Knowing one’s place in the white male playground

This is my review of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.

In this celebrated classic yarn, considered groundbreaking by some, an unnamed big game hunter gets arrested on the point of taking a pot shot at a character who is probably Hitler, it being 1939, miraculously escapes death after horrible torture and spends the rest of the novel evading recapture.

So much anonymity combining with the stiff upper lip of the "anarchical aristocrat" narrator, the story often has a clinical and detached quality. Although there are some nail-biting moments, the potential drama of the tensest scenes is often reduced by the use of reported speech. The minute details in which the narrator's somewhat implausible projects are described also become tedious. I realise that this view may enrage those identifying with Robert Macfarlane who wrote the introduction for this edition, and clearly retains a nostalgic love for a tale which he lapped up when an imaginative schoolboy hungry for adventurous fantasy.

For pages, all that kept my interest was spotting how the world has changed socially since 1939. Our forerunner of James Bond felt that man was not intended to travel at above 40 miles per hour, and was troubled by the litter from paper bags. What would he have made of plastic rubbish? His casual snobbery is jarring, as revealed in his complacent membership of "Class X" which he cannot quite define, because presumably it's beneath a gentleman to do that. The helpful young man who belongs to "this new generation of craftsmen… definitely belongs in Class X ….but must learn to speak the part before being recognised by so conservative a nation".

I had just decided to give up and skip the next book group meeting when, on page 126, our hero hits rock bottom with a striking description of the state to which he has been reduced: "Living as a beast, I had become as a beast". The subsequent verbal sparring between the narrator and his pursuer not only proves that Household could do dialogue (so perhaps it's a pity there isn't more of it) but also clarifies the characters' motivations.

Yes, it's well-written with an eye for scenery, an evocation of a lost, unspoilt English countryside, conveys vividly the sense of being hunted, but is too dated and ludicrous for my taste.

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⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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