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Alan Sillitoe 1928-

British novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and author of children's literature.

The following entry presents an overview of Sillitoe's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 10, 19, and 57.

One of England's most prolific contemporary authors, Sillitoe is known for his candid and compassionate depictions of British working-class life. He is part of a generation of writers known as the Angry Young Men—including John Wain and Kingsley Amis—whose defiant male protagonists fight against the deprivations and injustices of Britain's stringent class system. Although Sillitoe often portrays disillusioned characters who are either unemployed or trapped in unskilled occupations, his works utilize a realistic prose style, allowing the emotions and concerns of his characters to appeal to a universal audience.

Biographical Information

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, England, on March 4, 1928. His father, a tannery worker, was functionally illiterate and often unemployed. The family lived in poverty and at times went hungry. Sillitoe had to leave school at the age of fourteen to go to work in a bicycle factory. After several months he quit the factory to protest the low wages. A series of various industrial jobs followed until Sillitoe joined the Royal Air Force just before his eighteenth birthday. He served as a radio operator in Malaya for two years until he contracted tuberculosis and subsequently spent sixteen months recuperating in a military hospital. This extended hospital stay was the beginning of Sillitoe's literary life, as he immersed himself in reading. Sillitoe married American poet Ruth Fainlight in 1959 and relocated to France. Later, the couple moved again to the Spanish island of Majorca, where he studied the craft of writing, composing both fiction and poetry. Author Robert Graves was also living in Majorca at the time and greatly influenced and encouraged Sillitoe's work. Sillitoe returned to England in 1958. He has been a prolific writer, composing short stories, novels, screenplays, poetry, and nonfiction. Film versions were also made of his novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and his short stories “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” and “The Ragman's Daughter.” He won the British Authors' Club Prize for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1958 and the Hawthornden Prize for his short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959).

Major Works

Much of Sillitoe's fiction revolves around working-class life in Nottingham, England. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning follows the life and loves of Arthur Seaton, a bored young factory worker whose daily existence is comprised of good wages, sexual adventures, and wild weekends at the neighborhood pub. His occasional fishing excursions and retreats to the countryside, as well as his rebellious nature and refusal to be worn down by an unfair system, save Arthur from embracing a wholly destructive lifestyle. Sillitoe's William Posters trilogy—The Death of William Posters (1965), A Tree on Fire (1967), and The Flame of Life (1974)—recounts the personal struggle of Mr. Frank Dawley. Reacting to signs marked “Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted,” Dawley invents a character named William Posters, who symbolizes the proletarian struggle for equality. A Start in Life (1970), Sillitoe's picaresque novel, tells the story of Michael Cullen, an unskilled worker who breaks out of his middle-class life by obtaining a job in real estate. When Cullen enters the world of crime, the novel becomes a thriller, replete with a gold-smuggling ring, twists, turns, and a host of secondary characters. By the end of the novel, Cullen vows to reform, but in the sequel, Life Goes On (1985), Cullen returns to his criminal life—this time as a courier in a heroin-trafficking operation. Her Victory (1982) traces the escape of a woman named Pam from her troubled marriage in Nottingham. After an attempt to commit suicide, she is saved by Tom, another isolated soul, and the two try to forge a new life together in Israel. The protagonists of Last Loves (1989) are typical examples of Sillitoe's defiant male characters. In the novel, George and Bernard, who served in Malaya during World War II, return there in an attempt to find insights into their past.

In addition to his novels, Sillitoe has written several collections of short stories. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is best known for its title story, which was adapted for film by Sillitoe himself. Set in a boys' reformatory, this piece revolves around a cross-country race. The story's adolescent narrator, Colin, seeks victory until he realizes that the race was conceived only to flaunt the reformatory's rehabilitation program to the region's governor. Although winning the race would gain Colin social acceptance, he intentionally loses and retains his self-respect. In the collection Men, Women, and Children (1973), Sillitoe explores issues of abandonment and betrayal. “Before Snow Comes” tells the story of Mark, a divorced man who falls in love with Jean, whose husband has deserted her. After he cares for her and her children emotionally and financially, she leaves him to reunite with her husband. Sillitoe has also authored several volumes of poetry, children's novels, and essays.

Critical Reception

Sillitoe has been a prolific writer of poetry, novels, and short stories, but he has not met with the same critical success in every genre. Sillitoe's poetry, for example, has not received wide critical acclaim; in fact, commentators complain that his poetry is filled with abstractions that can only be understood in the poet's own mind. In his review of Sillitoe's Collected Poems (1993), John Lucas argued, “Too many of these poems are muffled by dead language, inert rhythms and pointless stanza divisions, as though Sillitoe is determined to come on as a ‘poet,’ but has chosen to leave behind virtues that make him at his best a valuable writer of fiction.” Although his subsequent collections did not achieve the success of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Sillitoe's short fiction is generally considered superior to his novels. Reviewers have found fault with Sillitoe's later novels in particular, often asserting that the plots “fumble” or “miss their mark.” Other critics maintain that Sillitoe can be too heavy-handed with his satire, especially when writing about white-collar characters, whom he tends to caricature. Several critics applauded Sillitoe's portrayal of a female consciousness in Her Victory, although many feminists felt the character of Pam capitulates at the end of the novel and lacks the emotional growth of a truly emancipated character. Most reviewers have noted that Sillitoe's ability to realistically evoke the world of working-class Nottingham is his greatest strength as a fiction writer. Despite the overwhelming bleakness of his literary world, critics continue to praise Sillitoe for his proficiency at finding beauty and hope in a world of despair. Walter Sullivan described it as Sillitoe's “ability to perceive the rare stroke of beauty in the midst of drabness, the butterfly—if I may be permitted this ancient image—perched momentarily on the pile of dung.”

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