Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against–there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”

Geoffrey Household novel’s Rogue Male had been recommended to me several times, but I delayed reading it; part of the delay came from the mistaken idea that it was some sort of spy novel. It wasn’t.

The novel, told by a first person narrator, begins with a simple sentence: “I cannot blame them.” And this sentence is the epitome of the narrator’s attitude to most of the people he meets and most of the brutality directed towards him. In essence, he accepts that we are what we are, that most of us are caught in roles not necessarily of our own making, and in those roles, we are driven towards certain actions. Amazingly generous and Zen really when you consider what happens to him.

Rogue MaleOur nameless narrator, a wealthy Englishman, has been caught just as he was about to assassinate a European dictator. He had the man in the sights of his rifle but hesitated, and that hesitation led to his capture (the word ‘arrest’ would dignify what happens) and torture. According to our narrator he thinks his captors are “beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” There are people, difficult as it is for this reader to understand, who actually enjoy hunting rare and endangered species.

They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission, but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government–least of all ours–encourages assassination. Or was I a free-lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be –a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?

The narrator is horribly tortured, and since he does not give his captors any valuable information to implicate any one else or reveal that he’s part of some sort of conspiracy, they are left to conclude that he is probably just what he claims to be–a hunter who wants to bag the ultimate big game. But no matter the reason behind his assassination attempt, his captors, and the narrator, know that there is little choice but to kill him. Under the circumstances–flayed skin, a badly damage eye, and fingernails ripped out, he can hardly be set free to return to England. Instead he is left to die. Badly wounded, our narrator is a survivor, or perhaps even a survivalist. Resourceful and intelligent, he flees for his life….

Rogue Male is superb–the best action-adventure novel I’ve ever read. We know every little about our narrator–except that he’s a member of the British upper class with plenty of leisure time (there’s a wonderful rift about Class X ,) who has wandered into a volatile Europe, crossing over from Poland into the unnamed country on the brink of WWII. We can, of course, guess just who is the object of the ‘big game’ hunt; the question is why.

I’m not going to say a great deal more about this extraordinary novel as to dissect it too much would give away the pleasure that awaits for the next reader. Suffice to say that our man makes it back to England, and while I thought that he would feel safe in his native land, the action only  intensifies, and the figurative broad net created to capture the narrator becomes much smaller, much more defined as the escape and arena for safety becomes increasingly more claustrophobic.

Leaving plot aside–something that is, after all, relatively easy to discover for oneself, I’ll say that at first I thought the narrator was an assassin, perhaps the classic unreliable narrator, but rather his motives remain opaque even when aiming his rifle. It’s only much later that the narrator finally comes to understand his own motivations.

The narrator begins the novel in a very bad spot, and it goes downhill from there as he tumbles down even his own society, reverting to the status of a homeless man, a drifter, and finally an animal. Household cleverly reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, and sometimes those roles reverse in a mere second, and there’s even a comment made about unnecessary death, the slaughter of a helpless animal that is a statement on the value of life.  The narrator does, of course, make a mistake or two, but the book is written so that we suspect immediately that a mistake has been made. This all builds incredible, almost unbearable suspense.

For this reader, some of the greatest fun of the novel came from two distinct sources: the characters the narrator meets who help him along the way–unsung heroes who, at great risk to themselves, show a little kindness. But the greatest source of delight came from Geoffrey Household’s incredible main character who honestly puts the James Bond types with all their techno toys to shame. Not only is our narrator extremely resourceful, but he’s physically tough and highly intelligent. He also applies the skills of a hunter to his escape and his slippery ability to evade the men who seek his death. Of course, though, it’s inevitable that he meets someone whose craft and stealth may match his own.

One significant theme of the novel is individualism. Here we have an individual outside of any government or official channels, who acts on his own, thinks on his own, and takes his actions to their ultimate conclusion. His individualism is apparent immediately from the simple fact that he’s the object of massive man-hunt, but as the novel continues and the action intensifies, the narrator, abandoning the resources of society, has no one to rely on except himself and his own considerable skills.

I can admire such an individualist as you. What I respect in you is that you have no need of any law but your own. You’re prepared to rule, or to be suppressed, but you won’t obey. You are able to deal with your own conscience.

Rogue Male was published in 1939, and here in the 21st century, it seems remarkably ahead of its time. If you read the NYRB edition (as I did) I’d recommend leaving the introduction until after you’ve finished the book. It contains spoilers galore.

