Hanley, James 1901–
An Irish novelist, essayist, and playwright now living in England, Hanley 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 Dostoevsky. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8.)
James Hanley has been discovered and rediscovered for almost half a century. When his last book came out in 1973, Time magazine, calling him "one of the most consistently praised and least-known novelists in the English-speaking world," echoed its judgment of 20 years before: "If critics' raves paid their way in royalties … Hanley might well be one of the richest authors alive."…
His earlier novels—more than 20—have been accorded a respectful neglect, not because he is particularly obscure or avant-garde, but because odd accidents of timing and shifts in public taste throughout his long career have resulted in such audiences as he has had being cut off from one another. In the case of his most ambitious undertakings, for example, a five-volume family saga of working-class life, many reviewers of the fifth book in 1958 were unaware that it was part of a cycle begun in 1935.
Much that Hanley has written is unavailable today, so it is difficult to get a clear sense of his growth. Moreover, those critics who could have kept the score have been less than helpful in their eagerness to claim him as another Joyce, Lawrence, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Strindberg; a new Melville, Bierce, Farrell or Faulkner; a second Balzac, Zola, Beckett or Pinter. Not all the comparisons are far-fetched, yet they tend to lose Hanley's special qualities in a welter of associations, to make him a kind of chameleon. To add to the confusion, there is little agreement about these qualities. Because he was born in Dublin, he is an Irish writer; since he has lived most of his adult life in Wales, he has been regarded as Welsh. But the Irish in his novels grew up, like the author, in Liverpool (for a long time he was so closely identified with that city that it belonged to him, one critic said, the same way London belonged to Dickens), and only a few of his works are set in Wales.
Hanley has also had a reputation as a writer of sea stories that Henry Green, among others, thinks superior to Conrad's….
His stokers and seamen recall not Conrad, but the early...
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'The worst thing is when nothing, absolutely nothing happens to a person in a whole lifetime. Just think of that.' Enduring, or escaping from such a nothing is what James Hanley's beautifully controlled, exquisitely written novel [A Kingdom] is all about. On the face of it, nothing much does happen….
Death gives birth to links and significances previously slipped into the mind's back pockets, and this novel is not just about paternal dominance and filial acceptance … but about the recognition and acceptance of endurance. I cannot praise this book too highly. (p. 20)
Mary Hope, in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 26, 1978.
The Welsh Sonata is a romantic, lyrical tale about a missing man, whose inexplicable departure from a tiny, locked-in village haunts the conscience of many and draws out the bardic talents of a few. The real subject of the book is a living and omnipresent network of private fantasies hoarded against the deprivations of a wilderness. Hanley conjures drama out of the seemingly endless inflections of a spare assortment of phrases and images that bring home "how far a word will go, how deep, or how high it can climb." (pp. 94-5)
Hanley's lulling, plainsong prose leads one gently but effectively into several unenviably bleak lives, redeemed by their private order and inner resourcefulness. (p. 95)
Laura Mathews, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1978.
[The] idea of traveling—in the mind, over the mountains, or back in time—is central to ["The Welsh Sonata" and "A Kingdom"]. A day has its own elasticity—a morning "is beginning to stretch itself," and elsewhere, "to grow." The past of a man is never lost, but accumulates in the common memory: "Yesterday a man, today a tale."…
The writing in both books is sometimes laconic, sometimes poetic, sometimes graphically realistic….
Mr. Hanley's solitary characters are mostly seen from the outside. The reader picks up clues about them, spurred on, like the policeman Goronwy Jones, by curiosity. In neither of these books is isolation examined minutely from the inside, as it is, for example, in Brian Moore's "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne." Yet solitude does not necessarily mean being invisible to others; indeed, the invisible ones are the conformists…. Mr. Hanley's solitaries are not unwatched. Their vagaries do not go unrecorded. Rhys the Cloud, and Cadi and her father are famous within their small communities. Their very unknowableness makes them mythical. Mr. Hanley, harping on the idea of man alone with—or against—nature, isolates him under a spotlight.
There is another, deeper, solitude that has no witnesses. James Hanley, for all his elusiveness, does not pursue it here. Uncompromising though he is as a novelist, and unconcerned with the literary "kings of tea," he is, by publishing his odd and to me absorbing books, staking his claim to stand in the world's spotlight. Although a lot of people may sneer away from Mr. Hanley's particular sort of Celtic Twilight, and he does not now have the recognition he deserves, he is the sort of figure to whom a cultish recognition will accrue, as it does within his books for his own characters. In his life and his work he lays the trail for his own myth. "Today a man, tomorrow a tale." (p. 11)
Victoria Glendinning, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1978.
[James Hanley] is an example of a novelist who has often aimed at a poetic type of fiction, restricting the social range of his work in his quest for intensity and significant form. He has undoubtedly pursued his art with dedication and integrity, and although he has elicited few displays of enthusiastic acclaim he has rightly won a great deal of respect for his artistic purity. Of his two books recently published, the reissued The Welsh Sonata (1954) is much more conspicuously poetic than the less ambitious and less pretentious A Kingdom, but despite being more conventionally realistic this new novel also strives towards the poetic. Neither novel contains much in the way of narrative, but The Welsh Sonata is more extreme in this respect…. As the title indicates, the structure of the book is analogous to the three-movement form of the classical sonata, and the subtitle Variations on a Theme provides another clue to its quasi-musical organisation. Like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, for example, Hanley is attempting to do what Forster in Aspects of the Novel regarded as an impossibility—making the novel aspire to the condition of music. Different as [the village] Cilgyn is from Dylan Thomas's Llareggub in many ways, it resembles it in being a symbolic and non-naturalistic version of a Welsh village. Despite some twentieth-century features, Hanley's imaginary world possesses an air of timelessness like Llareggub and the locales of T. F. Powys's work; the action, unlike that of A Kingdom, cannot be located in time. If T. F. Powys is one possible influence on Hanley, the surrealist-tinged Welsh gothicism of some of Dylan Thomas's and Glyn Jones's stories is surely another. Yet Hanley's style is his own, and as is invariably the case with self-consciously poetic novels, it is the most distinctive feature of the book. There are passages in which the Old Testament...
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