Wednesday, September 23, 2015

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

God, the craziness, the futile insanity of war.  Damn that German cruiser, damn those German gunners, damn them, damn them, damn them!...But why should he?  They, too, were only doing a job--and doing it terribly well.

I don't really read much bestselling mainstream popular fiction, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, that sort of thing.  Maybe P. G, Wodehouse, W. Somerset Maugham and James Dickey (I read Deliverance right before I moved to the Middle West) qualify as mainstream popular fiction, though I like to think of those writers as "literary figures." When I worked at a bookstore in northern New Jersey in the mid-90s all the bestsellers seemed to be either about lawyers and serial killers chasing each other, or knock-offs of Bridges of Madison County.  Those sorts of things do not interest me. What does interest me is British military history, and so the obvious exceptions to my aversion from popular mainstream fiction would be all those Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell I read as a teen, and the 15 or so Aubrey and Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian I read in my thirties.  It was also my interest in British military history that led me to dip my toe again into the mainstream fiction pool this week with a novel by Alistair MacLean, author of The Guns of Navarone.

I never thought about reading anything by Alistair MacLean until, at the Des Moines Salvation Army earlier this month, I stumbled on a crumbling 1957 paperback edition of H.M.S. Ulysses, its cover adorned with a sturm und drang depiction of British sailors manning Oerlikon and pom-pom guns in defense against what I guess are He-111s.  Informed by the advertising text on the first page that Scotsman MacLean actually served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, I decided to read H.M.S. Ulysses in the same spirit in which I read Sapper's No Man's Land, with the presumption that reading fiction about a military campaign by a person who actually served in that very campaign would be worthwhile.  

H.M.S. Ulysses, first published in 1956, starts off with 15 lines from one of those poems everybody likes, Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses," a cool map of the voyage described in the novel, and a cool diagram of the fictional light cruiser on which the novel takes place.  Then we get down to the novel, all 319 pages of it.

H.M.S. Ulysses chronicles the week-long voyage between Scotland and Russia of a convoy bringing to the Soviet Union Canadian-built tanks, fighters, fuel and ammunition for use on the Eastern Front; nearly all scenes take place on the flagship, the light cruiser Ulysses.  MacLean seems to be the kind of writer who deals in superlatives.  Ulysses is the best ship in the world ("She was the first completely equipped radar ship in the world"), with the best captain in the world ("Among naval captains--indeed, among men--he was unique. In his charity, in his humility, Captain Richard Vallery walked alone"), and its crew have been charged with the toughest duty faced by any servicemen anywhere in the world ("The Russian convoys, sir, are something entirely new and quite unique in the experience of mankind.")  Because she is indispensible, Ulysses has been going on more convoy missions than any other ship in the Royal Navy, and under the strain some members of the crew, just before the novel began, staged a little mutiny.  As a result, Ulysses has to redeem itself on its next trip from Scapa Flow to Murmansk.

A theme in military fiction is that those officers superior in the hierarchy to the main characters are stupid and corrupt.  (In fiction in which the main characters are top commanders, it is the politicians above them who are stupid and corrupt.)  I haven't served in the armed services myself, but I suppose it is possible that real military personnel think their superiors are all unethical jerks--everybody I meet in civilian life thinks his or her boss is a corrupt idiot who is running the organization into the ground and doesn't appreciate all the hard work he or she does.

Novels and movies about military men often have a scene in which one of the guys who has been in the trenches doing the real fighting gives a speech to one of the guys who has been maxing and relaxing back at HQ, a speech about how hard the real fighting men have it, and how the jerks in HQ do not appreciate them.  MacLean fits one of those scenes into the very first of the novel's 18 chapters when the ship's doctor yells at the Admiral sent from London to investigate the mutiny.

Military (and police) fiction is also full of scenes in which some officer has to tell somebody his or her spouse or father or brother or whoever got killed in action. MacLean also fits one of those scenes into the first chapter.  Talk about efficiency!

You may recall that I interpreted Sapper, in his book about the Western Front in World War One, to be praising the British soldier, denouncing the German people, and arguing that the rigors of war could have beneficial effects on individuals and societies.  MacLean in H.M.S. Ulysses takes the opposite tack; far from glorifying war, the novel is one grisly horror scene after another.  And it doesn't glorify the British people or their institutions, or condemn Nazi Germany or its citizens, either.  Sure, there are brave and skillful and decent British characters, but there are also evil British characters and British blunderers, and the Germans (who are only ever seen at a distance, from the deck of the Ulysses) are universally depicted as courageous and clever.  In fact, the Germans outwit the British again and again over the course of the book, and if the National Socialist German Worker's Party's genocidal racism and monstrous tyranny are ever mentioned, I missed it.  Instead Maclean tells us that German flying is "magnificent," German gunnery is "fantastic" and the like.

