They say you should never go back. Never revisit old haunts or imagine that you could rekindle the flames of a past love. They won’t be the same and as we all know the past is a foreign country. Does the same apply to books? Is it safe to re-read something that was a favourite over 40 years ago but you haven’t read since?
I read a lot of Alistair MacLean when I was a teenager. I couldn’t get enough of them, though even in my youth I think I recognised that his novels became increasingly formulaic. They were fun for a holiday read, and some of them made great movies of course, but that was all and I rarely read any of them more than once. The one major exception to this was his first novel, HMS Ulysses, which tells the story of an Arctic convoy taking arms and supplies to Murmansk and was based on MacLean’s own wartime experiences.
As a boy I adored the book, so it was with some trepidation that I recently bought a copy and read it for the first time since…well, let’s just say many years. My main reason was research. In my current WIP, which is set a few years after the war, a central character had served in the Arctic convoys, but I was also curious as to whether the book would live up to my memory of it. And does it? The short answer is yes, but perhaps with a couple of caveats.
The Cruel Sea may be more famous, if only because of the film, and is perhaps more literary, but MacLean is ruthless in giving us the horrors of serving in the Arctic convoys. There are countless examples but none more terrible than when Captain Vallery has to take the Ulysses directly through a patch of sea that is full of survivors from a ship that has just been torpedoed. The fact that he is giving them a mercifully quick death is scant consolation either to him or the reader. There is no light in the novel, and any humour is definitely of the gallows-kind. By the end of the book the Ulysses has been sunk and all but one of the central characters are dead. Reading HMS Ulysses now, with a more writerly eye, I can see that it is unusual in many ways. At times it reads almost like non-fiction (there are even a few footnotes!) and I struggle to see any of the structural forms that we are told a good novel should have: Where is the three act structure? Where is the inciting incident? Occasionally the handling of point of view is not quite as clear as it could be. But this just serves to remind us that rules are only there to be broken, at least when it is right to do so. Instead we follow the progressive disasters that befall the Ulysses and the response of the crew to them, which is told with a sympathetic eye but without sentimentality.
Perhaps some of the minor characters are a little two-dimensional, and there’s a fair bit of nautical jargon that a modern reader either has to look up or simply gloss over, but its central theme of duty, loyalty and service – not to the country or any political ideology, but to each other as human beings – rings loud and clear. So, yes, my affection for what is a remarkable novel remains strong.
Which is a relief.