Is it possible to write an ahistorical historical novel? How ’bout an impersonal character study, one that leaves out the good bits in favor of a dry, just-the-facts-ma’am recitation of fictionalized documentary? And if so, is it, you know, really advisable?
Martin Corrick seems to think so. The Navigation Log, the British writer’s first novel, is a triumph of defeated expectations. The bulk of the book chronicles events that occur during the Second World War, yet even though one of the main characters is a British fighter pilot, this is a personal, not a social, history. Not even Hitler comes in for a glancing blow.
Don’t, however, say you haven’t been warned. The novel opens with a definition-cum-epigraph with which Corrick, a former aircraft engineer and pilot, glosses the book’s title, explaining:
The navigation log is a record which is kept, step by step, of the navigational work done during a flight. A log should always be kept, as the record it contains will often prove useful afterwards. No unnecessary information should appear in the log, but that which is entered must be clear and accurate: the amount of information recorded will vary with circumstances. The most important entries include courses steered, times of changes of course, changes of wind observed or calculated, fixes, ground speeds and tracks, and signals sent or received. A log should be compiled in a simple form so that it could be handed to another navigator without explanations.
Messy details of cultural history, in other words, need not apply; they’d only muss up Corrick’s carefully chiseled prose, the elegant unfolding of his plot, the perfectly crafted descriptions. Not least of all, they’d also besmirch a full-blown fetish for stripped-down linguistic precision. Stylistically anyway, The Navigation Log takes the autoerotic potential of minimalism in directions that would make even the pervy Nicholson Baker blush.
But Baker’s fiction, at least, usually offers tantalizing hints to the left-out parts; it’s pregnant with possibilities. With Corrick, what you read is what you get, and unfortunately, what “will often prove useful” in a navigational record doesn’t exactly make for good novelistic reading.
Take this example of Corrick’s deadly dull exactitude, a description, as it happens, of an illicit union between Felix Andersonfather, lay preacher, manager of the district post officeand his housemaid, Milly: “At eight-thirty on the following Wednesday evening, Felix turned the maid, Milly, over and entered her from behind, a position he found most satisfactory.” We’re not privy to Milly’s thoughts at the time of Felix’s, um, entrance, but it’s easy to suspect that they’d probably be along the lines of, “Oh yes, quite right, Felix, quite right. Carry on, old boy, come along.”
No doubt the desiccated tone Corrick uses throughout the book is meant to convey the deep-seated British reserve of his characters. And especially in the case of the buttoned-down Felix, that reserve borders on repression, only a paper-thin line separating compulsory civility from neurosis. Moreover, the story Corrick spools out in The Navigation Log has loads of soap-opera potential. Thanks mainly to his knack for frequent and judicious shifts in point of view, in fact, the book is nearly cinematic in technique and ambitionif not quite in execution.
The story opens in 1918, as Felix and his pregnant wife move into their new home in London, the couple’s every move tracked by the voyeuristic gaze of neighbor Miss Betty Alcock and her co-conspiring friend, Mrs. Marigold Jennings. In the early part of the novel, the two women spy and speculate on the Andersons’ comings and goings, all the while imbibing “preprandial refreshment” and correcting the precision of each other’s vocabularya nervous tic the characters perhaps share with their overfastidious creator.
Like the minor Jane Austen characters they resemble, the twittering ladies make fine comic foils, but the novel’s main players are the Andersons’ identical twins, William and Tom, born on Armistice Day. The first section of the book, “Between the Wars,” chronicles the first 22 years of their liveswhich culminate for William in the decision to become a teacher, for Tom, a pilot.
What, exactly, leads to the twins’ very different choices? Good questionbut one that Corrick isn’t inclined to answer. Instead, he reports the events of the boys’ lives with a kind of clinical, tit-for-tat precision that sometimes makes The Navigation Log feel like an overworked outline.
We learn, for instance, that after falling for the poetry of Blake and Tennyson, William takes up with James Masterman, a pompous education reformer. Tom, meanwhile, signs on as an engineering apprentice at Olympic Aero and falls in love with a lady pilot, Elizabeth Bowman. William has an amorous adventure, too, impregnating and marrying a doctor, Polly Morris, whom he meets at a Masterman lecture. As World War II begins, William follows Masterman on a dangerous pilgrimage to Canterbury, while Tom gets a chance to fulfill his flyboy dreams. In the novel’s most dramatic moment, Tom downs a German plane, which crashes into a church that Masterman will later choose as the site for his progressive school. As that detail suggests, Corrick’s attempts to weave the brothers’ stories into one another can be a bit heavy-handed.
Still, his knack for fitting the pieces together gives the book a vaguely satisfying, Lego-like appeal, and the built-in melodrama of the plot would probably make for an engrossing BBC-style miniseries. Plus, Corrick really does have a gift for unadorned description. In a narration about Tom’s work as an engineering apprentice, for example, the prose speaks poetically to both the writer’s and the character’s obsession with precision:
Much of the work was tedious, yet the routine did not entirely prevent the development of a curious satisfaction; by such means rough stock was made precise and bright. Under Tom’s hands an object was made. It became itself. Even a plain brass bush, a simple thing and one among hundreds, lay heavy and particular in the palm of his hand.
“A simple thing,” “heavy and particular”those phrases could easily be blurbs for the paperback edition of The Navigation Log. But while the novel is rich in detailed description, it lacks the bigger-picture stuffpsychological and historical context, saythat could make all its sharply focused reportage resonate beyond mere factual immediacy and give it conceptual and emotional heft.
Those qualities, however, are mostly MIA. Corrick’s novel is well-crafted and stylistically appealing, but its narrative never really transcends a this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened-too chronological accounting. That makes it much like a navigation log, I suppose, so at least there’s truth in advertising here. But despite the appeal of Corrick’s unorthodox approach to the historical novel, The Navigation Log never really takes you anywhere worth going. CP