James Hanley Essay - Hanley, James (Vol. 8)

Hanley, James (Vol. 8)

Hanley, James 1901–

Irish novelist, essayist, and playwright who presently resides in England, Hanley is acknowledged to be a writer of crude energy and power. He spent ten years at sea, and some of his best novels take place aboard ship. His is a bleak, sombre vision that bears comparison with Hardy as well as Dostoevski. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5.)

Sometimes one can dislike a novel for excellent reasons, but still wonder if perhaps somehow the point has been missed. For this reason I do not want to attack A Dream Journey, but simply to report my fallible response of boredom and irritation…. [A Dream Journey] seldom or never departs from a single tone of nauseous misery, the repetitive dull thud of two people very slowly banging their heads together, for a lifetime, the ringings in their ears in perfect harmony.

There are perhaps circumstances in which boredom can reach an acuteness which transcends boredom; but what is more alarming than boring is that Mr. Hanley really seems to regard this harmonised vertigo as the heart of marriage, and to approve of it. There is an implication that Lena, spending her life coin by coin in support of her husband Clem's delusion that his art is worthwhile, is a heroine; that terror and admiration are somehow the appropriate response to the three last dreadful years of drink and bickering when both know, but neither admits, that Clem's paintings are mediocre and aimless.

If I understand Mr. Hanley correctly, then his thesis is pernicious and should be directly opposed by a clear statement that avoidable suffering and unending dishonesty are not a price worth paying for the illusion of security. But when, for instance, one can reach no opinion as to whether two inconsistent versions of the same event, a character's arrival at a house, appear deliberately (and pointlessly) or through oversight—it is clear that one is irretrievably out of sympathy with the author and unlikely to understand anything. 'Who destroyed who? Was it a waste? What did it mean now?' Yawn. (p. 22)

Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 16, 1976.

There are people who deliberately seek out the front rows of movie theaters. Risking headache and distorted vision, they find pleasure in the sheer intensity, the claustrophobic immersion that sitting close to the screen provides them. Something like this engulfment in a rush of images comes to mind when one tries to describe the fictional world of James Hanley….

[Hanley] is that rarity of rarities: a genuine original. No one has ever quite used the English language with such bruising abrasiveness, nor quite worked out the same vision of human existence. Forty-five years ago T. E. Lawrence found in Hanley's novels a "blistering vividness"—and that will do as a preliminary description. Trying to place Hanley, one thinks of George Gissing or Theodore Dreiser or Arnold Bennett, but soon such comparisons collapse.

Hanley has never won a large public and in the United States he is barely known, even among people who read serious fiction. Perhaps for understandable reasons. He yields nothing to sentiment or fantasy; and while not difficult in the way avant-garde writers can be, he demands a highly charged attention. He has perfected a gritty, plebeian realism that leaves one emotionally exhausted yet persuaded that here is a writer of high integrity and considerable achievement.

Hanley's new novel, "A Dream Journey," is one of his best, a study of two people, Clem Stevens and his mistress Lena, as they slip into middle age. The book focuses on their shared realization of failure, their sufferings during the London blitz in World War II, and, nevertheless, their clinging together with such a fierce absoluteness as to make the word "love" seem a mere trifling….

As in some of his earlier novels, the characters are loners, people sliding off the margin, grappling for a bit of space. Hanley turns repeatedly, in book after book, to the theme of exhaustion, the exhaustion that comes from the sheer fact of having managed to hang on for a certain number of decades. Consciousness turns in upon itself, becoming obsessive and clogged. Yet Hanley's characters, with an underdog stoicism, cling to their days, still wanting to taste a bit of life's stuff or pursue some end they know is beyond their reach. The career of human will is Hanley's great theme, the will to keep blundering through circumstance and time….

The customary attitudes of the novelist—either covering up too much or uncovering too much—Hanley leaves far behind. Life taken in close-up has no need for judgment of pity…. (p. 1)

Hanley's novels demand to be read slowly, in order to protect oneself from his relentlessness. It's like having your skin rubbed raw by a harsh wind, or like driving yourself to a rare pitch of truth by reflections—honest ones, for a change—about the blunders of your life.

Hanley piles rough slab of language upon rough slab. The usual connectives and transitions are often dropped, the usual "rests" between units of speech denied us. Words rub against one another, bleeding in friction. There is no point in quoting, since the effects are accumulative, not local. Sentences can seem ugly, paragraphs like a shapeless rockpile; but the book as a whole is a work of beauty, a capture of truth.

Inevitably there are also serious flaws in this sort of prose. Overfocused language can lead to incoherence, and at times one wants to beg for a shift in voice, an easing of pressure. What keeps Hanley from being a great writer (though he is a very fine one) is the absence of that copiousness of tone, perspective and voice one finds in the masters. By comparison, he seems rigid, stiff.

Still, let me urge anyone at all interested in contemporary writing to give Hanley a try. Even those readers who will dislike his work or find it too oppressive are likely to acknowledge its seriousness and worth. Reading Hanley, I found myself thinking about the sheer silliness of recent fashionable criticism about "the death of the novel." A Parisian critic is said to have called for "breaking the back of the novel." Well, I should like to see him try it with Hanley. It would be like beating a giant with a feather. (p. 25)

Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1976.

James Hanley's A Dream Journey considers with painful, grinding closeness the relationship—they aren't married and hardly can be called lovers—of Clement Stevens, a very unknown painter, and Lena, who has lived with and sustained him for many years….

The slow-moving story comes alive in a long middle section which shows Clem and Lena, in the same house, enduring the air raids of World War II…. Hanley beautifully orchestrates the small and self-centered concerns of people driven into closeness, but not understanding or affection, by disaster.

Under pressure, Clem and Lena were given something they never had before or since, an almost Wordsworthian sense of ordinary life as heavy with intimations, glimpses of apocalyptic strangeness beyond the grasp of "meaning."…

If youth, for all its pain, is a classically attractive subject for fiction, old age and unredeemable failure lend themselves less easily to the genre, since the pleasure of speculating about outcomes is foreclosed. A Dream Journey, though quite conventional in method, is a hard book to learn to read, being resolutely unamusing, severly undecorated, unresponsive to expectations of "story." It is to be liked, if at all, only on its own intransigent terms, and I see why Hanley's long career has brought him the admiration of other novelists but not of a wide audience…. Hanley's [novel] is … troubling and profound. (p. 32)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), March 3, 1977.

Most novelists give their characters words, actions, and settings that gradually reveal who they are, allowing the reader soon to feel that he knows more about them than they know about themselves. James Hanley works the other way around. From the start, the reader is privy to his characters' innermost thoughts, and little facts about the outside world filter in like falling leaves…. Technically, [A Dream Journey] suffers from all sorts of weaknesses—contrived plot devices, a blurriness when it isn't focussed on the two main characters, and a few too many of the choked exchanges ("'We … we …' He turned round, suddenly stuttered it out, 'I … he …'") that form the bulk of Clem and Lena's conversation. But few writers dig as deeply into people's spirits as Mr. Hanley does, and although his stiff, flat sentences take a bit of adjusting to, the rewards are well worth the effort. (pp. 118-19)

The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 7, 1977.