Monday, April 26, 2010

The Loneliness Of Never Getting Beyond Two Big Hits

In "The Wild One," (1953) outlaw motocyclist Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando's breakout role) is asked: "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" And the biker-outlaw replies: "Whaddya got?" On the other side of the pond, Allen Sillitoe (1928-2010) created young workingclass Brits with the same attitude. Whaddya got, indeed. If this is (fair & balanced) flameout, so be it.

[x London Telegraph]
Allen Sillitoe (1928-2010)

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Alan Sillitoe, who died on April 25 aged 82, was a novelist, poet and occasional playwright but, despite a long and varied writing career, remained best known for his first two books.

The best-selling Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Other Stories (1959) both chronicled the hopeless prospects, drunkenness, casual fights and drab sex lives of young working class men of that era. In so doing, they captured the post-Osborne desire of readers and theatregoers everywhere to experience the dramatic possibilities of a world that had hitherto remained unseen.

In his earliest work, before his powerful sense of social injustice began to dominate his fiction, Sillitoe created plausible, complex youths who rebelled against the establishment, epitomised by parent, policeman and boss. Inevitably his work chimed at a time when youth culture and adolescent anger were beginning to dominate the media through the work not only of John Osborne, but of Brando, James Dean, JD Salinger and the still-embryonic pop music.

But to consider Sillitoe solely as the author of two adroitly-timed works would be to diminish both his status and the art he brought to his craft over four decades. Among his further novels, collections of poetry, screenplays, essays, plays and children’s books, Sillitoe developed his themes and understanding of humanity and began to internalise injustice, to reflect oppression on the workings of the human psyche. If his life’s work forever explored the privations of his upbringing, in his maturity his singular characters were touched by the universal.

Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham on March 4, 1928. His father was an unskilled labourer, often unemployed, and the family were perpetually moving to avoid the ministrations of rent collectors. He was educated at local elementary schools from where, despite an early enthusiasm for English Literature, he failed to pass the entrance exam for the local grammar school and he left at 14.

He walked out of his first job, at the Raleigh Bicycle works, after three months over a wage dispute, and worked briefly in a plywood factory before becoming a capstan lathe operator until he joined the Ministry of Aircraft Production as an air traffic control assistant in 1945. The following year he enlisted in the RAFVR.

Although he was initially accepted as a pilot, the cessation of hostilities with Japan had rendered further pilots unnecessary, and Sillitoe served his time as a telegraphist and radio operator in Malaya. In 1948 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent 16 months in an Air Force hospital, where he began educating himself by reading Greek and Latin classics in translation.

He was also deeply influenced by Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), a portrayal of lower class Edwardian England that Sillitoe felt did not treat the working class as caricatures. In 1949 he wrote his first novel and left hospital with his discharge papers and his first rejection slip.

In 1952 Sillitoe and the American poet, Ruth Fainlight, moved to Europe and lived for six years in France, Spain and Majorca, surviving on his limited RAF disability pension. He wrote steadily — short stories for magazines and unpublished novels — even writing on book covers when money was too tight for paper. At the suggestion of the poet Robert Graves, whom he met in Majorca, he began working his short stories about life in Nottingham into a novel.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was an instant critical and commercial success. Its portrayal of Arthur Seaton, a rebellious factory worker and amoral adulterous lover, was praised for its unsentimental evocation of working-class existence. The novel established many of the themes that were to occupy Sillitoe throughout his life; social injustice, the “bunker” mentality of the working-class, the mindlessness of their only realistic employment and the consequent banality and ephemerality of their lives.

Having moved to London, Sillitoe published, to great acclaim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Other Stories which won the Hawthornden Prize. The collection included some of his finest work, but it was the title story, in which a Borstal boy deliberately loses a race he is capable of winning in order to spite the governor and thus retain his self-esteem, which won particular praise.

Sillitoe’s eagerly awaited third novel, The General was published in 1960, the same year his screenplay for "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" was successfully filmed starring Albert Finney. The General, which was unmemorably filmed in 1967 as "Counterpoint," was a fantasy concerning the relationship between war, art and human nature. It was savaged by the critics who accused Sillitoe, not for the last time, of allowing his politics to diminish the fiction.

