David Storey Essay - Storey, David (Vol. 8)

Storey, David (Vol. 8)

Storey, David 1933–

A British playwright and novelist, Storey often uses athletic situations as his literary settings. Concerned with the effect the past has on an individual's ability to live life to its fullest, Storey depicts persons alienated from their families, friends, teams, class, and themselves. Storey is a recipient of, among other awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. (See also CLC, Vols, 2, 4, 5.)

[Storey] has refused to stand still. He has gone from vigorous naturalism to the most florid, turbulent romanticism; has experimented with cool, dry humour, adapting his expertise in the theatre to evolve a lean and bony style, strong and self-effacing and depending mainly on dialogue; and has achieved in his latest book, Saville, a highly individual way of treating, with honesty and sympathy, the conventional theme of poor boy's flight from family ties and oppressive home environment. (p. 80)

David Storey has not rested on the laurels of This Sporting Life. You can never predict what his next book will be like. What could have been more different from the account of machinations in scrum and boardroom of a Rugby League club than the sultry, sombre romanticism of Radcliffe, with its heavy sexual symbolism, its frequent use of the pathetic fallacy, and its larger-than-life characters who all seem to want either to destroy or to save someone else? The atmosphere is of Wuthering Heights re-written by Lawrence. Radcliffe was a clumsy, blundering, groping and yet oddly impressive book. And it gave only false clues to the direction in which Storey would develop.

It was almost impossible to believe that Storey's next two novels were by the author of Radcliffe. Where Radcliffe sprawled, Pasmore was compressed as tight as a nut. Where Radcliffe was completely humourless, A Temporary Life was cool, witty, elegant; and in the Head of the Art School, 'Skip' Wilcox, potato-soup addict and simple-life fanatic, Storey created a comic character who would have been unthinkable under the lowering skies and crumbling crenellations of Radcliff. (pp. 82-3)

Saville … is no ordinary novel about growing up and away. Nor is it like any of Storey's earlier novels. He avoids both the extravagances of Radcliffe and the somewhat 'flip', cool humour of A Temporary Life. He has achieved a more honest and true-to-life account of childhood and school days than any I have read. He is the master, equally, of description and of dialogue. He has looked and listened closely, and remembered accurately. (p. 83)

One reason why Storey is all the time developing and improving … is that he takes art seriously. There are quite specific indications of Storey's attitude in several of his books. In Radcliffe, Leonard says, 'The only real politics is art. The rest is just sentiment.' Storey, like Colin in Saville, has the artist's receptivity to experience, a 'faith in impossibility'. 'Everything is allowable; everything is permissible; anything can happen. It's arrogance to assume it can't.'… Storey finds it 'touching … that if everything is meaning-less, nevertheless we still ascribe some meaning to it'. It is a fertile philosophy for a writer. (p. 84)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1976), October-November, 1975.

I am not quite sure what David Storey was trying to do in writing "Life Class," but whatever it was, I doubt if he has done it….

"Life Class" (double-edged title?) is full of pronouncements by Alott [the protagonist] and others concerning Art, Life, Revolution, and other topics of general interest, which are supposed, I think, to function in counterpoint to the goings-on, first desultory and then violent, in the classroom, with talk and action fusing into an ironic commentary on the place of art in modern society. But the counterpoint never gets working properly, leaving the pronouncements out on their own as empty gassing, and the action, also out on its own, amorphous in the first act, gratuitous in the second, and frequently, in both acts, not quite convincing.

The play is like some of the students' drawings: smudgy.

Julius Novick, "When Does Art Turn into Rape?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), December 22, 1975, p. 115.

David Storey is one of the most interesting of present-day English playwrights. Though Life Class is not as finished an accomplishment as The Contractor or Home, it is nonetheless an arresting piece. It strikes me as a fragment of a larger design. It is an expression of an inner disquiet related to a persistent preoccupation. "Don't you get the feeling at times," the play's central figure says, "that [art is] a substitute for living?"…

The play is densely written with dashes of nervous and jagged wit. The various types, laconically and sardonically sketched, ring true. The tone is just: compassionate without sentimentality, objective without cruelty. The play disturbs, but it is not unhealthy or sadistic. (p. 27)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 10, 1976.

David Storey's [Saville] is a period piece. It begins in about 1926–the indefiniteness of the overture has an almost Victorian feel—and proceeds to follow the fortunes of collier Harry Saville's family up to the early fifties…. The story, absorbing, often painful, culminates in Colin's bleak realisation that he is alienated from all the relationships by which he has defined himself since childhood—family, neighbours, friends, lovers, enemies, employers, colleagues alike, the whole social process in fact, of which he is, in his final vision of himself, both scourge and victim. This revelation leads to a brutal rejection of the past, and the inevitable train journey from the 'blackish smoke' of Saxton, his now disintegrating pit-village in South Yorkshire, to London. By the time Colin leaves, he is (literally and chronologically) an Angry Young Man….

[The] book is not merely a piece of richly-observed naturalism. The intention is much further-reaching than to chronicle. In fact, the observation of social detail takes place within relatively narrow limits: the polarities of otherness and intimacy. Storey advances his narrative in a steady pulse of contrasts. Some of the most effective moments in the book come from their reversal: the intimate, for example, can suddenly become oppressively strange. His mother, mechanically scrubbing the floor, absorbed in her grief for her dying parents, becomes 'like some other person'. Much later on, the familiarity of her habits seems inexplicable and faintly obscene to Colin…. By contrast, the 'otherness' of his friend Stafford's upper-class detachment is a source of intimacy. In this sense, the focus of the whole book is not ultimately naturalistic or historical, despite its obvious weight of detail. Observation cuts a narrow swathe, returning again and again to obsessive reference points.

