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Book Title: The Cruel Sea|
The author of the book: Nicholas Monsarrat
ISBN 13: 9780304347919
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 785 KB
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Reader ratings: 5.9
Date of issue: 1951
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“[T]hat was the way the war was going; the individual had to retreat or submerge, the simple unfeeling pair of hands must come to the fore. The emphasis was now on the tireless machine of war; men were parts of this machine, and so they must remain, till they fulfilled their function or wore out. If, in the process, they did wear out, it was bad luck on the men – but not bad luck on the war, which had had its money’s worth out of them. The hateful struggle, to be effective, demanded one hundred percent from many millions of individual people; death was in this category of demand, and, lower down the list, the cancellation of humanity was an essential element of the total price.”
- Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea
The Cruel Sea is the greatest war novel of all time.
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me say that The Cruel Sea is not the greatest war novel of all time.
How can it be? There’s too many classics to choose from. Antiwar masterpieces like All Quiet on the Western Front and Fear. Literary opuses such as The Naked and the Dead and The Thin Red Line. Big, operatic epics like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Once you start listing them, it’s hard to stop. Catch 22. The Things They Carried. The Red Badge of Courage. Even War and Peace can be classified here. A lot of great literature exists in this genre.
It’s impossible to choose the best. The Cruel Sea, however, deserves to stand among the best. It deserves an audience.
The Cruel Sea was recommended to me (h/t Bevan) after I finished reading Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Part of the reason I loved The Caine Mutiny was its sense of authenticity. In its minutely detailed depiction of life aboard a rusting old minesweeper, I felt like Wouk had created something real. That is certainly the case here. Monsarrat served in the Royal Navy during World War II, and has a grasp of all the granular details of life aboard ship. The particularity is mesmerizing.
The Cruel Sea tells the story of a corvette called the HMS Compass Rose. A corvette was a small warship tasked with escorting convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. It was an extremely dangerous job – at one point, the U-Boats almost strangled Great Britain – and it came with little glory. Monsarrat follows the Compass Rose and her crew as they head out to sea to battle Nazi U-Boats and storms and fatigue and boredom and tension. The Cruel Sea is divided into seven chapters, one for each year of Great Britain’s war. The first chapter is set in 1939, the last in 1945, giving it an ambitious scope. (The Cruel Sea weighs in at 510 pages; the last couple chapters, covering the period when the Allies had practically won the war, are far shorter than earlier ones).
The thing that separates The Cruel Sea from other war novels is its inspired specificity. The Compass Rose is a small ship, and you get to know every inch of her. She has a very particular job, and you get to understand every bit of it. There are no panoramic scenes of splendid battle; there is not an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with a sneaky U-Boat captain, ala The Enemy Below. Instead, The Cruel Sea demonstrates that a lot of war is drudgery, it is waiting for something to happen, it is being afraid. There are some big set pieces, but those are few and far between. Most of the time, the Compass Rose is on the periphery of the action. A witness as often as a participant. The men aboard her are trying to do their jobs, not wrestling with the larger, existential implications of warfare. This feels accurate. It creates an overall sensation of verisimilitude.
To tell this tale, Monsarrat utilizes an omniscient third-person narrator, reminiscent of Len Deighton’s Bomber (another great and underrated war novel). It is a godlike point of view that allows him to give us the perspective and thoughts of each and every character. I found the tone to be utterly fascinating. The narrative feels like the observations of a god who can see everything at once, but cannot intervene. The writing is dispassionate, but not indifferent. Monsarrat is able to create incredible emotional force by remaining a bit detached, by describing what is happening without directing you how to feel.
Monsarrat’s characterizations are excellent. The men aboard the Compass Rose are drawn with incredible precision. There are simply too many for Monsarrat to create deep psychological portraits. However, he is able to give each man enough personality and back-story to make him memorable. The two leading actors are Ericson, the commander, and his chief subordinate, Lockhart. Ericson is the veteran, who knows what must be done and struggles with the weight of his responsibility. Lockhart is the newcomer who must learn or die. The burgeoning father-son, mentor-mentee relationship between these two is a central dramatic concern. But by no means is it the only one. The sprawling cast list encompasses men (and a few women) of every rank and rating, giving us a variety of viewpoints on the war. There are competent men, and incompetent men; brave men and cowards; good guys and jerks. Monsarrat is incredibly compassionate towards them all, as he watches them work and struggle and sometimes die. Even though the narrator keeps a certain emotional distance, a powerful intimacy is created by sheer dint of the fact that the narrator is all-knowing. Death comes to many, and it is a testament to the efficacy of this style that these moments were quietly powerful.
The Cruel Sea is not overly graphic or gratuitous. There is little cursing. There are no depictions of sexual activity. (Though women on shore cuckolding their men is a persistent leitmotif). There is violence, to be sure, but it is not fetishized. Rather than appealing to our baser interests in sex and bloodshed (which, frankly, is usually what I’m looking for), Monsarrat delivers the goods by punctuating the doldrums of convoy duty with wonderful vignettes.
