Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Flesh and the Spirit!

Our book today is The Flesh and the Spirit, the best-selling 1952 WWII novel by Charles Shaw that was later adapted into the hit 1957 movie starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. That movie was called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which is a long mile better title than The Flesh and the Spirit, but then, movie producers know catchy.

The book is excellent from start to finish (that isn't a journey - the thing's not even 200 pages), and it shouldn't be. Dramatically speaking, it does virtually everything wrong. First there's the set-up, as trite and hackneyed as any could be: it's wartime, and Hank Allison, a grunt of an unlearned marine, has been stranded on a South Sea island after a Japanese attack on his ship. On the island he finds a pretty young woman who's also stranded there - and she's a Roman Catholic nun! D'oh!

Mr. Allison and Sister Angela are trapped on the island behind enemy lines - Japanese planes continually site and strafe the place, and Japanese soldiers eventually take up residence, forcing our pair into hiding in the jungle hills. And that's it as far as the gross tonnage of plot goes: the pair hide from the Japanese until they're eventually rescued by the Allies. The situation should be lethal to drama, even on top of the cliches (there aren't one or two other stranded survivors? Allison isn't just a bit more educated or self-controlled? Sister Angela isn't - as Allison himself bewails on more than one occasion - old and ugly?).

But there are other dramas going on in this book, and they're absorbing, almost against the reader's wishes. Because despite being hungry, exhausted, disoriented, and in mortal danger, Allison is also horny, and Sister Angela has a pretty face and a winning smile (and freckles, he's later disconcerted to notice). He resists his urges as long as he can (if Sister Angela were a typist, you immediately suspect, she'd have been nailed as often and as vigorously as a piece of plywood), and that adds an underlying current of tension to the story.

There are underlying rewards as well. The Flesh and the Spirit is deceptively well-written, with a lean, confident prose style that relies on silences far more often than any contemporary author would dare. Shaw uses a very understated brand of narrative omniscience, gently and quickly telling us of things his characters can't see, very deftly letting us know the thoughts they don't share. Take for instance a scene early in the book where the two refugees watch from the hillside as passing Japanese warplanes bomb the little settlement where Sister Angela had just been:

All the jungle was silent, appalled by the fury that had fallen upon it. The marine and the nun, partly dazed and feeling the deadly weakness of reaction, stood on shaky legs, not knowing quite what to do. It was as though their will had been shocked out of them. Both of them were conscious of the frightening implication behind the bombing, the implication that they were not unknown to the enemy. They could not escape the feeling that the enemy knew they were there, that the bombing was a personal attack. They felt that the night and the sky were peopled with the enemy, leering at them, waiting to strike them down.

Allison recovered himself somewhat, and heard his companion murmuring.

"What did you say?"

"I am praying."

"Pray harder," he said a little brutal because he thought praying was a silly thing to do. "They'll be back. They'll sure be back."

They came back twice that night, the last time in greater force and with heavier bombs.

Shaw was an Australian hack journalist, and in some ways it's obvious from this novel (it's completely obvious from the detective novels he wrote under a pen name - they're all unspeakably dreadful) - and not only bad ways. There's a clarity in the narrative line, for instance, an surely something of the novel's leanness can be attributed to journalistic habits. And then there's the dialogue, which is the strongest thing about the book; it's meticulously shaped and rigidly controlled - this whole thing could be adapted for the stage in about fifteen minutes. One example: Allison has just learned that the Japanese soldiers have women along with them (he's attempted the unenviable task of trying to tell Sister Angela what exact purpose those women serve on the island - he's assured her they aren't nurses), and this fact makes Sister Angela feel oddly better:

"Strangely enough," said Sister Angela pensively, "it gives me some small comfort to think about other women near me, even though I can't speak with them."

"Look," he said, startled, "don't you get no ideas them women could do anything for you if you got nabbed. Them Japs don't give their women no say at all. Don't never forget they're enemies, all of them!"

She sighed. "Enemies? Yes. Made so by men who have forgotten God. But we are not enemies in His sight, only weak, foolish, quarreling, sinful children. Only because somebody has ordered it so are those women and I enemies. In our hearts we aren't enemies. We -"

He interrupted her. "Don't you fall for that stuff. If you'd seen what my outfit seen, after we got cut off in the Philippines, you wouldn't talk like that. Give that stuff away, Sister, it don't make no sense, no sense at all."

(a bit later she chastises him coldly, "Mr. Allison, I'll obey you in most things, because you are a soldier and we are in peril. But you cannot give me orders about my religion, or my thoughts or opinions. Let us not talk like this again. I don't like it.")

The Flesh and the Spirit isn't without flaws - like I mentioned, the setup is too pat, and the fact that Allison can't go a few weeks without sex, the fact that after such a small interval he'd be so crazed he'd violently consider deflowering a nun, for cripes sake, is just too easy, a cheap way of pushing forward the drama. But overall Shaw's performance here is marvelous: there's an elementary simplicity to the tale, and the story benefits enormously from the fact that Shaw is smart enough neither to have Allison be a complete brute nor to have Sister Angela be a world-class theologian. Despite the cardboard cut-out nature of the book's central contrivance, the two people at the heart of it are undeniably, winningly human.

An anonymous book-critic for the long-defunct Boston Traveler made the same points half a century ago (with lots of extraneous references to Dryden and Wordsworth), and it's still true today: The Flesh and the Spirit is considerably better than it has any right to be, and it's well worth your time, should you ever run across a copy at library or yard sale.

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