John Hampson (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction,” in The Spectator, Vol. 170, No. 5983, February 26, 1943, pp. 204, 206.

[In the following essay, Hampson reviews The Last Inspection, praising the volume and calling the stories “both touching and beautiful.”]

Readers who enjoy out-of-the-ordinary books should … make a point of reading Alun Lewis's first collection of short stories, The Last Inspection. Lewis is a poet, and his themes are lit by tenderness and sensibility. In a brief foreword he explains that eighteen of his twenty-three stories “are concerned with the Army in England during the two years' attente since the disaster of June, 1940.” He, too, presents the problems and conflicts of individuals caught up in the struggle of nations. He is a serious writer, using courage, sympathy and humour for his critical interpretation of life in the Army, with its sudden isolation of the individual from his familiar community. The full implications of this commonplace, yet most difficult problem, are sensitively illumined and realised. His characters, ranging from the small child and the simple recruit to the conscious and intellectual adult, are recognisable human beings. Lewis, like Leslie Halward, can explore the province of the inarticulate, and bring back riches, but his range is not confined to the proletariat. “Private Jones,” “Lance-Jack,” “Interruption,” “Acting Captain,” and “They Came,” contain a wealth of experience transformed by imagination into exciting prose. The last-named story reveals the mind of a soldier whose wife was killed in an air-raid on the first night of his leave, as he returns to his unit. In its economy of effect it is both touching and beautiful. This collection carries a recommendation from the Book Society.

Philip Toynbee (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Novels and Stories,” in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. 25, No. 630, March 20, 1943, pp. 191-92.

[In the following essay, Toynbee praises Lewis's stories in The Last Inspection but offers reservations about the authenticity of Lewis's depiction of war.]

Had Mr. Alun Lewis spent as many years in the army as Mr. Phelan spent in prison, his stories might have achieved the same assurance and unity. But where Phelan moves almost too slickly among his “mugs” and “grasses,” Lewis is less at ease with “Jerry Planes,” “Civvy Street” and the “Boss Class.” His reactions to army life are intensely interesting, for he is the 1943 equivalent of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. As a prose-writer he is inferior to both, but his reactions may be contrasted. Graves and Sassoon were civilised human beings, outraged by the stupidity and horror of trench warfare. Their reactions were more or less clear-cut and clearly expressed. Lewis, who has seen only the home-duty incidentals of war, is far more confused and uncertain. His attitude to the army oscillates between disgust and fascination. Very consciously left-wing he is anxious to establish the democracy and comradeship of an army in which he recognises the obstacles to both. The attitude is sympathetic, but leads to indifferent writing. He is at his best in the story called “Almost a Gentleman,” the portrait of an O.C.T.U. candidate who fails to get his commission. The study of Burton is free from any preconceptions. He is plausible, ingratiating and pathetic—condemned to the ranks not through any direct snobbery of situation, but because his social background has rendered him truly unsuited to command. This concise and brilliant tragedy is a far grimmer indictment of a class-ridden society than are any of the more obvious tilts at Blimps and gentleman-majors. So far as the actual writing is concerned, Mr. Lewis is again caught between two stools. As an intellectual observer he must write intellectually, but as a democrat and a good chap he is obsessed by the guilt of intellectual isolation.

Unfortunately, good writing is doomed to be as undemocratic as the current level of appreciation. “Jerry Planes” are too thin a sugar for Mr. Lewis's pill, and I doubt whether his book will be widely read in the Forces.

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Soldier Tales,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2147, March 27, 1943, p. 149.

[In the following essay, the anonymous reviewer provides a mixed assessment of The Last Inspection, finding only some of the stories to be successful.]

The best stories in this collection of short stories [The Last Inspection], by which is meant those that probably struck the author, too, as presenting fresh facets of truth, include the title-piece. This account of the Brigadier's last rounds before retirement comes from the ranks, from the crew of the service train, from below the windows of the saloon that holds all the food and all the speeches. It is comic, critical, and above all in relief: the reader shares the author's view of the world as he might a painter's. Another indisputable success is “They Came,” the sketch of a soldier returning from the leave on which his wife was killed in an air-raid.

In a slightly different class are such tales as “The Wanderers” and “The Prisoners,” tales which now and again sound the right note but not, to some ears, all the time; tales in which, one suspects, the author, confident of giving great pleasure to a great many people anyhow, has let his attention wander and his energies flag. When a writer has promise he is exposed to dangers from which the dullards are safe. The danger in this case is that Mr. Lewis may find it easier, especially while on active service, to turn out the work of a slick but second-rate literary “school.” That he is not quite alive to this danger is suggested by one or two of these pieces, pieces that may be heartfelt but read rather more like exercises on the sanctioned themes of poverty and hardship and grime. They express feelings on these subjects that it is proper and even fashionable to have, but they do not seem yet to express the particular and unique feelings Mr. Lewis may be expected to have.

John Lehmann (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Human Standpoint,” in The Open Night, Longmans, Green and Co., 1952, pp. 109-16.

[In the following essay, Lehmann provides an overview of Lewis's life and work.]

The first thing I knew of Alun Lewis's death was when I was rung up from the editorial offices of a daily newspaper, and asked if I could write a short obituary note. The news was a great shock to me, and I found it quite impossible to say anything then and there. Up to that moment the war had seemed miraculously to spare the young English writers and artists whose work I most believed in; but in that moment I knew there were going to be no miracles, and my mind was trapped in a miserable...

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John Stuart Williams (essay date 1964-65)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Short Stories of Alun Lewis,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Vol. 14, No. 34, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 16-25.

[In the following essay, Williams examines major themes in Lewis's stories, contrasting them with the themes of Lewis's poems.]

The short stories of Alun Lewis were first published in periodicals as different as Lilliput and The Welsh Review. Twenty-three of them were collected in The Last Inspection, published by George Allen and Unwin in 1942, and six appeared, with selections from his letters, in In the Green Tree, also published by Allen and Unwin, in 1948. Another story, “Manuel,” was re-printed in First...

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Jacqueline Banerjee (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alun Lewis: The Early Stories,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Vol. 20, No. 46, Spring, 1972, pp. 77-82.

[In the following essay, Banerjee examines Lewis's early stories, finding in them evidence of the success of the later, better-known stories and poems.]

The relative merits of Alun Lewis's poetry and short stories have long been in dispute. Was he basically a prose-writer, who only turned to poetry under the stress of service conditions, or was he, as one reviewer suggested, “a natural poet fascinated by the problems of the short story, which he once or twice brilliantly solved?”1 One clue is to be found in a letter to Freda Aykroyd in India,...

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Walter Allen (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas, Alun Lewis,” in The Short Story in English, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 299-305.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses Lewis's story “The Wanderers,” which Allen considers his best story.]

A South Wales man, Alun Lewis was killed in an accident while on active service in India in 1943. He was then a lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers. Lewis's primary reputation was and remains that of a poet, but he left behind a handful of stories of great promise which suggest also that he might have become a novelist of stature. It would be easy to believe that it was the experience of war that wrenched Lewis out of a narrow, parochial...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)