J. B. Priestley Essay - Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 9)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 9)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) 1894–

Priestley, a British novelist, playwright, theater director, and essayist whom Michael George calls "something of a professional Englishman," has in his writings attempted to discover and describe the ingredients of the English personality. A keen observer, Priestley is noted for his accurate and evocative descriptions of character and setting as well as for his uncompromisingly humanistic stance. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The title story [of The Carfitt Crisis] was—according to Mr Priestley—"originally conceived in dramatic form" and it has all the scars of an after-birth. The dialogue is of that heavy and awkward variety which is always associated with bad drama reduced to cold print, and the narrative reads like a particularly elaborate set of stage directions. The dramatis personae in this particular crisis are thoroughly conventional and the plot (which has something to do with the arrival of a thoroughly modern, cool and boring American into the thoroughly middle-class, anxious and unstable household of the Carfitts) turns around a predictable axis.

A certain amount of cliche is permissible on stage, of course, where recognisable human beings can be actually seen to mouth the dreadful stuff; but on the page, the enterprise becomes merely ridiculous. (p. 664)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 31, 1975.

[Found, Lost, Found: The English Way of Life is] a disappointment. The action moves along with all the pace and energy we expect of this expert storyteller, but at the end we're left with a withered acorn of prejudice…. [One] of the infuriating things about this novel is that everyone keeps telling everyone else how clever he or she is, though with minimal justification…. His hero's travels provide Priestley with opportunities to air his prejudices, which he does with a surprising lack of sparkle. Had he written a more substantial novel he might have scored some winning points, but instead of riding the whole course on his pet hobby-horses he does not stay long enough in any one saddle to make an appreciable impact…. Priestley has always adopted a style which needs more elbowroom [than this].

The satirical targets are really too obvious—the Government, the civil service, shop stewards, avant garde producers of Shakespeare, Women's Libbers, dog-lovers and politically-minded students…. It's sad … to discover that a master of prose who in the past wrote so vividly about the English, not with stars in his eyes but with generosity in his heart, has lost—only momentarily, I hope—that warmth of understanding. Humour and humanity have given way to petulance, and in the process Priestley has lost both his sense of compassion and his security of marksmanship. There are some fine moments, of course…. They are not enough, however, to compensate for the flimsiness of the story and the faltering aim of the novelist's satirical arrows. (p. 60)

Frank Granville Barker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Frank Granville Barker 1976; reprinted with permission), September, 1976.

J. B. Priestley once complimented life for having such an easy time creating superior comic characters and situations. Novelists must strain to do this: "We hear a sneering little voice whispering, 'Absurd … overdrawn … unconvincing … Dickensian' … and so out they go, these glorious extravagances." In 71 novels, plays and collections of essays, Mr. Priestley, now 82, has made a career of sneering back at that little voice. An unrepentantly public figure, he wants his own "extravagances" to be heard and immediately understood: "No matter what the subject in hand might be, I want to write something that at a pinch I could read aloud in a barparlor."

Mr. Priestley's new novel, "Found, Lost, Found," would suit admirably for such a reading…. Dekker, the novel's hero, is a cultivated man who endures the "boredom and irritation" of contemporary English life by listening to Alfred Brendel's Mozart records and "floating through" on gin. (Dekker never drinks enough to get drunk, just enough to "float"—a Jesuitical distinction perhaps, but one he insists on making.) He falls in love with Kate, a woman with reforming instincts who tries to get him out of the pub by fleeing to an unknown house in the country and challenging him to find her. Not surprisingly, he does find her, but continues floating anyway. This may be Mr. Priestley's most aggressively happy ending to date.

Up to that point, however, the novel sustains an almost consistently sour note. The intentionally silly pursuit plot is a springboard for satire. Mr. Priestley has opinions on just about everything, from contemporary sexuality ("acrobatics, gristle, spasms and a let-down") to the song "Happy Birthday" (a "detestable composition"). Clearly he was disenchanted when he wrote this novel.

In one scene, Dekker meets a rock-and-roll group, whose garish, funky makeup in a dark theater reminds him of "patients in a jungle fever hospital." The scene does not quite come off, partly because the subject is too easy a target, partly because Mr. Priestley blasts away too loudly and too many times. He complains that rock-and-roll shouts in our ears, but so does he. In the overtly satirical sections, his characters pretend too feebly to mediate between his views and his story. When he has Kate denounce political groups on both right and left as "idiots" of opposite extremes, his own centrist views are too palpably obvious.

Mr. Priestley's "extravagance" works best, not with programmatic social satire, but with the broader "Dickensian" comedy that catches individuals in the act of turning themselves into caricatures. The many grotesques in this novel—Mr. Foxbeater (who has "an enormous flat face like an unbaked pie"), Mr. Ivybridge (who looks "vaguely like an admiral of about 1910"), Lady Brindleways (who insists on being called Lady "Brin-lew-ays" at London parties)—smack superficially of Dickens, but Mr. Priestley observes them with his own shrewd, practiced eye.

Dekker, who constantly encounters these people in the novel, is so bored at times that he intentionally becomes one of them, even to the point of assuming an absurd name (J. Carlton Mistletoe, Rufus Seddlebirk) to fit the role. His boredom is a role, a kind of Wildean pose. When life makes it necessary to act ridiculous, Mr. Priestley seems to be saying, one should do it consciously, with "imagination and heart." Mrs. Dragby, an old-line feminist, demonstrates precisely these qualities when she responds to a Dekker jibe with severity, "Mr. Dekker, I must tell you that one reason I have been able to do so much in my chosen field—is—that I'm entirely deficient in a sense of humour."

This is in itself a witty statement, and Mrs. Dragby knows it. Whenever someone like her comes on, we can hear Mr. Priestley sneering back once again at the ugly little voice that censors laughter. (pp. 10-11)

Jack Sullivan, "English Laughter," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 28, 1977, pp. 10-11.