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Sillitoe, Alan 1928–
Sillitoe is an English novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, travel writer, playwright, screenwriter, and author of children's books. He explores in his fiction the violence born of futility among the working class. Society and its strictures are seen as a deadening force in Sillitoe's world, a theme that some critics have found to be handled in an overtly polemical and simplistic fashion in recent work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
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The Storyteller lurches along like a pubcrawler, tanking up here, spewing up there, and eventually falling flat on his face. The style does not help. Sillitoe is a garrulous writer, never making do with one adjective or simile if two spring to mind….
In the last third of the book Ernest is on a cruise-ship, employed to tell stories in the evenings. Also on board is Bernard, husband of a woman with whom Ernest has had an affair. Bernard is out for revenge. Or is he? Ernest tells the story of Ernest and Bernard, and 'story' and 'reality' merge. What is Sillitoe saying? That all fiction should dare to cross the frontier into fantasy? Or that no such frontier exists? Whatever the message, it seems to me that, somewhere at sea, storyteller Sillitoe loses control of storyteller Ernest's story. (p. 499)
John Mellors, "Mother Trouble" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2632, October 11, 1979, pp. 498-99.∗
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Sillitoe's later work has often explored [the contradiction] of a developed, indignant, and compassionate social sense [combined] with a strong urge to push out into fantasy or even nightmare. The Storyteller faces the problem (if problem it can be called) head on….
Ernest Cotgrave discovers, one day in school, that he can divert the attentions of the school bully by spinning out a weird and wonderful tale about a mythical seafaring uncle…. The hero is the creator of other characters, one of whom is homicidally pursuing him on [a] ship; he is his own creation, also, acutely conscious that he wants to be things, not just tell them; and he is Sillitoe himself—except that Sillitoe, as super-ego narrator, is also the trim radio officer of the ship, with his mastery of the machinery for transmitting messages.
Sillitoe runs two risks in this elaborate allegory about the nature and motivation of the novelist as creator: that it should turn into no more than a series of individual good yarns, and that the whole venture should culminate in a high-speed and highflown symbolic climax. He takes on and overcomes the first danger triumphantly. The Storyteller sustains its pace and verve through a large variety of wild and gripping stories, as it needed to. Yet the nearer it moves towards its allegorical ambitions the more confusingly rhetorical it becomes. Worse, its narrative is finally tripped up and brought down by its own ingenuity, and the young Ernest telling tall tales about his Uncle George would never have allowed that to happen.
Alan Brownjohn, "Illuminating the Ordinary," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4006, January 4, 1980, p. 9.∗
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Mr. Sillitoe's idea [in "The Storyteller"] is promising, but his explication is ponderous. For an artist to write about the anguish of being an artist is to risk the reader being embarrassed for him. How avoid a kind of Byronic swagger, the implication that the burden one carries is only slightly lighter than the Cross? Mr. Sillitoe avoids neither.
Furthermore, his prose is as tortured as Cotgrave's life or nonlife, and shamefully careless. Dangling modifers abound...
(This entire section contains 327 words.)
…; metaphors and similes tumble over one another; nothing is said plain if it can be said fancy…. (p. 9)
One's feeling on reading "The Storyteller," however, is less exasperation than sadness, sadness because Mr. Sillitoe has never really left the Nottingham of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." The device of the storyteller serves only as an armature on which to drape the same old stories about booze-ups and fistfights and the monotonies of English working-class life. Once they evolved out of character and circumstance; now they are clumsily handled set-pieces.
As for the storyteller himself, he is a dummy through which Alan Sillitoe speaks about writing (it is guilt-inducing) and writers (they have a direct line to God). Sillitoe's discussion of the craft of fiction is not illuminating; his discussion of the writer is an exercise in self-justification.
Since the publication of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," Mr. Sillitoe has produced 14 novels and short-story collections, two volumes of poetry and four plays. Obviously he has not run out of words—"The Storyteller" is unconscionably padded by his verbal gymnastics—but he may have run out of things to say. In the meanwhile, however, there is "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" to read and reread for the extraordinary document it is. Alan Sillitoe has never matched it, and perhaps he never will, but then who of his peers has? (pp. 9, 26)
Mary Cantwell, "Booze-Ups & Fist-Fights," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1980, pp. 9, 26.
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The Storyteller is something of a disappointment. Its main drawback is that it is much too tightly wound upon the armature of its narrative premise. Purporting to be the story of a 30-year career in professional storytelling, though its deeper preoccupations … are with a man's misery in marriage and with the disintegration of the ego in psychotic breakdown, it fails to find a satisfactory way of performing the tasks of characterization, plotting, and fable-ing that are expected from the down-to-earth sort of narrator the central character supposedly is. And, at the same time, this narrative premise … simply isn't believable….
