Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1475
David Storey’s writing is difficult to classify, although his critics and admirers have tried. Early in his writing career, Storey defied the category into which reviewers tried to slot him. When his first novel, This Sporting Life, was published, critics linked him with the emerging group of British fiction writers known as the “Angry Young Men” because the novel deals with the generation gap between a coal miner father and his newly educated son. The theme was timely, as a new rank was then emerging in English society, the educated and upwardly mobile. This new generation drove wedges into the tightly structured British class system after World War II. Storey, however, felt that it was not education itself that ignited the clash; rather, the core conflict lay in the mystical value and the quality of salvation the parents gave to education. The parents would never be able to experience what education could or could not do, so their perceptions of its benefits were flawed. Education served only as a vehicle that exacerbated the cultural transformation of English society at the end of the twentieth century.
Among the recurring themes found in Storey’s novels and dramatic writings are the psychological duplicity of a person’s physical and spiritual personas, the alienation and estrangement between parents and their newly educated children, and the depression and disillusionment that arise from an unsatisfying job. Storey’s prose is taut, matter-of-fact, and rich in visual imagery. The imagery adds clarity and impact to Storey’s narratives; his descriptions border on the visceral and pull readers deep into the scenes, so they hear the sound of a piercing whistle, a roaring crowd, and the slash of a knife cutting across a cornstalk.
This Sporting Life
This Sporting Life opens with the protagonist, star footballer Arthur Machin, deep inside a brutal and dangerous rugby scrum, with elbows, knees, and bodies shoving to reach the ball. The novel is written in the first person, and the reader experiences the smells of sewage mud, liniment, and leather. During the game Machin has six teeth knocked out, and he is taken to the hospital. While under either, he slips back to the beginning of his rugby career. The first five chapters move smoothly between Machin’s memories as a rookie player, when he rented a room from the dowdy, washed-out widow Valerie Hammond on Fairfax Street, and the present, which is punctuated by visits to the dentist and a rowdy Christmas party at the team owner’s home. The novel then moves into the present and remains there.
Machin describes himself as a “super ape,” yet he searches for something more than athletic success. He joined the rugby league to escape the lot of the ordinary factory worker living in the North of England. He is a lonely man looking for a deeper meaning to his life, and he comes to believe that his landlady, Mrs. Hammond, is the woman with whom he can build something lasting, “to have something there for goodto make me feel whole and wanted.” Mrs. Hammond rejects Machin, however; she chooses to regard this powerful battering ram of a man as a threat to her passive peace of mind, which overflows with hopelessness. She maintains her willful indifference to his exalted status as a rugby hero and refuses to show any gratitude for his kindnesses, even when he buys her expensive gifts and takes her family out for Sunday rides. She fears that Machin only wants to see her give in and admit to her need for him before he abandons her.
Machin wants more than a brief sexual encounter. He needs a deeper connection, but he is conflicted by the dichotomy between his physical and spiritual selves. Even after Mrs. Hammond surrenders sexually she holds back the one thing he truly wants, emotional connection. His physicality frightens her so much that she throws him out of the house without ever realizing that Machin could provide warmth and security in her and her children’s lives. After Machin leaves, she slips into a decline; she later dies with Machin sitting beside her hospital bed. Machin is left with loneliness, a dwindling joy in playing rugby, and fear about his approaching retirement, which will force him back to the obscure life he tried so hard to escape.
Flight into Camden
In Flight into Camden Storey again probes generational differences intensified by education and the psychological conflict between the physical and the spiritual. Margaret Thorpe tells her story in the first-person narrative. She is an unmarried secretary at the Coal Board, and she lives a dreary existence at home with her oppressive parents. She meets a local art teacher through her older brother, a university lecturer, and begins an affair with him only to discover he is married and has children. Nevertheless, he convinces her to escape with him to London and begin a new life. Once in the city, Margaret discovers that her lover is incapable of making the final commitment. Although he instigated their flight, he did it to run away from a breakdown and a teaching job he despised. Throughout their affair, Margaret is barraged with emotional blackmail by her parents and hectoring older brother, who demand that she come to her senses and return home.
Margaret finds some success in London, which exaggerates the indecisive, cynical, and morose attitude of her lover and moves the couple into a sexless existence. Their relationship borders on a parasitic union in which neither party gains what he or she sought. In the end, Margaret finds a letter from her lover telling her that he never wants to see her again, although he still loves her, and that he has returned to his wife in Yorkshire. Margaret’s attempt to move toward a liberated emotional state is stifled, and she leaves London to return to her old life. Her emotional growth is halted, and her journey ends where it began.
After the publication of his first three works of fiction, Storey turned to writing drama. He wrote plays almost exclusively for a number of years until the publication of his fourth and fifth books, Pasmore and A Temporary Life, respectively, which were well received by the critics. It was Saville, however, his sixth and longest novel, that won him the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 1976.
The novel is set in the village of Saxton, south of Yorkshire, during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Storey paints a richly detailed account of Colin Saville as he grows from childhood through adolescence and into manhood during a culturally turbulent time for the English class system. In this work Storey delves into the same themes explored in his earlier novels: the dysfunctional family, social class borderlines smudged by education, and the inner torment that arises from the duality of physical versus spiritual personalities.
This curiously old-fashioned coming-of-age story is filled with evocative descriptions of the harsh mining village where Colin lives. Colin does not see the oppression during his early years as his story is dispassionately told in the third-person narrative without explanations. The clarity of the images and the characters depicted reveal more to the reader than the young Colin grasps. Slowly, as he attends school, wins a scholarship, and makes friends, Colin recognizes the nascent conflicts that will force him to make hard choices. The novel’s richly drawn characters include two delinquents who live in the woods in a “hut”; Bletchley, the only boy other than Colin who has climbed out of a life in the pits; Stafford, the wealthy son of the mill owner; the middle-aged Elizabeth, who serves as a surrogate mother to Colin and articulates the duality he is living; Colin’s dead older brother, Andrew; and the sadistic, shallow schoolmaster who shows Colin what is permissible and what is not for a miner’s son.
Storey’s minimalist style dramatizes the inequities of the British class system at the end of World War II. Education carries Colin—and many others of his generation—into a world of possibilities, but first he must break free of the stifling bonds of family obligation and distorted sense of duty. Although this is the world his father, Harry, helped him to enter, once Colin is a successful teacher Harry cannot accept the change in his son. Both parents, in their separate ways, use impassioned guerrilla tactics to stop Colin from leaving them behind to enter an alien world they do not understand.
Finally, Colin breaks free, no longer an emotional hostage to the obsessive love of his family and their repressive code of behavior. In the novel’s final pages, Colin understands that he carries the past within, yet as he rides the southbound train to London he sees a spiral of black smoke rise into the sky and disappear.
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