When I started the book I expected the convoy to suffer some losses, of course, but I thought Ulysses and most of the convoy would get to Murmansk and drop off a big shipment of war material to the grateful Bolshies.  Instead, the mission is a disaster! Of 32 ships that left Scotland and the New World, only five get to Russia, and the Ulysses is not among them.  Only a handful of people from the Ulysses, which starts with a crew of over 700, even survive the mission!  This is partly because the sub rosa purpose of the convoy is to lure the German battleship Tirpitz out into the open sea so a Royal Navy battlefleet can attack it, but the Tirpitz doesn't take the bait!  The Ulysses, and with it over two dozen other British, Canadian and American ships, is sunk for nothing!

Four topics fill up the lengthy narrative as the Ulysses and the rest of the convoy travel for 18 chapters through Arctic waters, enroute to Uncle Joe's worker's paradise in the teeth of German resistance.  These topics all reinforce MacLean's themes of the horror and futility of war and redemption through suffering and death.

1) The weather: MacLean spends lots of time talking about how cold it is, how windy it is, how the seas are rough, and how this can incapacitate the ships and the men. Several ships get damaged by storms and sent back to Britain, and people regularly freeze to death or have the skin ripped off their bodies when they touch cold metal.  In Chapter 6 the Allied sailors face the most severe storm in human history!  ("It was the worst storm of the war.  Beyond all doubt, had the records been preserved for Admiralty inspection, that would have proved to be incomparably the greatest storm, the most tremendous convulsion of nature since these recordings began.")  I didn't keep track of how many pages were devoted to the weather, but I felt like maybe the Weather Channel was sponsoring this novel.  Enough with the weather already!

2) The captain is sick: Captain Vallery, the world's finest captain, is always tired, always coughing up blood, etc.  This reminded me of the captain of the Space Battleship Yamato.  Maybe I'm supposed to feel bad because this dude is on his deathbed, but MacLean doesn't make him realistic or interesting enough for me to feel bad; besides, this is the middle of the most devastating war in history, in which are participating two of the most evil regimes in history--people are getting murdered in death camps and blown up in battles all over the place, why should I cry over this particular guy?  Hell, this very book is full of people getting killed in a dozen horrible ways!

Vallery, it turns out, is a Christ figure.  In the middle of the book he staggers through the ship, giving everybody a pep talk that raises their spirits as if magically, and in the end of the book he gives a speech over the PA system and dies a moment later.  Vallery's speech and death energize the British sailors, giving them the strength to fight on and redeem themselves.  I'm not a Christian so I might have missed this if a character on page 318 hadn't thought, "Vallery would have said, 'Do not judge them, for they do not understand.'"  I don't mind when the author makes it easy for us dummies in the audience.

3) Morale and mutiny: The stress faced by the crew, who are, after all, on the most stressful endeavour in human history, leads to trouble.  Most of the trouble is triggered by misbehavior by cruel officers, but there is also a rating, a career criminal, who is the ringleader of the mutinous sailors.

4) Attacks by the Germans: This is why we are reading this book, right?  The human and technological struggle between the RAF and the RN on one side, and the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine on the other, is one of the great dramas of human history!  Since I was a kid I've been fascinated and thrilled by radar, asdic, depth charges, hedgehog, torpedoes, the Hurricane, the Spitfire, the Bf-109, the Wellington, the Bismark, Window, Flak towers, the Dambusters, all that business.  When I read about this stuff I cheer on the British and their allies, and groan when something bad happens to them.  And I never feel any sympathy or guilt when I read about a U-boat being lost with all hands or an entire German city being reduced to ashes--my attitude is, "Take that you bastards!"

(Maybe that is the kind of thing about myself I shouldn't be putting on the internet for all to read.)

Anyway, the attraction of a book like this, for me at least, isn't hearing about the way ice on the deck can overbalance a ship or how some guy is coughing up blood from TB, it is hearing about naval warfare.  I have already suggested that MacLean's project in H.M.S. Ulysses is not to express patriotic sentiments or denounce Nazi Germany and celebrate its destruction, so I was doing a lot more groaning than cheering over the course of this novel.  When it comes to portraying the variety of naval actions experienced by sailors in the Second World War, however, MacLean really delivers--he unleashes on the poor doomed convoy and on us readers just about every type of German attack you can think of.  A midget submarine.  A drifting mine.  Condor reconnaissance planes.  A Hipper-class heavy cruiser.  The "largest concentration of U-boats encountered in the Arctic during the entire course of the war."  Bombers that drop all matter of ordnance: flares, glider bombs, torpedoes, and just garden variety bombs.  The fighting is so prolonged that for the first time in the history of the Arctic convoys the naval vessels run out of depth charges.

The fighting doesn't get that repetitive, because MacLean presents a variety of scenarios, many different problems the British sailors have to try to solve.  They fight in the dark, they fight with radar , they fight without radar, they hide in a smoke screen, they have to figure out what to do when a burning oil tanker is illuminating the convoy, etc.  

