Alan Sillitoe Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 3) - Essay

Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sillitoe, Alan 1928–

A British novelist, short story writer, and poet, Sillitoe was the first member of his family to read or write. Against a British working-class background, he explores the violence of everyday life and the discovery of selfhood in relation to society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Nothing really changes Sillitoe's jungle world. A man may win or lose, depending on the wheel of chance, but he cannot control the wheel or change his position. Often, too, the wheel is rigged, for the same numbers keep coming up as privilege and power keep reinforcing themselves. But not all of man is controlled by the wheel. Man can invent escapes, create art, focus defiantly on the wheel's essential structure. And the escape, the art, and the honesty, unable to alter the world, are themselves a part of man's nature, an illusory route out of the jungle which stems from the fertile and vibrant jungle itself. The wheel, the exterior fortune, is rigid and inflexible; the jungle, the interior, is dark and rich and alive.

James Gindin, "Alan Sillitoe's Jungle," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of the Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 14-33.

Sillitoe stands as a comforting reminder to the English that the grand old roistering "low life" tradition of Fielding and Dickens may have lost its sting but is not yet dead, and a welcome antidote to writers like John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, and John Braine who have used working-class values and aspirations to bludgeon middle-class hypocrises, and whose characters are always trying to move in social circles for which their family backgrounds clearly unfit them. Sillitoe poses no threat of this kind. Although he does have his grievances, he seems basically content to keep the working man in his place, and as a writer he evidently wants to remain a working man. These attributes combined with the startling fact that he can write at all, and even on occasion write well, considering that he left school at the age of fourteen, give him in English eyes something of the curiosity value of an exceptionally well-mannered circus monkey who can play "God Save the Queen" on a tin horn.

American responses to Sillitoe are apt, on the other hand, to be a bit more complicated. Americans are not likely to find it remarkable that he can write more than his name without having taken a First at Oxford or Cambridge (after all, uneducated novelists are nothing new to us), but they might well find what he writes about rather hard to relate to their own experience. There can be no doubt that working-class life has a reality, a special kind of presence, in England that it has not had in America for a very long time….

Since literary Englishmen and literary Americans now inhabit an international community of letters, Sillitoe can no more be excused for not knowing this than for not knowing that Norris, Dreiser, and James T. Farrell—to say nothing of Arnold Bennett and Orwell—did all that he has done first and better than he. It might be objected that working-class life is, after all, Sillitoe's material, and that he ought to have a perfect right to use it if he so chooses. But there is little virtue in repeating the discoveries or the mistakes of one's predecessors, or in trying to make literature out of a cultural lag that merely social reform and the payment of some money can rectify, unless, like Faulkner, one can universalize it or wishes, like Norris or Dreiser, to "expose" it—as apparently Sillitoe does not—or, like any really original writer, can penetrate beneath its surface implications and find there new life never before revealed.

Yet this is just what Sillitoe has so far been unable to do, what not only his creative limitations but the limitations of his material prevent him from doing. For to the extent that his people are the victims of their economic situation, they are people without the power of moral freedom. And to the extent that they are unfree, and lack even the opportunity to be enticed to choose freedom and to be damned by it, they are grossly oversimplified as fictional characters, pawns in a chess game in which every move is necessary and therefore none is possible. All that they think and doand want is determined by the exigencies of their class existence, including even their empty gestures of rebellion against that existence; hence, nothing they think is interesting, nothing they do is finally worth doing, and nothing they want will in the end be of any value whatever to them. There can be no doubt that one may be impressed by this and frequently moved to compassion. But one is emphatically not moved to understanding. All one feels like doing is what Virginia Woolf said the novels of Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy inspired her to do: join a society or write a check.

John W. Aldridge, "Alan Sillitoe: The Poor Man's Bore" (1964), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 239-44.

The message is basically one of light and breezy pessimism about most human political systems, about the corruption of technology by power politics, about individual human greed and insensitivity. Travels in Nihilon is a very pleasing reminder of Mr. Sillitoe's range, from poignant social realism in his early work through earnest social documentation to this kind of light satirical exuberance. He has become one of the most varied and unexpected of novelists. At the same time, the humour and the conscientious seriousness shown in different books seem slightly uncomfortable companions.

"Nothing Doing," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 17, 1971, p. 1105.

[One] use of history central in fiction [that] is alien to the tradition of compassion … is history as rambling chronicle, a loose form that serves as a framework for frequent digressions on topics of particular interest to the author. The history involved is seldom explained or made relevant to the narrative; rather, it comprises a convenient chronology to tie together superficially all the author's essays and observations. The recent work of Alan Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters (1965) and A Tree on Fire (1967), the first two novels in a projected trilogy, provides an example of this kind of rambling chronicle as a loose history of several characters in the late fifties and early sixties…. Despite some excellent scenes of working-class domestic life and a few comically inventive details, the novels never cohere and the history is never really relevant to the characters. Lacking the cohesion provided by a complex articulation of a working-class perspective in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), without the abstract or fabulistic structure of The General (1960), without even the concentration on a single historical episode such as the colonial wars in Malaysia that provide focus for the rebellious attitude in Key to the Door (1961), Sillitoe's recent fiction sprawls episodically. And, within the sprawl, the author inserts essays that document his social preferences and animosities.

