James Hanley Hanley, James (Vol. 3) - Essay

Hanley, James (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hanley, James 1901–

Hanley, a prolific Irish-born English novelist, is often mistakenly labeled a realist. He has written more than forty books and his work has been largely neglected.

Forster called him a novelist of distinction and originality. Henry Green thought him superior to Conrad. Herbert Read described him as one of the most vigorous and impressive of contemporary writers. John Cowper Powys unequivocally used the word genius, and C. P. Snow is on record with an opinion of him as one of the most important of living authors, unsurpassed in qualities of humanity, compassion and sheer power. This year [1971] James Hanley is due to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the publication of his first novel, and his own seventieth birthday.

However, with the exception of this new "Landmark Library" edition of one of his finest novels, The Closed Harbour, first published nineteen years ago, none of his twenty and more works of full-length fiction is in print, or easily available outside the reserve stocks of public libraries or the shelves of first edition second-hand booksellers. It is nine years since his last novel appeared. A generation that was still struggling with English at the 11-plus level has since grown up, probably in ignorance of his work and of his name.

His almost unbroken silence as a novelist in the past decade has not been due to a failure of creative energy and certainly not to his surrender to a temptation to rest on well-earned laurels. One might more readily discern in it exasperation with a critical response which, though punctuated by encomiums, somehow failed to convey a note of warm conviction that his work was actually welcome in the main body of contemporary English fiction.

The fact is that Mr. Hanley has not been idle but throughout his sixties has been preoccupied by a different medium, the drama….

This ability to discipline a writing talent to make plays that are plays and novels that are novels is rare. If technical sensibility, articulate creative power, and originality of vision were accepted as the main criteria for literary judgment Mr. Hanley would probably be automatically included in most people's lists of the ten most able and influential living writers in the English language. After several readings The Closed Harbour still leaves one a bit stunned by the density and rock-like firmness of its organization. It is a novel with its own conception and perception of itself; it seems to have its own dynamic, a magnetic quality which draws the reader back time and again, although there is no sentimental fondness for character and situation to be indulged by repetition….

One of the things which most distinguishes his work is the enclosed and singular vision which makes the novels—particularly those of his mature period—solidly all of a piece, difficult to separate recollectively into component parts of favourite scenes and memorable people. A traditionalist to the extent that, while far from being the slave of strict chronology, he begins a story, gives it a middle, and brings it to its logical end, he nevertheless avoids the basic tricks of literary composition. The narrative tension in his work is evenly spread, and spread tight; emotional pressure is maintained at one chosen and usually high point on the gauge. From novel to novel the pressure may vary, but in any one novel it does not. He does not resort to the technique of nursing a reader along through alternating and artificial peaks and troughs of interest. The tension and pressure are, one feels, part of what the novels are about and variations of either, for that reason, inadmissible….

In his work two subjects have predominated: men at sea in ships; and men and women imprisoned by poverty or in a world of relative meanness from which they have either no hope of escaping or no inclination to try because they have made this world for themselves to suit themselves. The one subject merges with the other. Hanley's seas and ships give the men in them small relief from the monotony of their lives ashore, and no extra fictional dimension of freedom from it (a far cry from those of Conrad, by comparison a romantic writer in this respect)….

If the books were less vivid, less intensely focused, the subjects and backgrounds might not arouse the critical resistance (and critical determination to re-interpret) which clearly they do. Mr. Hanley compounds the felony of his choice of material by making the material self-supporting, difficult to explain in terms actually foreign to it. In his best work there is that combination of hardness, certainty and inflexibility which, in a human being, one associates with xenophobia. To this extent alone, as a contribution to the art of fiction, Mr. Hanley's is of outstanding interest….

It is interesting to note that as a dramatist Mr. Hanley has been compared with popular contemporary masters such as Beckett and Pinter, whereas as a novelist he was assumed to be writing in an older tradition and was called Conradian or Tolstoyan. Yet examination of his work as a novelist and as a playwright reveals no split in his personality, no switch of creative interest or sensitivity, no tangential movement away from subject and artistic intention.

"A Novelist in Neglect: The Case for James Hanley," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), June 11, 1971, pp. 675-76.

["Another World" presents] bodiless people, but their souls have a fierce physique. James Hanley's writing is succinct as a telegram, nude, yet terrific. He speaks of love in various forms and of madness, love's cousin. The style is idiosyncratic and special. Human archetypes glide, strong specters, through the novel. It's as if the subconscious were worn outside. "Another World" is a masterly book….

[The] people survive and have tremendous value. Hanley ekes them out. Creatures of a single passion, more energy than flesh, they are still elaborate. They have possibilities, they surprise. Not many novelists could achieve this; perhaps not many would care to. James Hanley is past 70, with more than 40 books behind him. Yet he remains tense. His effects are economical and sure and profound. A unique performance. Peculiar, alive.

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1972, p. 2.