The Storyteller is a bit too up to date as fiction for its own good. Subjectivity and self-consciousness reign to an extent that leaves almost no imaginative space to develop characters other than the tale-bearing hero, Cotgrave. (p. 35)
Alan Sillitoe is one of those writers who blows hot and cold. At his best, as for instance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Widower's Son, he is one of the two best English novelists—the other is Margaret Drabble—for telling us home truths about British society and conduct as these have evolved since about 1950. But when he is cold he goes moody, ghostly, and subjective, losing touch with significant outer realities, as in such books as The Death of William Posters and this new one. (p. 36)
Julian Moynahan, "'The Storyteller'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 14, October 4, 1980, pp. 35-6.
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For sheer loneliness, I think, writing a novel beats running any day. Alan Sillitoe evidently agrees. Smith, the cross-country racing delinquent of his famous story, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," ends his workout with a sprint toward a kind of anarchistic, angry-young-man sanity. But Ernest Cotgrave, the hero of Sillitoe's latest novel, The Storyteller, gradually collapses into paranoia and madness….
Along the way, Ernie tells a few marvelous tales…. [They] are rich in detail and suspense, worth at least a pint for anyone who could tell them in a pub.
But the problem is that Ernest Cotgrave probably wouldn't have found his own story worth telling. Not much really happens to him until the final breakdown, which is too confused to be truly frightening; most of the other characters including Cotgrave's wife, Marion, are shadows vaguely refracted through Ernie's narrative voice. What is missing is just what is central to the stories-in-the-story, and to Sillitoe's other work: the details of life deeply felt, of reality rendered with care and precision.
In fact The Storyteller seems less a novel than a distinguished novelist's anguished meditation on his own craft. Ernie Cotgrave's career as a pub entertainer is not realistic but it does rather closely parallel the career of a novelist in … postwar England: years of obscurity and self-doubt, growing recognition allowing a belated climb into the middle class, disagreeable encounters with university students, marital failure, a Gilbert Pinfold-like breakdown at sea, and new hope in middle age with a new wife.
As a view of the novelist's psychic life, The Storyteller is unrelievedly grim….
The Storyteller is a cautionary tale for writers, about the dark side of the fiction business, which involved a kind of aggressive solitude, at once disorienting and amoral. But there is a bright side to writing, as well—moments of tremendous freedom, compassion and insight. Poor Ernie Cotgrave never has such moments; but Sillitoe, I am sure, has…. Let's hope that by his next book, this fine storyteller will be back in stride.
Garrett Epps, "Alan Sillitoe Breaks His Stride," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), October 26, 1980, p. 4.
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The Midlands, Nottingham in particular, provide the background for many of the stories in The Second Chance. Authenticity of locality is created through idiom and colloquialism….
Sillitoe's gift is to make it clear that ordinary people are what life is all about, just as Paul Theroux has shown how artificial are the high and mighty, and how they need the catalyst of someone unrecognised and unknown. In 'No Name in the Street', which is akin to Beckett's writing if not quite as surreal, Albert roundly abuses his dog, but that is part of how they get on together: he threatens it, 'I'll put me boot in your soup-box' and constantly predicts, 'You'll get on my nerves'. He brushes his bowler-hat with his right-hand sleeve and neurotically polishes the toes of his black shoes with Kiwi. Sillitoe shows Beckett's characters to be very close at hand; they live just around the corner; indeed, you may even be one of them yourself. (p. 20)
Sillitoe's images enhance his scenes. The Baxters' cat drops 'softly to the floor like an over-sized floorcloth'. The heroine of 'A Scream of Toys', queuing for fish and chips, looks at the smooth and smoky fat in the vat—'she stared at the dark ice starting to split and bubble'. In his last story, about a man haunted into old age by the ghost of his wife's lover whom he murdered many years before, Sillitoe describes trench conditions in the 1914–18 war: 'scabies was common, and spread like chalk on a dusty day'.
He glances back at the great wars and the time between, at the Plaza picture palaces, at Craven A and Woodbines, but he demonstrates the timeless quirks and foibles of human nature…. [Sillitoe] gives us original, local tales, the stories which lie behind the newspaper headlines. He is one of today's few gifted short story writers. (pp. 20-1)
Brian Martin, "People from the Provinces," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2600, January 16, 1981, pp. 20-1.∗