James Gindin, in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 350-51.

Nobody will begrudge a novelist his escape from conventional forms; but here it is as if Alan Sillitoe, having vaulted the barbed-wire that fences off the fictional domain, had found himself incapable of doing more than inspect the variegated drabnesses of the No-Man's Land beyond. Raw Material disconsolately enshrines his indecision, and it is a forlorn and ragged book.

The fault lies not in the formal haphazardness of the work, frankly described as a "mish-mash" by an unusually desperate blurb-writer, but in its apparent assumption that "truth" lies somewhere between autobiographical fact and imaginative invention, partaking of the mysteries of both. It is an assumption that is already developing into neurosis on the third page of the book…. By Chapter 14 we have reached the stage where: "All one can believe in is the falsity of truth, and start again." Mercifully, Mr. Sillitoe does not take his own advice literally, and the truth-mongering manifestos begin gradually to die away….

Unfortunately, the sympathy generated by Mr. Sillitoe's compassionate view of the past, and his present sufferings on its behalf, do not render his final bursts of aphoristic speculation any more acceptable. One longs to be able to break in upon his monologue and protest that if any writer is likely to get nearer to the truth by not talking about it, that writer is Alan Sillitoe. His "raw material", in that half-digested stage between his unique experience and his equally unique interpretation of it, is no better than the mixture of preoccupation and conviction that we all have spinning in our brains.

"On the Anvil," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), November 3, 1972, p. 1305.

Of all living English writers none can match Alan Sillitoe's sharp instinct for the grinding pain and convulsive joys of working-class life. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner probably are this generation's most vivid documents of how the majority of English people live and think.

Clancy Sigal, "Band of Outlanders," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 27, 1973, p. 25.

Not long ago Alan Sillitoe's anti-capitalist fantasy, Travels in Nihilon, came out in paperback. Last year he published Raw Material, a biography of his grandparents and other members of his family, which is also an oblique autobiography. Now he has brought out a new book of short stories and has ready for the press the third volume of a trilogy of novels that began with The Death of William Posters and A Tree on Fire. This varied stream of work should remind us forcibly of the range and prolific quality of this writer and of his considerable and growing significance.

Yet midway in his writing career he is not immediately and decisively recognised as of this stature. He is still mainly associated with his first successes, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He is read by large numbers of people, but not by those much concerned with literature. He uncompromisingly rejects, is simply not concerned with, the network of bourgeois attitudes and expectations of most literary people. Critics have little to say about him. Few seem to recognise the underlying connectedness that powers his work, the polarities of ice and fire within his consciousness, of desert and green space in his searching beyond that. On the one hand the bleakness of the existential view, having always to move on. On the other a deep sense of rootedness in the worth of individual people. This is essentially a lonely position, as that of important writers often is. But there seems a trapped quality in the loneliness of Alan Sillitoe that I think holds back his flow of power, for he stresses more and more the inner individuality of the writer, not his imagination that looks out….

There is a … story, which I think Alan Sillitoe has sought in his novels rather than his short stories, of people who are both agents and patients in life, who are searching for themselves. They want to make something of life, which starts with making something of their own life. Not in grasping competition but with a grasp of understanding that is eventually going to make ordinary English people more fully masters of their lives. The implications of this are strongly revolutionary, but Alan Sillitoe keeps muting this as more and more he sees the needs and meaning for the individual as creating the larger meaning, rather than the other way about. The temptation to do this must be immensely strong, especially for writers of power who inevitably work much alone, but that does not make this way round the true one. All evolution is against it.

Both Alan Sillitoe's first successes, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, make a move in a revolutionary direction in their rejection of existing authority and imposed pattern of life, and in voicing aspects of consciousness about to erupt in manifold ways in our society. There must have been great excitement for the writer here, speaking intensely for himself and suddenly discovering how many others identified with his characters. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner suggests the 'found' story, symbol fused with allegory, compelling as actuality but not starting from there in the writer's imagining, as one feels Arthur Seaton does in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning….

Writers often inhabit their characters, but also set them free to interact with each other and develop in unpredictable ways; just as in living relationships in life one never knows what will happen. People take as well as give in these or else are wasted by the drain. Alan Sillitoe's trilogy so far has this unpredictable living quality, which is what makes it much more exhilarating to read, despite its unevenness, than the artistically more perfect tales. The latter often have an active agony of feeling, but this is always quietly controlled by the author's sad twisted vision of circumstance. This must frequently conflict with all his thrusting creative power and cause him pain as well as his readers. In Men Women and Children I was often reminded of Hardy, not only by specific characters like the boy, Enoch, but also the constant direction of the vision towards 'life's little ironies' making up so much of the substance. Each writer seems to have a similar kind of loneliness.

Marie Peel, "The Loneliness of Alan Sillitoe," in Books and Bookmen, December, 1973, pp. 42-6.