Mr Whittle and the Morning Star by Robert Nathan

Mr Whittle and the Morning StarRobert Nathan was one of the authors I was keen to keep an eye out for when I went to Washington DC earlier in 2015. On my previous trip, I’d found Portrait of Jennie by Nathan in a bookshop nearer the Folger Shakespeare Institute – a book I’d read about during my DPhil research but hadn’t been able to track down – and found it very enjoyable (and subsequently also enjoyed the film). He’s not at all easy to find in the UK, and much more common in the US, but often found around the mass market paperbacks and the second-class hardbacks…

Anyway, after scouring the shelves I managed to bring back two: The Enchanted Voyage and Mr Whittle and the Morning Star. My weekend away in Shropshire was an ideal time to treat myself to reading one of them – Nathan struck me as that sort of indulgent, probably not-very-high-quality, eminently-readable author. Either would have done, but it was Mr Whittle and his morning star that accompanied me to the house.

Well, both Robert Nathan novels I’ve read have taken me less than a day. Granted, both were short – but they are also both novels with the perfect balance of lightness and wit. They’re not great literature, but they’re also not trash; Nathan has a turn of phrase that puts him above the dross, even if it doesn’t get him into the greats.

So, what is the premise for Mr Whittle and the Morning Star? It’s the sort of quirky thing that I like: Mr Whittle is sure that the world is about to end. Not from any spotting of the four horsemen of the apocalypse or anything like that, but because of the threat of nuclear war. He tries to warn his students (he is a university professor), his wife, his 12 year old daughter – but none of them are particularly perturbed. Much like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant novel The Sundial, his announcements are met without drama, and it makes for very amusing reading. While Whittle is musing on the end times, his wife replies with anxiety about buying a new dress for their daughter.

His mind strayed into dreamy speculation. How hard it was to imagine nothingness – to realize, for instance, that no one would ever remember anything that had happened. To think that music and the alphabet and noodle soup would simply disappear into thin air, never to be mentioned anywhere again – and after such a short existence, geologically speaking. All man’s knowledge, from the wheel to penicillin…

This element of the novel was handled beautifully; Nathan apparently has quite a way with the eccentric and unusual (as I discovered in the fantastic-themed Portrait of Jennie). Sadly – for my reading enjoyment, at least – there is another element of the novel which somewhat takes over. Forty-something Whittle becomes infatuated with one of his students, the beautiful Penelope Andrews. Mrs Whittle, meanwhile, develops something of a brief relationship with one of the couple’s friends. It’s all very naive and old-fashioned (so far as affair storylines go) but also not particularly interesting – and rather distracts from Nathan’s more innovative plot.

And (spoilers) the ending is frankly bizarre – God turns up in the clouds and has a chat with Mr Whittle. Nathan more or less has enough charm to carry it off. Indeed, it is the charm of his writing that keeps me hooked throughout. I’m already excited about reading my next Robert Nathan novel, and sad that so few of them are readily available in book form (though plenty of them can be found as ebooks, some of you will be pleased to know).

Has anybody read Robert Nathan? Is anybody tempted? He was very prolific, but there isn’t that much info out there about him or his work…

 

13 thoughts on “Mr Whittle and the Morning Star by Robert Nathan

  • December 10, 2015 at 7:14 am
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    Robert Nathan – oh yes, indeed. Author of one of my personal “Worst Books of 2014”, I do believe, for the underwhelming “The Sea-Gull’s Cry” (http://leavesandpages.com/2014/08/06/the-sea-gull-cry-by-robert-nathan/).

    Okay, to be quite fair, I do quite enjoy “Portrait of Jennie” which I own in an anthology of “Stories to Remember”. And the plot of “Mr. Whittle” sounds intriguing in a mild sort of way.

    I know nothing of the man himself, merely that he was quite popular and prolific in his time. He could turn a phrase, and some passages are quite engrossing, but by and large I catalogue him as damningly “light”. (And I have quite a high tolerance for well-done fluff.)

    • December 10, 2015 at 12:23 pm
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      After I wrote this, I remembered that you’d written about Portrait of Jennie and thought I’d see if you’d read others – and came across your disappointed review! One that I will certainly not be hunting out, then…

      I read a bit about his life on Wikipedia and discovered that he was married 7 times!

      • December 10, 2015 at 4:16 pm
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        SEVEN times? Speechless. (Note to self: Must look this fellow up…) Perhaps this explains the tone of his writing; perhaps he was a terminally disappointed romantic in his real life! Or…?

  • December 10, 2015 at 7:15 am
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    Robert Nathan – oh yes, indeed. Author of one of my personal “Worst Books of 2014”, I do believe, for the underwhelming “The Sea-Gull Cry” (http://leavesandpages.com/2014/08/06/the-sea-gull-cry-by-robert-nathan/).

    Okay, to be quite fair, I do quite enjoy “Portrait of Jennie” which I own in an anthology of “Stories to Remember”. And the plot of “Mr. Whittle” sounds intriguing in a mild sort of way.

    I know nothing of the man himself, merely that he was quite popular and prolific in his time. He could turn a phrase, and some passages are quite engrossing, but by and large I catalogue him as damningly “light”. (And I have quite a high tolerance for well-done fluff.)

  • December 10, 2015 at 7:53 am
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    Never heard of Robert Nathan. What a charming/quirky sounding book. What a shame it’s hard to get over here.

    • December 10, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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      He is definitely an author to keep an eye out for in the US – or buy on Kindle!

  • December 10, 2015 at 10:06 am
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    Sounds quirky, but quirky can be good! I’ll definitely pick up any of his books if I should stumble upon them…. :)

    • December 10, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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      Do! Do! He was certainly very prolific.

  • December 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm
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    I’ve always loved the movie Portrait of Jennie, but didn’t even think about whether it came from a novel (of course it did). How interesting! I will look for his books. I’m not sure that this particular one sounds like my speed, but Portrait of Jennie would probably be fun.

  • December 10, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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    I’d never heard of Robert Nathan but I’m intrigued now. Another author for my watch list …

  • December 11, 2015 at 1:28 am
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    I love quirky little books like this with a little God thrown in :) Nice review!

  • January 5, 2016 at 1:32 am
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    I like the idea of a hard to find author that might be less hard to find in the US.

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