Wednesday, August 04, 2010

37. H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

I respect Alistair Maclean, but I am not a huge fan. I always find his books a bit too realistic and straightforward, dealing often with espionage and management rather than the slightly over the top manly action that you get with a Desmond Bagley or Duncan Kyle. That is my impression anyhow, as I have never actually read any of his books until this one, which I picked up because it was just such a beautiful book and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea gave me a real taste for good WWII naval books.

Actually, Ulysses is very similar to the Cruel Sea, except that it details a single voyage, rather than a series. The Ulysses is the lead destroyer escorting a fleet of merchant ships from Scapa Flow to Russia at the height of the Nazi command of the sea. It is a brutal tale of attrition. The moment they get out into the open sea, they are battered by a harrowing winter storm. And from there it only gets worse, with constant Nazi sub and air attacks. The boat is sort of doomed from the start, as it suffered a mild mutiny and was forced out on this trip without rest as a punishment. So the men are already past the breaking point, except for the profound decency of their captain Valleray who holds them together and even manages to inspire them when they are at their lowest point.

If there can be said to be any kind of narrative in the book, beyond the voyage itself, the captain's role is probably it. But this book is more of a long series of anecdotes, giving us insight into the men at all levels of the ship. At times I lost track a bit of who was who and was even more lost by some of the nautical terms. But if it made it a less enjoyable read, I don't know, because I was just caught up in the brutal desperation of it all. War is hell and reading about life on those boats really brought it home. Just the constant cold (and really cold, making a Montreal winter look mellow) and total lack of sleep is hellish enough, let alone all the horror of war they had to face. I was reading this book during some uncomfortably humid moments here in Montreal and it really helped me to put the discomfort of the heat in perspective.

This is Maclean's first book and considered in some circles a classic tale of the merchant fleets in the North Sea during the Second World War. If that is of interest to you, then you should definitely read this book.

I also found some very cool historical flotsam among the pages, which gives some clues as to its history. It was in such good condition, I wonder if it had been purchased and not read or perhaps only read once?

You really need to click on the bookmark to see the bigger image of it. I guess it was a chain of bookstores in Montreal back in the 60s. [edit: a bit of research showed me that Classic Bookshops got bought up by W.H Smith which was then bought up by Chapters.) I love the cool 60s design, with the fingerprint. You can see the designer's name, Alan Harrison, in the upper left hand corner. I wonder what happens if I google him...

Judging by the receipt, the book was purchased at the airport, perhaps someone on their way back from a trip? (I bought the book at used bookstore here in Montreal). It was purchased weeks after I was born, along with what could be two other books. I wonder what they were?

Finally, there is a neat insert advertisement for a mortgage showing the classic 50s/60s suburban dream home.


mybillcrider said...

Try The Black Shrike, Fear is the Key, Night without End, Ice Station Zebra, The Secret Ways, The Golden Rendezvous, The Satan Bug, etc. Great stuff.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

I love it when books come with little inserts in them. I bought a Patricia Highsmith book recently that had a newspaper clipping in it about feminist writers; either that or it was kept for the story on the other side about house prices.

You mentioned Duncan Kyle, who I've been meaning to check out for a while. Any recommendations for his stuff?

OlmanFeelyus said...

@Bill, thanks for the recommendations. I think that Ice Station Zebra may even have been required reading for Grade 9 english, but my class never got to it! I'll give some of those a try.

@your Majesty I quite enjoyed Black Camelot