Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 1)

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Sillitoe, Alan 1928–

English novelist, poet, and short story writer, best known for his collection, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

That Alan Sillitoe should have had so immediate and resounding an impact upon the contemporary British novel is as much a sociological as a literary phenomenon. In fact, he is a writer of limited resources—stylistically and imaginatively—and of limited thematic and dramatic range, so that his work … seems composed of episodes in a single immense fiction that gains in intensity and comprehensiveness what it lacks in scope and variety….

Sillitoe is a throwback, an old-fashioned realist—in fact, a regionalist. He has attempted to make viable as art what was called, without embarrassment or sneering, the "proletarian novel" in the 1930's. His protagonists are profoundly rooted in their class, and draw such strengths as they possess—or come finally to possess—from that identification. This is, strikingly, not the case with the typical protagonist of the contemporary "picaresque" novel: whatever the picaro's origins, whatever his relation to society, he rejects affiliation, including class affiliation. He has opted out of the system entirely. In this central respect, Sillitoe is almost a solitary figure among the writers of the post-war generation….

For Sillitoe, class is fate…. Whatever else he is, whatever the elements of anarchism in his work, Sillitoe is obsessively concerned with a single idea, the discovery of self through the discovery—or discovery anew—of class solidarity. That egregious contemporary cliché—the quest for self-discovery—has no other meaning for him….

Sillitoe is a historical surprise. In the utterly changed circumstances of the fifties and sixties, he has partially validated as art the "proletarian novel" of the thirties; and standing eccentrically against the current driven by his defter contemporaries, he has made possible a working-class novel.

Saul Maloff, "The Eccentricity of Alan Sillitoe" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 95-113.

[In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning] Sillitoe catches the grumbling and the touchiness, the traditional radicalism, the beer, fights, fornication and skittles in a novel whose form is imperfect but whose dialogue is very much alive. For perfection of form one has to turn to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the title-story of a remarkable volume, in which we really learn what makes juvenile delinquents tick. It was a disappointment to see Sillitoe turning to Kafka-and-water in The General, and painful to watch him grappling unhandily with the problems of rather naïve polemical verse in The Rats. It was a relief to find him going back to the full-length working-class novel in Key to the Door….

Key to the Door is one of those rare books which are hard to judge artistically because they are so wrong-headed. The Malayan landscape is wonderfully rendered (there is plenty of rough poetry in Sillitoe), and there is a great deal of the radical vigour that distinguishes Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But Sillitoe has no right to twist contemporary history for ends that are not purely artistic.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 148.

"The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" is written in a tradition in English fiction which dates at least from Elizabethan times, in the works of Greene, Nashe, and Deloney—the rogue's tale, or thief's autobiography. These works have traditionally justified their existence by purporting to serve two functions: to allow the reader to learn the tricks of outlaws so that he may avoid falling prey to them, and to lead the reader to virtue through the terrible example of its opposite. The moral in many instances is delineated by the repentant criminal himself. Sillitoe's criminal in this story is not repentant, and the moral of the tale is not so simple as to promote the cause of virtue as opposed to vice…. Sillitoe offends our moral sense by having his thief stubbornly refuse repentance, but he maintains our interest by showing how the man keeps his integrity while under the physical and legal authority of those whom he despises. In so doing, the author has reversed the formula of the popular crime tale of fiction, wherein the reader enjoys vicariously witnessing the exploits of the outlaw and then has the morally reassuring pleasure of seeing the doors of the prison close upon him in the conclusion. Sillitoe begins his tale in prison, and he ends it before the doors have opened again, leaving us with the unsettling realization that the doors will indeed open and that the criminal will be released unreformed.

Insofar as Sillitoe's works are dominated by any one theme, that theme is rebellion. In many of his novels and short stories he presents his heroes, who, with few exceptions, are members of the laboring class, rebelling against those mainstays of proletarian literature of the 1930's, oppressive management and conservative politicians…. [While] the equalitarian society which Sillitoe desires is far from becoming an actuality, the theme of rebellion is at best somewhat muddled for a "working-class" novelist, as Sillitoe is, in a country with a Socialist Labour government during a time of comparative prosperity. The conflict, however, can be clearly defined once again by a writer of Sillitoe's predilections if he places his character in physical bondage. For this reason, I believe, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" has proved to be one of Sillitoe's most successful explorations of the theme of rebellion.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning … had seemed on the whole a type of proletarian Lucky Jim … despite the occasional anarchistic grumblings of its hero, Arthur Seaton. Sillitoe, accordingly, was grouped by reviewers and critics with other novelists who were at the time being labeled "angry young men": Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and John Braine….

Sillitoe was never, really, simple an "angry young man." His hostility was not a transitory emotion of youth, but a permanent rancor well-grounded in class hatred. "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" contains the seeds of the revolutionary philosophy which would eventually attain full growth in his works. At the base of Sillitoe's moral perspective is the conviction expressed by Smith [in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner] that those who are in accord with the present organization of society "don't see eye to eye with us and we don't see eye to eye with them, so that's how it stands and how it will always stand." The position permits two possible conclusions: an impasse,… or revolution, which is the path that Sillitoe has chosen…. Sillitoe had produced a remarkable and sympathetic portrait of a recalcitrant, revolutionary young man whose extreme views were not necessarily those of the author.

Allen R. Penner, "Human Dignity and Social Anarchy: Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1969 (© 1969 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 253-65.

Alan Sillitoe's new book of poems, Love in the Environs of Voronezh, is full of memorable lines but lacks memorable poems. One gets an impression of compacted and striking metaphor, a fabric of sheer image comparable in some respects to the poetry of Richard Wilbur, yet without his supple syntax.

Patrick Callahan, "Image and Metaphor" (© 1971 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1971, pp. 178-79.

Sillitoe's promise a decade ago was considerable. His first novel was highly acclaimed, and so was his first short-story collection. As one of the last of Britain's Angry Young Men, Sillitoe regularly portrayed the rage and despair of the Nottingham factory poor. But his anger and fictions have altered with time. In Sillitoe's early work there was something single-minded and intense in the actions and scenes, particularly in the shorter novels. The seventeen-year-old boy in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning graphically expressed moments of pain and pure rebellion. Later novels reveal a broader social and political horizon. Sillitoe's characters not only privately rebel but become dedicated to larger "movements," such as the Algerian FLN.

A Start in Life, however, lacks both politics and rebellion…. One tires of Cullen's endless ego-tripping, rambling, and thought-defying meditations. The book groans with massive descriptions of foodstuff, drink, and fornication. Sillitoe mixes burlesque and comic scenes with moments of tragedy, romance, and pop Dick Tracy. Moreover, the fiction repeatedly halts, allowing some character, for many pages, to detail "the story of his life."

John R. Clark, in Saturday Review, October 16, 1971, p. 69.


Alan Sillitoe Long Fiction Analysis


Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 10)