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Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male [1938]

"I cannot blame them. After all, one doesn't need a telescopic sight to shoot boar and bear; so when they came on me watching the terrace at a range of five hundred and fifty yards, it was natural enough that they should jump to conclusions."

This is a strange one: an anonymous Big Game hunter infiltrates the Bavarian forest, stalks Adolf Hitler (unnamed) at his mountain retreat in Bergof. While the whole mission is an unofficial "sporting stalk", that's not what the Nazi guards think when they find him on a cliff with their Führer in his sights. The Hunter is given a choice: either sign a document admitting that this was an assassination attempt sanctioned by the British Government or endure torture and who knows what else. His interrogator is a smooth fellow sportsman called Major Quive-Smith, who is well aware of who this famous rogue hunter is, and while skeptical about the claim of a "sporting stalk", is eager to exploit the propaganda advantage presented. But the hunter refuses to sign, so he's given back his documents and taken back to the cliff and thrown over; the plan is that Quive-Smith will find the body the next morning while on a hunting excursion, and announce to the world the bungled assassination attempt by the greatest safari hunter in the world.

Household: Rogue Male

Somehow the hunter survives the drop into the marshy area below the cliff, crawls off, and now the hunter becomes the hunted. He escapes down a river -- possibly the Rhine -- and manages to find a British freighter with a friendly lst officer who is willing to take him on board as a stowaway. When they reach London, he disembarks into the night... and the fog. Home free? No way. Despite the fact that he's a member of the landed gentry and his brother is the Foreign Minister who just failed to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Hitler, he finds that Major Quive-Smith and his Nazi gang have followed him. The pursuit is relentless. The hero is forced to kill one of the gang in a London Underground railway tunnel and -- like Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps -- Scotland Yard also joins in the pursuit. The hunter who is now the hunted becomes a survivalist, goes to ground in a cave in Dorset, south of the city. A lot of symbolism here: a man, hunted by his avatar (yes, the novelist uses this term), mines a cave in a thorn thicket in a secluded valley on the archaeological remains of an ancient Roman Road; the thicket was a love nest the hunter used with a former love ("violet eyes") who, as it turns out, was tortured and killed by the Nazis. Not only is the symbolism sexual, it's also mnemonic, as if the hunter is moving back through Time as his survivalist persona develops.

The narrative is in the first person, in the form of a journal that the hero eventually mails to a trusted associate back in London. A lot of it is internal musing which can be annoying for the impatient contemporary reader who wants the action to cut-to-the-chase. But it's integral to the hero's character and his world-view which is an idealized classless self, even though our man is a "gent". Bourgeois delusion? He talks about "Class X", a type of individual who can move easily among all classes, all countries, all cultures anywhere in this world. It's a period idealism that was echoed by other writers in the twenties, thirties and forties... notably, James Hilton (Shangri-La, 1933), H.G. Wells (The Shape of Things To Come, 1932)... even the cynical George Orwell (if you strip the neo-Fabianism away).

'Their tiresome conception of the State has one comforting effect; it creates so many moral lepers that no one of them, if he has a little patience, can long be lonely. The flotsam of the nation is washed together into an unrecognized, nameless secret society.' [Rogue Male]

Few people remember Rogue Male today, although its influence is wide and deep. The lone gunman who can take out a political leader as a moral imperative with lasting impact. The skilled hunter who can go native, even shape-shift, go animal. He doesn't need to be as chaotic as a rogue killer elephant -- indeed, Household's anonymous predator/fugitive is quite passive in that familiar English way -- but he does need to have that ancestral urge to survive at all costs. Therefore it's strange to discover that 15% of the story is yet to come after the climactic action at the burrow in Dorset. A sea voyage to North Africa? Is this really necessary for the reader to grasp the victory of the protagonist?

Perhaps Fritz Lang's excellent film adaptation Man Hunt (1941) causes this problem for any reader who has seen it, as it accommodates the propaganda needs of WW 2. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols reengineered the story in several clever ways to accommodate the visual imperative of film... as well as the need of a less cerebral audience. Still, there are things that the film doesn't capture; for example, the fugitive's starlit trek over the Iron Age hill mound at Eggardon, which has the mystical beauty of a modernist woodcut illustration by Lynd Ward.

Victoria Nelson's introductory essay for the eBook/paper reprint is superb and worth the price of the book alone; not only does she cover off Household's influences, narrative architecture, world view and so on, but also Household's other novels, i.e., his last, the "late masterpiece" Dance of the Dwarfs (1968), set on the Colombian altiplano. The voice of authority, folks. Students of the adventure/thriller genre looking to expand their expertise should check this out, discover the genesis of Rambo and other outsider reverts who work beyond the law.

LR Feb '15

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