Alan Sillitoe Essay - Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 6)

Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 6)

Sillitoe, Alan 1928–

Sillitoe, an Englishman, writes novels and short stories that chronicle the "grinding pain and convulsive joys" of working-class existence. He is also a poet (in fact, he once said he considered himself primarily a poet), using images and language "as a means of breaking through to new experience." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The word "integrity" (which would probably make him shudder) is hard to avoid for a reviewer trying to suggest what is special about a Sillitoe short story. Not simply because … he is determined to write only about the problems, emotions, and discoveries of Nottingham working people and to give them the dignity of "kings and queens".

There is, beyond this difficult and poetic self-restriction of material, and necessary to it, an integrity of style that never falsifies the writer's role—which is why, for instance, he refuses to go on "like a penny-a-liner to force an ending" if inspiration stops before he knows what to do with the character he has created. There may not even be an ending to a Sillitoe story, because it is always about an individual to whose life Fate gives "a vicious twist" which may point towards two alternatives: death or madness. Yet, because Mr Sillitoe is a conscientious craftsman as well as a realist, he rightly says that these dramatic "endings" are no use to him—death can "show us nothing", and the significance of madness can be shown only by recovery (normally too long for a story). People—the people he cares about—have to come to terms with circumstances and problems; the "ending" is to carry on with life. (p. 1269)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 19, 1973.

[The] great strength of Sillitoe's writing seems to lie in his tenderness. To the movements of feeling behind the roughness of behaviour Sillitoe is endlessly gentle. And the Nottingham cadence warms his understanding. 'But why aren't you happy, love?' What hopeful assumptions about human relationships lie in that! And yet most of the stories [in Men, Women and Children] deal with loss; people come and go; lie; and change. (p. 138)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), February/March, 1974.

The Flame of Life never really ignites…. The lack of urgency behind this particular novel is all too apparent. It concludes a trilogy begun with The Death of William Posters and A Tree on Fire…. The writing is thoughtful, sometimes didactic, often heavy and awkward. The novel ends with the ex-revolutionary Dawley struggling to reconcile his militant socialism with his happy new domestic life. He decides that as long as you guarded your own flame of life, 'your revolutionary principles were not at variance with the way you lived': a rather feeble and familiar synthesis. (p. 749)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 22, 1974.

With the American publication in 1974 of a new collection of short stories, Men, Women and Children, following closely upon the American publication in 1973 of an important novel-memoir, Raw Material…, it is time to dispel some of the ignorance and to suggest the ways in which Sillitoe's work and career can be instructive to Americans.

The first notion to dispose of is that which associates Sillitoe vaguely with the so-called "Angry Young Men" whose writings appeared in the late fifties. If this title is justified for any writers, it would be so for Kingsley Amis, John Wain, or John Osborne, men with university training who wanted room at the top but who resented the moral and aesthetic cost of getting there. But it hardly applies to Sillitoe (and perhaps to David Storey) who are authentically of the working class, self-educated, and uninterested in the matter of rising to the upper classes…. Anger is the resentment of frustrated ambition; neither Sillitoe nor his early heroes see in establishment values and styles anything to aspire to. They are sustained by their refusal to be "working class" when they can be human.

[The] two first books of Sillitoe's have been continuous best sellers because they provide a mirror for working-class readers and a window for others into a culture with its own richness of circumstance and its own integrity. In these days of cultural pluralism, when every "minority" calls for a literature which is about it and which respects its point of view and its self-image, Sillitoe speaks for that overwhelming British majority so little represented from the inside in British fiction. This is not to say that the quality of working-class life as found in his stories is entirely satisfactory and satisfying, or that there cannot be found in them an indictment of the educated and wealthy classes who control and determine indirectly the conditions of the whole British culture. But it is to say that Sillitoe has no ideological axes to grind and no political affiliations which cause him to portray working men and women as helpless victims, or as misunderstood paragons of virtue. He will not sacrifice any character's humanity on the altar of class consciousness. (pp. 350-53)

Working-class life is shown to provide conditions wherein the maintenance of satisfying relations of love is difficult. But the tenuous and impermanent relations which are nevertheless established are all the more valuable and all the more a reflection of human depth. (p. 353)

In Sillitoe's books, the stories of Nottingham people have always been fables of the artist. In particular, his commitment to his people has been an expression of a refusal to mimic the educated literary man. In this respect, Raw Material is a complex summary of his literary career, and an important indication of the directions he is likely to take in the future. (p. 354)

This career is one which more or less divides itself into three streams. On the one hand, it is the career of a poet, a man interested in the sounds of words as they are read out loud, or in the authentic voice which comes when effort and calculation and imitation are left out. Sillitoe's three books of poems are good, but they would not give him a high reputation as a poet. They are, however, his first love; and they inform his prose as well. It is interesting to note that the title, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," originally came to him as the first line of a poem. In another way, it is the career of a traveler and a fantasist. Personally, the love of foreign lands, the sounds of their names ("Abyssinia" in Key to the Door), and the sense of possibility beyond the Nottingham horizon were instrumental in his becoming a writer…. And finally, it is the career of a political novelist who sets the experience of his heroes (in Key to the Door, and especially in The Death of William Posters and A Tree on Fire) against the larger background of a world in revolution.

