Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Randall and the River of Time" by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester was the pen name of an English writer, whose real name was the more prosaic Smith. Born in Cairo in 1899, he was educated in England, including an unfinished training as a doctor at Guy's Hospital. He spent the latter part of his life in America, dieing there in 1966.

Forester is of course best known for his series of Hornblower novels, which are rivalled only by the Aubrey / Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brien. Like O'Brien, and perhaps Derek Robinson, he has been consistently under-estimated as a novelist because he chose to set his novels in war-time - though two of his Hornblower books won the James Tait Black prize, and Robinson was short-listed for the Booker.

In Forester's case this is particularly unfortunate since the Hornblower books were only part of his output. He wrote at least 18 other novels, as well as 13 history books (one of which was filmed as Hunt the Bismarck), plays, short stories and children's books. Of the remaining novels the best known are perhaps The African Queen and The Gun, which were both made into films, the latter under the title The Power and the Glory. The former, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, deservedly won Bogart an Oscar, though undeservedly his only one. The latter, starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, and featuring a story-line butchered by Hollywood script writers, deservedly won nothing at all. In fact, it was chiefly notable for an offscreen romance between Loren and Grant, which led to a proposal of marriage from Grant and a rejection from Loren, who married Carlo Ponti a few months later.

Randall and the River of Time is from quite late in Forester's life (1950). The story is simply told. A young officer is the object of an attempted seduction by a brother officer's wife while on leave in England. Later, after the death in battle of her husband, she traps him into marriage and proceeds in due course to cuckold him and steal all his money. The climax is a set-piece courtroom drama, the outcome of which I am certainly not going to divulge. Like all of his books it is notable for his degree of characterisation, an art of which he was perhaps one of the greatest masters amongst modern novelists. Though the story is told through the eyes of the eponymous hero, Forester also makes plentiful use of dramatic irony by showing us things which Randall does not understand but we do. We know, for example, though it is never stated, that his mother disapproves of his wife and sees straight through her. We know too that the wife herself understands this. Yet Randall remains cheerfully oblivious until the facts become shockingly obvious. As for Randall himself, Forester makes us feel that we are truly inside him, sharing all the shyness, bravado and innocence that even several spells in the trenches have not been able to dispel.

Shamefully, Randall and the River of Time seems last to have been published over twenty years ago and is now available only in second hand book shops (I found mine in one such in Tenby), but second hand copies are available on the internet and could presumably also be ordered from your local library. Many others of his books have suffered a similar fate. Given the quality of his writing, which in my view places him the front line of twentieth century novelists, this seems ridiculous. However, he is in good company, a company which includes various Booker prize winners. Once upon a time publishers issued what they believed to be quality literature, rather than recipe and diet books ghosted by so-called celebrities.

Please read not just this book but anything else you can lay your hands on by Forester. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agree entirely. Just finished a second hand copy having read many hornblowers. Once again i had to question why on earth isn't he still read. This could easily have been written by the likes of sebastien faulks or william boyd. Can't fathom why some publisher with his back catalogue doesn't push his books more. For some inexplicable reason the hornblower books have the worst childish covers and seemed to be aimed at cretins. Without Forester there would have been no flashman and certainly no Patrick O' Brian. Hemingway admired him greatly. I feel the same when I pick up all the old eric amblers and wonder why they aren't sitting along the shelf beside le Carre and Greene.