There are over thirty ships in the Allied convoy when it gets underway, crewed by thousands of sailors, and MacLean describes in graphic detail all the horrible things that can happen to them, all the different ways a ship can be crippled, sink or explode, and all the horrible ways people can be burned up or drowned or frozen to death or blown to pieces.  MacLean's dwells on the horror of war: the horror of men floating on the surface of the icy ocean amid a burning oil slick or paddling for their lives away from the murderous propellers of an approaching ship, and the horror of the men on intact ships who have to watch helplessly as these men, in their hundreds, perish.  We hear all about people being burned to skeletons, frozen solid, blasted to shreds, shot full of holes.  There are lots of mistakes and friendly fire incidents, and plenty of euthanasia, and lots of guilt-ridden men who commit suicide or sacrifice themselves to assuage their guilt.  Several ships and airplanes are destroyed crashing directly into enemy vessels, so that the bodies of Allied and German servicemen are intermingled.

Did I enjoy this novel?  Can I recommend it?

On the one hand I was surprised that the mission described in the novel was a tragic disaster instead of a triumph for justice and democracy.  Even though I was a little disappointed, I have to admire a book that holds genuine surprises.  We are used to adventure stories that start with some guy saying "It's a suicide mission!" and end with our heroes coming home safe after accomplishing the mission, so it was interesting to have a story in which the characters go on a suicide mission and it turns out to really be suicidal.

I learned some things I hadn't known about Royal Navy vessels: for example, I had never even head of the Kent screen, and I also had not know the Boulton Paul gun turret was mounted on ships.  That was good.  Hearing about the multitude of ways things can go wrong on a ship was also interesting.

On the other hand, there are some problems with the book.  It is too long, for one thing.  How many pages of weather do we need?  And how many guys who sacrifice themselves?  This happens again and again.  There are also so many characters and so many ships that it is not easy to keep track of them, and MacLean will not talk about some of them for a hundred pages, then they suddenly take center stage while they are getting killed.  It is hard to care about people you've never really been introduced to until they are getting immolated or disintegrated just like a bunch of other guys did a few pages ago.  This reminded me a little of the Iliad.  It's been a long time since I read the Iliad, but I seem to recall guys we never heard of before getting extravagant death scenes in which Homer laments that they will never see their wives or participate in their favorite hobbies again.

Another of the problems with H.M.S. Ulysses is that MacLean doesn't let you decide, and doesn't require you to figure out, how to feel about the characters; he tells you how to feel about them on the first page you meet them.  Captain Vallery is a unique man, an authority on music and literature who is deeply religious, hates war, volunteered to come out of retirement the first day of the war, but never brags about any of this (we readers know he is the best thing since sliced hard tack because of the omniscient narrator.)  Sublieutenant Carslake "was the quintessence of the worst by-product of the English public-school system....he was a complete ass."  Chief Petty Officer Hartley "was the Royal Navy at its best."  The mutinous stoker Riley "had at a very early age, indeed, decided upon a career of crime...his intelligence barely cleared the moron level."          

In my last blog post I talked about Mikhail Lermontov's novella "Princess Mary." Because "Princess Mary" has a first-person narrator who is deserving of skepticism, and all the characters act irrationally and are driven by their emotions, we have to figure out how to feel about every character based on their words or actions and our own moral and ethical sensibilities.  This generates a level of mystery and tension for the reader, and forces the reader to think, and means different readers will have different reactions to the novella, some identifying with or sympathizing with characters that other readers might condemn or dismiss out of hand.  The characters in "Princess Mary" also change as the story progresses, which may force readers to rethink their earlier assessments.

H.M.S. Ulysses lacks that mystery and tension, and does not provide the reader space to think and decide, because MacLean tells you immediately how to feel about each character.  With a minor exception, I don't think the characters in MacLean's novel evolve, either.  

Despite these problems, its vivid depiction of the world of the Arctic convoys, its gruesome catalog of horrors and the wide variety of naval engagements it presents make reading H.M.S. Ulysses a worthwhile experience.  Fans of military and nautical fiction, especially fiction that eschews patriotism, unrealistic heroics and happy endings, should check it out.


The final three pages of my edition of  H.M.S. Ulysses contain ads.  Two indicate that the people at Permabooks expected MacLean's novel to appeal to history buffs.  I often see the advertised hardcover American Heritage volumes in used bookstores and antique stores.

If I'm going to read Veus Eruopesnl or Olnuzle,
I'd prefer to read the original unabridged texts
The third ad is for Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  My mother's mother, whom we kids called "Nana" and whom we saw often (multiple times a week before I started school, then every weekend when I was older) had a bunch of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and piles and piles of the Reader's Digest magazine.  (The magazine is actually mentioned in passing in H.M.S. Ulysses.)  I would often look at the pictures in the books and magazines, and read the little jokes in the magazines, but I don't think I found them very funny (perhaps just because I was too young to get the jokes.)

I do find something funny about this ad-- the drawing that accompanies it. For whatever reason, the people that put the ad together decided, instead of showcasing one of their most popular or exciting volumes, bursting with real life bestsellers, to include a picture of a book so generic that the titles on the spine are not real, and in fact are not even real English words.  I'm not even sure all the characters are real English letters!  A strange choice whose rationale I am unable to conjecture.

1 comment:

  1. Cool review! never thought someone could lighten the tone of such a heavy book, and yea you're absolutely right, it is looonnnnggggg......but maybe the author was trying to recreate the actual feel of those 7 days that felt like eternity, and led them to it...