Braine, John (Vol. 1)
Braine, John 1922–
English novelist, associated with the "Angry Young Men," and best known for Room at the Top. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Room at the Top evidently has within it the seeds of a good novel. Braine writes succinctly and to the point. He has the phrases necessary to catch a situation and a character without waste. The only difficulty, however, is the quality of the content. The novel posits a choice between real love and fake love; and much as the reader hates to say it, he has seen it before and seen it with more profound variations and more interesting embroidery. The decision as posed this way is a cliché of novel planning; the conception itself unfortunately precludes any original large-scale comment. Distinct weaknesses are apparent in the minor characters who fulfill their functions but rarely come alive…. The problem with Braine's work—and this is true of many "young" novels in the 1950's—is not in his intention but in his execution, not in his ideas but in his inability to "see" his material before publishing it.
Frederick R. Karl, in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 230-31.
John Braine wrote—and continues to write—in several traditions; but none is stronger than the Yorkshire provincialism that directly colors all his work. He is a Yorkshireman both by birth and by inclination…. Strongly presented in all his novels is the quality of life in urban, industrialized Bradford, as well as life in the still rural areas of the West Riding. (p. 13)
Room at the Top is a novel which epitomizes its age. Like Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Room at the Top probes deeply and tellingly into a central problem of the times. Braine's Joe Lampton is a creation of the post-war British welfare state. Lampton is, like Julien Sorel in Stendhal's The Red and the Black, an ambitious young man who sees only one way possible to elbow his way to the top. Also like Julien Sorel, he does so at the expense of his own soul; but, unlike Sorel, he does not quite let his better nature sidetrack him into a human act that causes his downfall. (p. 53)
Unlike the "Angries," Braine does not make Joe seem a worse man than he is; he does not make his background excessively sordid or his life more degenerate than necessary. He is, in short, a healthy young man who sees others enjoying the good things of the world and decides to obtain them for himself. If something of his humanity is lost in the getting, so much the worse; but a man may just as easily lose his humanity by settling into his lower-middle-class niche, as many of the characters in the book do. (p. 58)
Braine's style is very much American in its emphasis on crisp, clear descriptions; on names of products; and on the Americanized culture of postwar Britain with its Cadillac automobiles and Coca-Colas…. Braine's writing, I think, has been shaped by American books and movies and by American-oriented provincial attitudes. His writing is free of the rather lengthy, ornate sentence structure that is considered typically British by most Americans. (p. 65)
The theme of [Life at the Top] is the acceptance of responsibility, or so it seems most of the way through the book. Joe's search for goods and position has been at the expense of his soul—as in Room at the Top. Now, returning to his familiar characters and surroundings, Braine attempts to show just how soul-destroying his success really was. (p. 87)
Since 1957, when John Braine burst full-blown onto the literary scene, he has matured considerably. He has learned a great deal about handling character, his style has been refined, he has set himself the task of exploring more serious themes, and he has been successful (after some faltering) in handling point of view and focus. He still does not handle plot construction capably; but he has made some progress over the years…. One stylistic trait that has remained constant, however, is his ability to write clearly and simply. (p. 108)
[This is not] to suggest that Braine is a preeminent stylist. He is not. At best it can be said that his style is clear and pleasant, and in the fourth novel [The Jealous God] at least, well adapted to theme, character, and plot. At its worst, his style is somewhat journalistic in the sense of possessing readability but lacking solidity. When he is good, he is swift-moving, clear and readable; when he is bad, he is slick and overly facile. (p. 113)
With his considerable talent, his tolerance of human weakness, and his total commitment to writing, Braine has the power to become a major figure in modern English fiction. It seems, with his fourth novel, that he has found himself as a novelist. If so, and if he is able to overcome some of the deficiencies…, he will merit even more serious consideration in the future. (p. 117)
James W. Lee, in his John Braine, Twayne, 1968.
John Braine's The Crying Game is a more interesting novel, I think, than most American reviewers have found it. It is a kind of "morality," contrasting in character and situation the glamor and easy rewards of London life with its hollowness, its transient pleasures, and its materialistic bias. Like Joe Lampton [in Room at the Top and Life at the Top], Frank Batcombe in this novel is alternately critical of the great world and fascinated by it. Unlike Lampton, Frank achieves awareness before he sacrifices completely to the golden calf, and he repudiates, in time, his satanic friend Adam Keelby and the Eve-like temptress, Angela…. Adam's reactionary ideas are too complacently presented and seem to bear Braine's implicit approval, though he does reject intellectually what Adam represents. Nevertheless, the book does capture the very tone and texture of decadent London, the sleaziness of its values, the enervating effects of its luxury, and the opportunism it fosters in human relationships, especially sex. Ultimately, too, the world of the flesh and the devil is escapist, preventing the characters from seeing reality as it may exist.
Frederick P. W. McDowell, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 406-07.