There is, for instance, a surface battle with a submarine:
The water sluiced and poured from [the sub’s] casings as she rose: great bubbles burst round her conning tower: gouts of oil spread outward from the crushed plating amidships. “Open fire!” shouted Ericson – and for a few moments it was Baker’s chance, and his alone: the two-pounder pom-pom, set just behind the funnel, was the only gun that could be brought to bear. The staccato force of its firing shook the still air, and with a noise and a chain of shock like the punch! punch! punch! of a trip-hammer the red glowing tracer shells began to chase each other low across the water toward the U-boat…
There is also a moment when the Compass Rose discovers a lifeboat floating alone on the sea, a single dead man inside, sitting at the rudder:
The man must have been dead for many days: the bare feet splayed on the floorboards were paper-thin, the hand gripping the tiller was not much more than a claw. The eyes that had seemed to stare so boldly ahead were empty sockets – some sea-bird’s plunder: the face was burnt black by a hundred suns, pinched and shriveled by a hundred bitter nights. The boat had no compass, and no chart: the water barrel was empty, and yawning at the seams. It was impossible to guess how long he had been sailing on that senseless voyage – alone, hopeful in death as in life, but steering directly away from land, which was already a thousand miles astern.
And there is a scene aboard a torpedoed ship, with men trapped below:
[A] few, lucky or unlucky, had raced or crawled for the door, to find it warped and buckled by the explosion, and hopelessly jammed. There was no other way out, except the gaping hole through which the water was now bursting in a broad and furious jet. The shambles that followed were mercifully brief; but until the water quenched the last screams and uncurled the last clawing hands, it was…a paroxysm of despair, terror, and convulsive violence, all in full and dreadful flood, an extreme corner of the human zoo for which there should be no witnesses.
Monsarrat does not make any explicit attempt at universality. He does not try to extrapolate the experiences of the men of the Compass Rose. He cannot, really, since their actual experiences are very specific to themselves and their duties. And yet, by focusing so tightly on this core group, and in refusing to abandon that focus, The Cruel Sea acquires a kind of organic universality without any conscious effort at all. Monsarrat doesn’t have to lecture on the waste, wantonness, and exhaustion of war, because he’s been showing it to you all along.
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Read information about the authorBorn on Rodney Street in Liverpool, Monsarrat was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge. He intended to practise law. The law failed to inspire him, however, and he turned instead to writing, moving to London and supporting himself as a freelance writer for newspapers while writing four novels and a play in the space of five years (1934–1939). He later commented in his autobiography that the 1931 Invergordon Naval Mutiny influenced his interest in politics and social and economic issues after college.
Though a pacifist, Monsarrat served in World War II, first as a member of an ambulance brigade and then as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). His lifelong love of sailing made him a capable naval officer, and he served with distinction in a series of small warships assigned to escort convoys and protect them from enemy attack. Monsarrat ended the war as commander of a frigate, and drew on his wartime experience in his postwar sea stories. During his wartime service, Monsarrat claimed to have seen the ghost ship Flying Dutchman while sailing the Pacific, near the location where the young King George V had seen her in 1881.
Resigning his wartime commission in 1946, Monsarrat entered the diplomatic service. He was posted at first to Johannesburg, South Africa and then, in 1953, to Ottawa, Canada. He turned to writing full-time in 1959, settling first on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, and later on the Mediterranean island of Gozo (Malta).
Monsarrat's first three novels, published in 1934–1937 and now out of print, were realistic treatments of modern social problems informed by his leftist politics. His fourth novel and first major work, This Is The Schoolroom, took a different approach. The story of a young, idealistic, aspiring writer coming to grips with the "real world" for the first time, it is at least partly autobiographical.
The Cruel Sea (1951), Monsarrat's first postwar novel, is widely regarded as his finest work, and is the only one of his novels that is still widely read. Based on his own wartime service, it followed the young naval officer Keith Lockhart through a series of postings in corvettes and frigates. It was one of the first novels to depict life aboard the vital, but unglamorous, "small ships" of World War II—ships for which the sea was as much a threat as the Germans. Monsarrat's short-story collections H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1949), and The Ship That Died of Shame (1959) mined the same literary vein, and gained popularity by association with The Cruel Sea.
The similar Three Corvettes (1945 and 1953) comprising H.M. Corvette (set aboard a Flower class corvette in the North Atlantic), East Coast Corvette (as First Lieutenant of HMS Guillemot) and Corvette Command (as Commanding Officer of HMS Shearwater) is actually an anthology of three true-experience stories he published during the war years and shows appropriate care for what the Censor might say. Thus Guillemot appears under the pseudonym Dipper and Shearwater under the pseudonym Winger in the book. H.M. Frigate is similar but deals with his time in command of two frigates. His use of the name Dipper could allude to his formative years when summer holidays were spent with his family at Trearddur Bay. They were members of the famous sailing club based there, and he recounted much of this part of his life in a book My brother Denys. Denys Monserrat was killed in Egypt during the middle part of the war whilst his brother was serving with the Royal Navy. Another tale recounts his bringing his ship into Trearddur Bay during the war for old times' sake.
Monsarrat's more famous novels, notably The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956) and its sequel Richer Than All His Tribe (1968), drew on his experience in the diplomatic service and make important reference to the colonial experience of Britain in Africa.
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