The key to what amounts to a restraint of scope and method lies partly in the character of Colin himself. The narrative is cast in an intimate/other third-person and the reader is made progressively aware of the knot of repression implicit in the apparently dead centre of Colin's responses to his environment. At school, he is nicknamed the Brooder, because of his melancholic self-absorption. On the lists read out in class, his name is last—a piece of patterning which conveys the self-centredness of the boy's growing consciousness, but also symbolises the obscure threat that he is not really there for other people…. [When] Colin gets a job as a teacher, having no class of his own he is listed on the rota as 'supernumerary'. The prophecy of his non-existence for others has symbolically come to pass.

In the early part of the novel, this emptiness at the centre of the narrative point of view serves as a device to remove explicit commentary. There are several enjoyable set-pieces, written, tongue-in-cheek, in a ponderous, euphemistic style that is almost Dickensian…. But if some of these early vignettes float free, there is a dialectical relationship between Colin's responses and his environment. Most of the time, we find ourselves staring out at the world through the grotesque angle of his stubborn eyes; we overhear, as if at a distance, the monologues of his mentors; and later, his friends. A lot of the comedy in the book comes from the observed regression of various individuals to a state resembling childhood. (p. 60)

Colin seems to see his fellow-humans in a distinctly lobsterish light: the invariable symptom of their self-absorption is the appearance of the red face. This obsessive image is not ultimately consistent; but it has a number of symbolic meanings ranging from the flush of abashed sensitivity to the beacon of self-regarding authority. Each, equally, seems to involve a loss of self…. One by one, sooner or later, the people round Colin join the gallery of selves reduced to roles: caught in the act, red-faced.

But the negative element in Colin, the apparent passivity that causes him to be talked at rather than to, is not simply a device. It is at the centre of the book's main opposition between character and circumstances. Throughout his childhood, Colin's dogged acquiescence to the pieties of his family's life is besieged by its opposite: the effortless freedom, glimpsed usually in physical action, he seems to see in others. (p. 61)

Colin's distressing recognition of his own conditioning depends ultimately, it seems, on the shaky proposition that the inner reaches of the self are inarticulable, and perhaps because of that, inaccessible, finally, to social process. The idea, for example, quite feasible from the narrative, that Colin's notion of not-self (his real self) might also be a product of his background is never seriously entertained….

The narrative abounds in 'insights' (more like revenges)…. The attempts of various characters to offer their explanations of the social process to Colin are almost invariably undermined in some way by what they are (what, that is, they have been made to be). Behind them, stands the image of the mother.

It seems to me that the naturalistic format finally has a compromising effect. The restraint, the craft, the implicitness, is more often than not admirable; but it is a restraint of the impulse towards myth that seems to me such a unique part of David Storey's talent. Occasionally it peeps through in images: Colin sees the armchairs at Elisabeth's as boulders; or his parents' house appears to him at the end of the novel like 'some cave they'd lived inside, worn, eroded, hollowed out by the vehemence of their use'.

Saville is a psychological drama, despite its impressive detail, not a social novel. Colin's negative awareness has very little conscious political content. His judgment on 'community' is impressively anti-pastoral ('It exists … of its own volition. When the volition goes, the community goes with it.'); but one feels it has finally more to do with his own internal development than the disintegrating village of Saxton. Elisabeth sums up Colin's situation in what look like social terms:

'You don't really belong to anything,' she said. 'You're not really a teacher. You're not really anything. You don't belong to any class, since you live with one class, respond like another, and feel attachments to none.'

But there's no real connection offered between the disintegration of the community, strongly felt at the end of the novel, and Colin's alienation. The former seems to be an objective correlative for the latter. If this novel really were a form of social history, we should have to ask for more than that. (p. 62)

Victor Sage, "Out of Class," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), October, 1976, pp. 60-2.

[Saville] makes a thorough investigation of the Arnoldian theme of the divided self. Painful enough to read, some of it must have been agony to write. And brave, too, because it goes over all the old, black, literary ground surrounding the coalpit. Yet what a forcing-bed for the pen this remains.

Here we have the familiar drama of a man whose culture sprouted because of the pit and the society it created, but who, because of education, is severed from his roots. Only no one has written of this classic dilemma with such detail and penetration as we find in Saville, nor has any previous novel so totally described a working-class family in spiritual transition during the drab, though real, revolution of the Forties and Fifties.

One of the telling things about this book is that it shows how hard it was for people like the Savilles, massively ritualised and made inert by the conditions of existence before the changes came, to make any forward movement at all. The writing manages to suggest this listless waiting time without ever being quiescent itself. On the contrary, Storey's imagination seethes just below the surface of the decrepitude he portrays. What he hates about it is tangled with what he respects and, bad as things were, he is far from welcoming what was to replace them. 'We advance at a price' is his warning….

Gradually, one sees—and the slow realisation is dramatically very powerful—that Storey has invented [three] brothers both to personify the main strands of his own individuality—the writer, the painter, the sportsman, the exile and the indigenous man who stays put—and to examine the brother relationship….

It is a melancholy tale. A passionate chronicle of an aversion. It gives little away in the outright affectionate sense, and, as for such releases as the erotic, they don't get so much as a look in.

Ronald Blythe, "Saville Rows," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), October 14, 1976, p. 486.