There was a similar reaction to Key To The Door (1961) which followed Brian Seaton, the older brother of Sillitoe’s original protagonist, from childhood through his National Service in Malaya. The novel included some of his most vivid writing, but this was outweighed by heavy-handed political philosophising and a weak dramatic structure. Sillitoe concluded the Seaton trilogy in 1989 with The Open Door, which described Brian’s return from the Far East and his attempts to become a writer. Although well received, there was a wistful sense of an aging writer returning to the scene of his greatest triumph.

After "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" was successfully filmed with Sir Michael Redgrave and Tom Courtenay in 1961, Sillitoe moved his family to Morocco. In Tangier he wrote The Ragman’s Daughter (1963), which was filmed a decade later and which displayed an increasingly simplistic depiction of the oppressors and the oppressed and an exhortation to violent insurrection which denude the characters of their psychological complexity.

Sillitoe’s view of Britain withered further after a trip to Russia as a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union, an account of which he published in Road to Volgograd (1964).

"Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" was unsuccessfully produced as a play in 1964 and 1966, and his own production of Lope de Vega’s play "All Citizens Are Soldiers" met a similar fate. By now Sillitoe was commuting between England and Spain and, in transit, he published his Frank Dawley trilogy, The Death of William Posters (1965), A Tree on Fire (1967) and the disastrously delayed The Flame of Life (1974).

The novels follow Frank Dawley, who forsakes his family for personal freedom and enlists as a revolutionary in Algeria before returning home to rabble-rouse from the base of his utopian community. Overwrought, with an excess of theorising, stylistic superfluity and little narrative tension, the trilogy did little to raise Sillitoe’s reputation.

Although Sillitoe considered himself a poet, and published volumes of poetry throughout his career, the critical response rarely raised itself above the mildly positive. More successful was his collection of short stories Guzman, Go Home, and Other Stories (1968) and the picaresque novel which he wrote in the comic manner of Fielding A Start in Life (1970).

In 1971 he was fined for refusing to fill in a census form, after which he travelled on the continent for a year while he wrote the Orwellian political fantasy Travels in Nihilon (1972) which described living in a nihilistic state. The nihilism described reflected the work’s reception — a mixture of critical reserve and public indifference.

By contrast, Raw Material (1972), which interwove novel and biography, philosophical speculation and family history, aroused great interest. A further collection of stories Men, Women and Children (1973), which included one of his finest short fictions, "Mimic," in which a man tries to cope with life by imitating it, was similarly well received and marked a return to form in his portrayals of human complexity.

If his work was becoming less cumbersomely political, Sillitoe remained committed beyond his literary life. He attended Unesco conferences, criticised the Soviet treatment of Jews and was loudly pro-Zionist.

His increased focus on the individual dominated The Widower’s Son (1976), which traced the breakdown of a working-class army officer’s marriage, using marriage as an extended metaphor for war. He also wrote three plays for television, his first, warmly received, children’s story, "Big John and the Stars" (1977) and spent two months in Jerusalem at the invitation of the mayor at the Mishkenot Sha’anamin, a retreat for celebrated writers.

His 10th novel, The Storyteller (1979), was his most ambitious, charting the decline and suicide of a schizophrenic mute who is overwhelmed by the characters in his head that people his stories. In the book, distinctions of fantasy and reality are blurred as, analogously, they are in the work of any novelist. In The Second Chance and Other Stories (1980) Sillitoe developed this theme, dappling his tales with acting, mimicry and masquerade.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Sillitoe continued to expand his range as a novelist. Although he mined working-class Nottingham for Out of the Whirlwind (1987), he wrote a traditional adventure story in The Lost Flying Boat (1983), in addition to further volumes of poetry and stories for children. In 1994 he published his autobiography, Life without Armour, which enabled his readers to attempt to establish where the young Alan Sillitoe ended and the young Arthur Seaton began.

If Alan Sillitoe never regained the fame and focus of his early years, he nevertheless produced a substantial and variegated body of work that was, when taken as a whole, probably as underrated as his initial success, though undoubtedly merited, was excessive.

Sillitoe was a mild-mannered man who remained committed to political causes and social justice throughout his life. A workaholic, he relaxed by travelling, taking bicycle rides in the Kent countryside and tuning into foreign stations on his radio transmitter.

He married Ruth Fainlight in 1959. They had a son and a daughter. Ω

Copyright © 2010 Telegraph Media Group

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