Bruce Marshall, who died 30 years ago this year, is the forgotten man of 20th-century Catholic letters. The Scottish convert and prolific novelist is nowhere to be found in respected surveys by Ian Ker, Fr Charles Connor and Ralph McInerny, or even in Joseph Pearce’s prodigious Literary Converts. This could be because the critics have concluded that Marshall was no good, but it seems more likely that he has simply slipped from view in a field crowded with giants.
In his time, Marshall’s books sold well: he was published in nine languages and several stories were adapted for film, stage and television. Along with those of Greene and Waugh, his case was once examined by the Holy Office.
He was not one to blow his own trumpet or, at least, if he did, then only with the mute firmly in place. “I am an accountant who writes books,” he once said. “In accounting circles I am hailed as a great writer. Among novelists I am assumed to be a competent accountant.” He was also a soldier and a captain in intelligence, assisting the Resistance in their struggle with the Nazis. He was to lead most of his adult life in France.
Marshall’s books are not easy to find. I have just two of his novels, both acquired entirely by chance. Searches of specialist Catholic bookshops have thus far drawn a blank.
The Red Danube (1947) opens just after the end of World War II with an English colonel, Michael Nicobar, being summoned from Rome to Vienna to take part in the rehabilitation of Austria. Harassed by his superiors and in turn harassing his inferiors, Nicobar is humane, intelligent, but also tetchy, being permanently trapped on the brink of complete disenchantment. He is always at the mercy of pains in a phantom arm, lost in battle. (Marshall himself lost a leg as a teenager fighting in the Great War.)
In one respect, The Red Danube is a military comedy of manners, tracing the events that lead to an unlikely promotion for Nicobar. But religion looms large. At the end of the book, Nicobar returns to Rome with the prioress he had made friends with while billeted in her Viennese convent (where they got caught up in the tragic fate of an ethnic German ballerina desperate to avoid being returned to Russia). Inspired by her conversations with Nicobar, Mother Auxilia has come to see the Pope, whom she knows from childhood, to plead with him to do more about the ills of the world.
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