to be home at the same time his wife is, what with the two of them leading fully separate lives and only meeting infrequently when their respective circles of activity brush against each other.
Serious problems are brewing, and not only on the home front, though things there have imploded with a sullen bang. Mrs. Warren has become romantically involved with a wealthy Arab sheik, and the gossip has surpassed the whisper stage. Henry is reluctantly forced to take notice, especially when he finds himself staying at the same French hotel as his wife and her lover. A divorce is the inevitable solution, after Henry’s ultimatum of a new sort of arrangement of reduced jet-setting and poshly-cushioned rural solitude for his wife is spiritedly rejected.
Henry sets his lawyers to work getting his divorce tidied up, and goes back to his wheeling and dealing, pausing only briefly to mull over the reasons behind the failure of his marriage. The major thing being, he concludes, that his wife’s financial independence has made it too easy for her to neglect the homemaking aspect of things. When a wife is dependent upon her husband financially, Henry muses, she has much more incentive to dedicate herself to her job, which is the home and family, while the husband’s half of the deal is to provide the money and the house.
He always felt helpless in his dealings with Elise. In most marriages, he thought, the economic tie must make things easier: the wife had her job for which she drew her pay; she could not lightly give it up. Both husband and wife then had to work, he in the office and she in the home. With Elise it was different. She had her own money – plenty of it; a dissolution of their marriage would mean no material loss to her, no unavoidable discomfort. She was not dependent on her job for her security, therefore she took it lightly…
But though he seems to recover quite quickly from the shock of the failure of his marriage, Henry Warren is riding for a fall. His overworked physique is about to let him down, and when it does, it is in quite an unexpected way. Henry ends up an incoherent patient in an overcrowded hospital in a depressed small city which has lost its only industry, that of a shipyard, some five years before. He is assumed to be an indigent wanderer, and, once he has recovered from abdominal surgery, he plays along with the charade, for he has become interested in how desperate the straits are of an entire community of unemployed men, and of how the progression of their loss of hope has affected them and their families.
If only one could bring back industry to the town, he muses…
What follows is a description of how Henry Warren manages to arrange financing to reopen the shipyard, which requires some intricate and not-quite-above-board dealings with the afore-mentioned Balkan politicians, and some at-home clever negotiations to bring some British investors into the deal.
But Henry has let his emotion in this case override his common sense, and has resorted, for the very first time in his financial career, to some shady practices which won’t stand up to investigation. And he has inadvertently made an enemy, who is in possession of a damning set of documents…
Of course there is a love interest, this time a properly womanly woman, the utter opposite of the ex-Mrs. Warren, who has departed the scene to live with her “black” paramour.
One of the sticky bits in this novel, even greater than the casual sexism, was the offhand racism exhibited throughout. The Arab lover is referred quite commonly as being “black”, and “a n*gger”, and Henry notes the “swarthiness” and the “olive texture” of Prince Ali Said’s skin, which “darkens to brown” – one would assume with a hidden blush? – when Henry lightly insults him. And the Jews in Henry’s circle get much the same treatment, though here and there one is given the nod as a “good man” despite his Jewishness and the associated stereotypes of appearance and behaviour this implies.
This aspect of Shute’s writing, even given its “era expectedness”, was a hurdle I had to crawl labouriously over, but once I made up my mind to go on, I found myself quite taken up in the story of Henry Warren’s new obsession, that of the rehabilitation of a town and its population. Henry puts the philanthropic desires of his heart before the sensible qualms of his brain, and in stepping out of bounds in a completely uncharacteristic way, makes himself an unlikely hero.
I mostly bought into it, and though the author’s philosophical soapbox was evident throughout, he told an engaging enough tale that I was held until it was all told out. Not much in the way of nuances here; we are told throughout exactly how we are expected to react and think, and I found myself meekly following Shute’s direction, though I gave myself a little shake when it was all over, to get myself tuned back in to the here-and-now.
I think “vintage” is an apt summation of the experience as a whole. The details of the financial planning are rather intriguing, being based on Nevil Shute’s own involvement in establishing a pre-war aircraft factory, which was, after many set-backs, successful.
One final note, and this on the cover. The story is set in the 1930s, and there are no passionate embraces with lightly clad women within. Henry Warren’s post-marital love affair is carried out with the strictest decorum, and though he does associate with an exotic Corsican dancer during some of his Balkan scheming, that relationship is apparently quite platonic. So the cover art is mostly imaginary, and obviously designed to catch the eye of the jaded businessman, who is (I suspect) the intended audience for Shute’s masculine romances.