A couple of years ago, Richard Taylor – or, maybe, Tracy, or, probably, both – recommended that I read Philip Roth's American Pastoral. It just seemed slow. The plot sort of fluttered around, like a moth around a light. Yes, there were passages that were like a flash going off in a dark room; illuminating a moment, a scene, that perfectly caught the sixty's disintegration, but it wasn't a moment belonging to my generation – more my parent's generation – and I couldn't warm up to it. Not liking a book recommended by two people whose judgment I respect and I usually agree with – although, I suspect, I am much more low brow in my tastes than they are – is disconcerting. Even more so when the book wins the Pulitzer Prize and is on almost everybody's list of great American novels. Still, as much as I wanted to like it, I didn't.
Eventually, I learned to live with the disappointment.
A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Santos gave me a copy of Nevil Shute's Pastoral. Shute had the common decency to put, across from the front page – PASTORAL, n. A poem which describes the scenery and life of the country. (mus.) a simple melody. As I read Shute's Pastoral, the lights slowly came on.
Both books are describing the scenery and life of their time. Some physical scenery, but more emotional scenery. And the description in both books is much softer and simpler than the actual, horrific events that are taking place. The horrific events are the background to the simple, everyday actions of the protagonists. Like falling in love or being overwhelmed by despair.
Shute's pastoral takes place on a RAF bomber station in England during the early part of World War II. It is a love story between a young pilot and an W.A.A.F officer. It is a soft – I can't find a better word – story of hope in a world of horror. The hope is bright; the horror dim. For example:
She got a letter from him punctually by the first post on Tuesday morning, and read it in the privacy of her room. She answered it on Tuesday afternoon, when she was supposed to be resting for the coming operation, which was Düsseldorf. She spent the night on duty out at the group W/T station. That night twenty two machines left Hartley Magna. Sixteen came back, one landed in Essex, the crew of one bailed out near Guildford, and four failed to return altogether.
Roth's pastoral takes place in New Jersey as the post war generation's world starts to fall apart. It is a world that the hero, Swede Levov, a second generation secular Jew, thought had been made safe by America's prosperity and the orderliness of his life. But the hope of the young lovers has been obliterated and Swede had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no
sense. He carefully learned the rules only to find out that The old system that made order doesn't work anymore. All that was left
was his fear and astonishment, but now concealed by nothing.
The books are strangely complimentary, although strangely might not be the right word, because it is hard to believe that
Roth didn't know about Shute's Pastoral when he wrote his American
Pastoral. Together, the two books are terrific.Hell, American Pastoral by itself is terrific.