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So Disdained

This article is about the British novel by Nevil Shute.

So Disdained is the second published novel by British author, Nevil Shute. It was first published in 1928 by Cassell & Co, then republished in 1951 by William Heinemann and issued in paperback by Pan Books in 1966.

Political and diplomatic background: an earlier Cold War

At the time of writing, Germany was disarmed under the Versailles Treaty, Hitler was still a marginal figure in the politics of the Weimar Republic, and - as the book makes clear - the major political and military threat perceived was from the Soviet Union, then in the first flush of the October Revolution's success. In effect, the book describes a situation of cold war between Britain and the Soviet Union, though the term did not yet exist. Many elements which were to become familiar in the background of 1950's and 1960's thrillers - an accelerated arms race, development of secret weapons, intensive espionage and counter-espionage around these weapons projects, political and social subversion, and the tendency to promote right-wing dictatorships as allies against Communism - are already present in this book, three decades earlier. (This might have prompted the decision to republish it in 1951).

Specifically, the book was written in the direct aftermath of the 1926 General Strike which seemed to put the specter of a Socialist Revolution on the British agenda - highly unwelcome to people of Shute's persuasions.

Plot summary

Peter L. Moran, the narator, is agent to Lord Arner. Driving home after a dinner in Winchester, he picks up Maurice Lenden, who in 1917 had been a fellow pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

The story tells how Lenden had been flying a photographic espionage mission for the Russians, how he came to be doing that, and discusses the morality of acting as a traitor to his country.

As in Marazan the book expresses respect for the Italian Fascist movement of the time. The validity, or otherwise, of that political position requires considerable historical perspective.

Philip Stenning (the first person narrator of Marazan) appears again in this novel, once again portrayed as a 'rough diamond' with a debatable sense of moral justice.

Sympathetic Portrayal of Fascists

In fact, the book's evident attitude of sympathy to Italian Fascism is clearly explained by a passage in the book itself. In the seventh chapter Moran, wounded from his crash landing in Italy, considers his options and comes to the conclusion that "I had to get allies. I was up against a Bolshevik organization; the most obvious people in Italy to set against the Bolsheviks were the Fascisti."

Outside the framework of the specific fictional situation depicted in the book, quite a lot of people in different countries who felt threatened by Communism saw Fascists as "the most obvious allies". Among them were those Italians who helped the Fascists get to power some years before the time of writing, and also quite a few conservative-minded Britons (including, from some of his statements in the 1920s, Winston Churchill - though eventually he came to the conclusion that Fascists and Nazis were a greater threat).

As depicted in the later chapters of the book, in his search for allies against the Communists Moran gets to meet Captain Frazzini, the local Fascist leader: "I liked the look of him. He was a man of my own age, very tall and straight, and with a tanned, unshaven face. He had a very high forehead, and in some peculiar way he had the look of a leader in spite of his three-days' beard."

When Frazzini had roused his men to raid the secret Communist base, Moran remarks: "His force of Fascisti paraded in the square. It took some time to get them out to parade - they must have all been in bed - but I liked the look of them. They were a fine, straight body of young men, dressed in field-green breeches and black shirts and each armed with a sort of truncheon."

Though equipped with truncheons, the Fascists depicted in the book are not eager to use them on the single Communist captured in the raid. Rather, they interrogate him only verbally and ineffectively, and it is the Englishman Philip Stenning who starts brutally beating up the prisoner, to the point of breaking his arm, in order to extract information on the fate of Lenden. The Fascist leader Frazzini actually tries to restrain Stenning. Moran (and in effect, Shute) remarks that "I don't think that physical violence to a prisoner was much in Frazzini's line".

By the time the book was re-published in 1951, the English-reading public's perception of a Fascist militia leader's morality had considerably changed. Shute's forward to the 1951 edition, in which he remarks that he changed nothing in the book except "half a dozen outmoded pieces of slang" (see following), evidently refers especially to his deciding not to make any change in the above favorable depiction of the Fascists.

Author's Note, quoted from the 1951 edition

"This was the second of my books to be published, twenty-three years ago. it took me nearly three years to write, because I was working as an engineer on the construction of an airship and I wrote only in the evenings in the intervals of more important technical work. It was written through from start to finish twice, and some of it three times.

Clearly, I was still obsessed with standard subjects as a source of drama - spying, detection, and murder, so seldom encountered by real people in real life. Perhaps I was beginning to break loose from these constraints: the reader must judge that for himself.

In revising the book for re-issue I have altered half a dozen outmoded pieces of slang, but I have made no other changes. The book achieved publication in the United States under the somewhat uninspiring title The Mysterious Aviator."


Note: Confusingly, a name very similar to the above US title title - The Mysterious Pilot - is the title of a book by William Byron Mowery and a (1937) Columbia movie serial based it, having nothing to do with Shute's book.

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