These three streams come together in a number of ways. The British working-class soldier stationed in a colony is torn between his national and his class identity…. The poetic voice which emerges under such circumstances, when it is the authentic voice of the writer, will have no affiliations of nation or class, party or place, but is reflected off of contrasting ideologies, stances, and landscapes which have captured the commitment of others and therefore the sympathy of the writer. The trilogy which begins in The Death of William Posters and A Tree on Fire, and is now complete with The Flame of Life…, chronicles this process in a representative hero (not Sillitoe himself). The poetry speaks directly to the various stages of this process. And the novels and stories concerned with "Nottingham people" make deliberate restrictions of person and environment, therefore (according to Sillitoe) treating his material in a "poetic manner." Raw Material, confined entirely to the writer and his ancestors, carries the process back to its beginnings. The experience of foreign landscapes and ideologies is hardly mentioned, and the process of self-discovery is described as a journey back in time rather than out in human space. (pp. 355-56)

Insofar as Raw Material tells the "truth" about Sillitoe's family and his artistic beginnings, it does so in the service of his art. Memories, painful or not, lead to truth with the object of "completing your wholeness, the humanity that will protect you against the world while at the same time making you more vulnerable to yourself." For a writer who has seen the world, been drawn to foreign cultures and revolutionary ideologies, but chosen to concentrate on his people and the circumstances of his country, Raw Material offers a great deal of protection. (p. 358)

Robert S. Haller, "The Crux of Merging Deltas: A Note on Alan Sillitoe," in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1974/75, pp. 351-58.

While the title story of Alan Sillitoe's first volume of short fiction, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, has understandably been the focus for a certain amount of critical attention, there has been virtual silence concerning the others in this collection. On first acquaintance with them this is not surprising: the spareness of these stories, the evident opacity of their gritty surfaces, can seem at first resistant or even hostile to the kinds of questions modern critics are used to posing. There is an old-fashioned homeliness about them; one makes the transition to the last "story," the avowedly autobiographical "The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller," troubled perhaps by the contrast between the splendid anarchic energy of young Smith at the beginning of the series and the sad wistful nostalgia of the older persona at the end, but with little or no sense of shifting from the mode of fiction to that of personal reminiscence.

Yet Sillitoe's apparent artlessness can be deceptive. To take a minor example, in "Frankie Buller," having just admitted that he has never been able to "wade through" … the entire twelve volumes of Proust resting on his bookshelves in Majorca, he makes use, in very abbreviated, simplistic fashion, of a Proustian "privileged moment" to plunge "back deep through the years into my natural state"…, the Nottingham slums of his boyhood…. [In] one of the strongest, most intensely realized stories of the Long-Distance Runner collection, "The Match," Sillitoe has used the model of Joyce's "Counterparts" in basic and important ways to shape character, theme, and structure. Such a [comparison] in no sense [minimizes] Sillitoe's achievement; on the contrary, the influence of Joyce's tightly articulated craftsmanship seems to have been a fortunate one for Sillitoe, a corrective to a tendency toward narrative looseness.

The données of the two stories, allowance made for the greater complexity and density of "Counterparts," are patently similar. Two strong, surly men, chafed by life situations in which they feel victimized, but which they can neither comprehend nor control, return, after unsatisfactory days in the masculine worlds of offices, pubs, or sports, "home" to their cold domestic hells and unleash on their families the frustration and self-confirming brute physical power they have been unable to use on the large, baffling world outside. Each man is, while thoroughly unattractive and unsympathetic in the rendering, essentially bewildered and helpless. (pp. 9-10)

"The Match," whose title is as ironically multiplex as is "Counterparts," naturally differs from the earlier story in significant ways. For Sillitoe's mid-century Nottinghamites there is no pervasive religious presence, no Temple-Bar, bartender-curate, pub-chapel series of equations cancelling each other out in an equilibrium of paralyzed futility…. Nonetheless, religion is important in "The Match," not so much for its absence as for its transformation into its counterpart, the one significant communal ritual remaining to the working-class, organized spectator sport. Sillitoe's perception of this central social fact of post-World War II culture is clear, and he skillfully dramatizes the quasi-mystical intensity that hangs in the air over the Saturday afternoon game. (p. 11)

The multiple references of the title point, as does "Counterparts," to many matches other than the football game, to the matching pairs of husbands and wives, to the marriage matches that condemn one generation to be a counterpart of the preceding one. Sillitoe's eye, trained to see in the bleak honesty of the midland slums, is clear and cold in projecting the future as a match for the past….

Without being overwhelmed by it, Sillitoe has used Joyce's unsparing vision of the early century's decaying metropolis to elucidate and shape a personal view of the "ageing suburb" familiar to us all. (p. 14)

Norma Phillips, "Sillitoe's 'The Match' and Its Joycean Counterparts," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Winter, 1975, pp. 9-14.

As readers of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will remember, the sun seldom shines in Nottingham, and when it does break palely through the industrial haze, it illuminates crowded shabby houses, dripping gutters, weed-choked gardens. The people drink and fornicate, drink and commit adultery, drink and work when they have to, hating every moment they spend in the factory and most of the moments that they spend at home. Marriage itself in the Sillitoe canon appears as a kind of blight, the ceremony guaranteed to make unpalatable those things which when done out of wedlock appear to be fun. (p. 541)

The fictional possibilities of such a wasteland are obviously limited. Even in the world of O'Hara's upper crust there are financiers and artists, professionals and heiresses, politicians and gangsters. But Nottingham is monolithic, unrelieved in its ugliness, and its citizens are cut from a common mould. Take them anywhere—to a borstal, to the army—and Nottingham goes with them: it is a way of life, a religion that admits no renegades. The wonder is how Sillitoe manages to write not only competent but occasionally brilliant fiction within such rigid limits. He succeeds because of his ability to perceive the rare stroke of beauty in the midst of drabness, the butterfly—if I may be permitted this ancient image—perched momentarily on the pile of dung. (p. 542)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975.