Mervyn Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Jones, Mervyn


Jones, Mervyn 1922–

Jones is a British essayist, editor, short story writer, and novelist. His novels often deal with political issues from a leftist perspective, and he has written a carefully researched fictional account of the life of Joseph Stalin, Joseph. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Don't be put off by the cadaverous title [of "Twilight of the Day."] This is not a tearjerker about an autumnal Philadelphia love affair; it is, rather, a sophisticated and lively chronicle of a London working-class family from the turn of the century to the present. The very real personal dramas of the Wheelright family … are so successfully interwoven with the major social upheavals of the period—the abortive general strike, the Depression, the two World Wars—that the result is a novel as fascinating for its social history as for its characterizations. More than we realize, most of us inherit our idea of how the English working class lived and lives from Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, and those self-conscious films of the sixties in which women were always called "birds" or "dollies" and men usually referred to one another as "mate" or "bloke," and both were invariably treated as bits of comic (or tragic) exotica. Mr. Jones neither glamorizes nor caricatures his characters but shows us how several generations of people who lived in a now defunct sort of East End community led and thought about their daily lives. (pp. 97-8)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 20, 1975.

Valentine Cunningham

Today the Struggle is the kind of undauntedly capacious, generation-spanning novel to which British writers of our time seldom nerve themselves. So bulky that the book is a bit of an effort to pick up, it is also so engrossing that it's hard to put down. In it the fortunes of a persistently (often surprisingly) related lot of families are followed from mid-Thirties, through mid-Fifties, to the mid-Seventies. The generations are closely scrutinised, swirling and settling about their points of crisis, the epicentral moments of an apocalypse that's always just coming and never quite does: the Spanish Civil War, the Ban-the-Bomb movement, and the present financial lows….

It's bound, of course, occasionally to seem a bit too schemed-for, too shrewdly schematising. The recurring locations (homes and houses, Liverpool Street Station), seasons (Easter, Christmas) and events like picnics all come on naturally enough. A lot, though, does look less excusably pat…. Inevitably, not all the events and characters are equally known to the author nor made equally knowable to us. There are some intriguing hops and yawns, and some blank spaces just tarted over with stereotypes; while items put in just for the record (journalist Sophie beds JFK; Mervyn Jones is mentioned) can seem sorely obtruded.

But these are midget grouses. Many of the people are wonderfully believable in themselves …; they are, what's more, placed most convincingly in their time. The set-pieces keep coming off too: the CP branch meeting, the anti-Fascist demo, the Committee of 100 sit-downs. And above all there's the irrefutably steady slide into Seventies apathy, the ironically bleak future that Thirties communists and Fifties protesters never dreamed of, the unending grey of our economic distress. (p. 227)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 17, 1978.

D.A.N. Jones

This long family chronicle [Today the Struggle] seems to have all the qualities desired by readers of family chronicles, except the conservative values….

Mervyn Jones rattles on, with incident after incident, for forty years of this century, almost at the pace of Henry Fielding—but rarely pausing to settle on a scene or character, or to philosophize in Fielding's manner, until the final third of the book…. The first two-thirds seem designed for the family-chronicle reader to enjoy, slowly, in bed, on long winter evenings, getting to know the characters with their ever-changing relationships and kinship patterns. But the pace of the novel is such that it resembles a very long synopsis for a very long-running television serial….

If we did not know Mervyn Jones's career as a committed left-winger, we might suppose this book to have been written by an uncommonly broad-minded Conservative, gently attempting to expose the follies of well-meaning left-wing idealists over the past forty years. But in fact, surely, he is struggling with the politics and society of the present, and that is why his final chapters are so much more alive than the earlier. Hindsight makes him bland about the past. He finds "today" more of a struggle, and it brings out his best.

D.A.N. Jones, "Keep the Red Flag Flying Here," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 17, 1978, p. 185.

Paul Ableman

The struggle referred to in [Today the Struggle] is, broadly speaking, the struggle to enlarge, or even merely to preserve, political decency in a world perpetually besieged by barbarism. The actual struggle fought out in its pages is to use the classical resources of the novel to examine what Mr Jones takes to be key episodes in recent history. I don't think he succeeds. Nor do I think anyone else could. It is not a matter of talent, or vision, or research, or noble intentions. It is simply that the dynamics of our scientific-technological culture can no longer be exposed by exploring the interaction of fictitious individuals….

Today the Struggle certainly tries. It is an ambitious work of five hundred tightly-packed pages and is divided into three main sections. These concern the Spanish Civil War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and what, lacking an official title, one might designate the Present Struggle for Economic Survival. Marginal treatment is accorded other contemporary campaigns, the women's movement, black liberation etc. In Mr Jones's view, these are, of course, all facets of the same, unending struggle. His book concludes with a reminiscence of a brave lady called Marie Durand who, at the time of the Huguenot persecutions in France, spent forty years in a cell rather than renege her faith. In that cell one can still read the inscription: résister.

And most of Mr Jones's characters, throughout most of the book, are honourably engaged in resisting…. The trouble is that they are not free simply to resist and fade into history. Their fictional life must endure the length of the book. Thus while a few of them perish the rest get caught up in the most...

(The entire section is 711 words.)