Alan Sillitoe made his mark on the literary establishment with the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). In these early works, the author’s style is taut and lean; the stories amply display what Henry James calls solidity of specification, for Sillitoe’s representations of life in a working-class district of Nottingham are concretely realized and densely textured. His ear for speech is unerring, and he adroitly captures the quotidian rhythms of his native idiom. These works have a raw anger that is barely kept under aesthetic control, and Sillitoe gives his robustly anarchistic view of society memorable spokesmen: Arthur Seaton, the working-class hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning whose rebellious temperament, sensuous vitality, and intellectual cunning allow him to define himself uniquely against the ubiquity of the “they” who have power and to beat the system to the degree that it is beatable; and the delinquent Smith, a long-distance runner in the eponymous short story, a rebel who refuses to play the game, to win the race for the governor of the prison. The verbal energy and brute realism of these early works are, paradoxically, the vintage Sillitoe. The writings of the so-called angry young men seem pallid in comparison. Thus, if one has only intermittently kept track of what Sillitoe has been doing for the last twenty years, Her Victory will come as a surprise.
It is hard to imagine a slower-moving novel. The reader is subjected to nearly six hundred pages of laborious, stilted, and repetitive prose. At points, Sillitoe is overly solemn, puritanical, and pontifical. The two most important characters in Her Victory, Pam and Tom, attitudinize philosophically and speculate endlessly, especially Tom. Moreover, the ideological posturing of the narrative as a whole is predictable. The causes of feminism, lesbianism, and Zionism are blandly espoused without any attempt to consider the complexities of the issues involved; hence, the implied liberalism seems facile. Sillitoe’s early work expresses a healthy skepticism toward all ideological posturing. This is not the case in Her Victory. What weakens the book is not the inclusion of ideological sentiments and philosophical observations but the spurious rhetoric and self-indulgence which attend them. As D. H. Lawrence points out in his “Study of Thomas Hardy” found in Phoenix: Posthumous Papers (1936), “it is the novelists and dramatists who have the hardest task in reconciling their metaphysic, their theory of being and knowing, with their living sense of being.” Her Victory has much discussion about being and knowing but rarely evokes any living sense of being. As Lawrence notes in the same study, “every work of art adheres to some system of morality. But if it really be a work of art, it must contain the essential criticism on the morality to which it adheres.” Her Victory is devoid of this essential criticism; it takes itself very seriously.
If the ideological posturing of the narrative is predictable, the plot development is even more so. The “significant” and “unexpected” climax of the book, as advertised by the dust jacket, is neither significant nor unexpected. Once the reader discovers halfway through the novel that Tom is Jewish, his eventual voyage to Israel is inevitable. The idea of redemption through Israel is hardly “unexpected.” Sillitoe establishes early in the novel that Tom is a rootless wanderer in search of an identity. He has clumsily planted incongruous references to Judaism—in part 1, a long quotation from the book of Isaiah (part of a sermon which Pam just happens to hear) and, in part 3, the unusual beliefs of a wireless operator on...
(The entire section is 1561 words.)