Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER/Walter Lord

I've been curious to read this for years, having loved the 1958 black & white film version of this riveting account of the last hours of the Titanic when I was a small child (still widely praised as the best cinema treatment of the story; I watched it again just recently, and much prefer its no-frills docudrama approach to James Cameron's histrionic melodrama; with a story this powerful, you really don't want improbable fictions ladled all over it), and having become a bit of an obsessive about the disaster as a result. However, I'd somehow never got around to it... until I was lucky enough to win a copy a couple of weeks ago in a Titanic-themed trivia quiz to mark the centenary of the tragic sinking - in the early hours of the morning on April 15th, 1912.

Walter Lord's book, first published in 1956, immediately won warm reviews for its economical storytelling, although I didn't find his authorial presence as 'invisible' as some of those contemporary critics did: there is wry wit, and occasional judgment here and there, but it's not obtrusive. Overall, Lord's style is refreshingly spare, and he strives always for understanding and forgiveness rather than condemnation of the more questionable conduct which may have contributed to the disaster or which followed from it. On occasions, though, Lord's studied silence can be more damning than overt comment: Captain Stanley Lord, commanding the nearby S.S. Californian, who exhibited an incomprehensible indifference to reports of a ship in possible distress a few miles to the south, does not emerge well from Lord's account - although the only explicit comment on his actions is veiled in a bitter sarcasm.

Subsequently, this book has been honoured as inaugurating the genre of 'oral history', soon to be applied on  a much broader scale to accounts of World War II by Cornelius Ryan, and later by Studs Terkel and others. It's a pity, though, that Lord didn't embark on his great work until some 40 years after the disaster: he only managed to speak to 63 survivors, many of whom were already fairly elderly; Charles Lightoller, the quietly heroic 2nd Officer who would soon be immortalised on film by Kenneth More, had recently passed away at the age of 78. Perhaps half of the book is derived from various memoirs, news reports, and transcripts of the various inquiries into the disaster.

For the Titanic nerd like myself, the major complaint would be that the book isn't detailed enough: it doesn't attempt to analyse the causes of the disaster, or speculate on what alternative actions might have been taken to avert or ameliorate it. But this was not the task that Lord set himself: he just wanted to make the disaster accessible to people, to provide a brisk and vivid portrait of the sinking of the ship from the perspective of those who actually witnessed it. In achieving that limited aim, the book is an exemplary success. Indeed, the one regret for most readers will probably be that it is over so soon. This surprisingly short book - barely 170 pages - can be read in less than three hours. If you read it in one sitting, it provides an eerily 'real-time' experience of the loss of the magnificent ship and more than 1,500 lives aboard her.

Do check out the film version of A Night To Remember as well - like the book that inspired it, an enduring classic.