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Household Geoffrey

16 responses to “Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

  1. This short little novel blew me away. I too had been expecting a fairly typical spy novel, and instead found a work perhaps more Beckett than Bond. I was reminded especially of Beckett’s Molloy, with its similar atmosphere of existential dislocation and wandering through an empty landscape, but with a more sinister edge. I would not be surprised, in fact, to find that the game Molloy plays with pebbles was inspired by Rogue Male (the scene, if I recall correctly, in which the protagonist, scarcely able to move, is similarly trying to transfer objects around his body). Now you have me in the mood to read it again.

  2. Brian Joseph

    The themes that seem to be expressed in this work fascinate me. I often think we do so many things, and perhaps more importantly believe in so many things with such conviction, just based upon the circumstances that life has put us in.

    The individualism theme, obvious related, has also been a lifelong interest for me.

  3. Jonathan

    I too, was surprised at just how good this was. I expected to find it a bit boring really…only it wasn’t, it was a great read. I thought that when he was ‘safe’ back in England then he would start to live a reasonably normal life but he realised that he couldn’t depend on any help from the government or police and that he would probably be handed over to his foreign captors as he was either a lone assassin or working undercover for the UK government. At first I thought he was an agent but later on I believed that he was working alone – I wasn’t totally sure though.

    I loved all the survivalist detail in the novel and the fact that, as clever as he was, he wasn’t infallible and he made mistakes.

    I agree with Scott’s comment regarding Beckett. It reminded me of Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy/Malone Dies/Unnamable) in that the main character seems to start off badly, either crippled or injured, and then it gets worse. Brilliant stuff!

  4. Always great see an intelligent take on thrillers I am vaguely aware of this one as I caught a couple of the radio episode of it on radio here Michael jayston was lead character

  5. This sounds unusual and I like what Scott wrote – rather Beckett than Bon but I’m not sure this would be for me.
    I was reminded of the movie The Army of Shadows, which, although a Resistance film, has something reminiscent of Kafka.

  6. acommonreaderuk

    I have heard of the book of course, but can’t remember where – probably years and years ago it was on my parent’s book case in my childhood home. It’s very interesting to read your article on it.

  7. This sounds just my kind of thing! Why have I never read this before? I’ll definitely serach this out – thanks!

  8. I didn’t know about this book.
    Reading you review, I was surprised to discover it was written in 1939.
    It sounds great really, and the other commenters here seem to second your opinion. (not that I need them to trust your judgement)

  9. I’d heard this was a good book, but didn’t know anything about its plot til now – I must read it!

  10. I’d heard of this, as have many others here I note, but also like many others I had no idea it was so philosophical. It sounds great, I’ll pick up a copy.

  11. leroyhunter

    Agree 100% Guy – it’s great.

    I’ve been wondering since I read it if Household’s other books stand up, or if this is a once-off. Certainly none of them have the stature and recognition that this has achieved.

    • Replies:
      This comes highly recommend and I think it is good enough to capture a wide audience with broad tastes. Peter O’ Toole starred in the film version (same title) which I’ve yet to see. Apparently he made the film as a birthday gift for his wife as it was her favourite book.
      I bought a few of Household’s other titles and there is, apparently, a sequel–although everyone seems to agree that it’s not as good. Still, I will be reading others, so watch this space.

      I think it has faded from view but once again in rides the cavalry …. NYRB.

      • It’s in the Crime Masterworks series, which is generally pretty reliable (as are the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series – whoever the line editor is they make good choices).

        • When you read a lot of books, you learn to avoid certain publishing lines (there’s only what is it 4 major houses any more?) and pouch on others. I’ve seen that series and some of the titles in it. I think I own some of the crime titles actually.

  12. mikeripley

    There is a sequel – Rogue Justice – written 40 years later (!) of which I edited a new edition for Ostara Publishing in 2011. The anonymous hero is finally named and his motives made clear as he takes his very personal war into the heart of occupied Europe. In essence he is searching for his own death and the conclusion to his quest is remarkably poignant as the hunter really does come home. Perhaps not as dramatically startling as Rogue Male, this is still a very good book and a stunning example of British “noir”. Much of it is set in countries which Household knew well before and during the war whilst serving in the British army.

    • Thanks Mike, I bought the sequel. Rogue Male was so good–although I understand that Rogue Justice isn’t quite as good, but that’s probably not possible anyway.

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