Sunday, 6 April 2008

Book of the Month: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe)

Earlier this year the Times published a list of fifty greatest post-war British writers. (There have been so many wars in the twentieth century that many would wonder which war is being referred to here. However, whenever you hear Brits talking about 'the War', you can rest assured that it is the war unleashed by Mr. Hitler that is being talked about.) Making such lists is a harmless parlour game. It passes time; it gets a few critics and obscure novelists excited; it may even stimulate people into buying the books of the winner or winners. Winning the Booker prize, for example, as the overrated Arundhati Roy would vouchsafe, gives a great fillip to the sales of the novel.

Great is, well, a great word, and I am not sure what qualities a writer has to possess to qualify as great. The Times list, for example, features J.K. Rowling at a lowly 42 (yes they have provided ranking in the list which is a conglomerate of novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers) and Philip Pullman a place below her. Some might argue that this betrays the assemblers’ bias against children’s fiction, while others will be aghast that these two appear at all while David Lodge, Penelope Lively, and David Storey are excluded. (A friend of mine expressed surprise that V.S. Naipaul was included because he did not think Naipaul was English.) One name, though, I was very pleased to see featuring was Alan Sillitoe, one of the most underrated British writers. The prolific Sillitoe, in a career spanning five decades, has published more than a dozen novels, several stories, plays, poetry, essays, and children’s fiction. For me, even if he had not produced anything after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his astonishing debut novel, Sillitoe’s place in the literati’s Hall of Fame would be ensured.

Born in 1928 in Nottingham, Sillitoe had an impoverished, though not unhappy (as he likes to point out), childhood. His father was an illiterate tanner—in a literary festival Sillitoe narrated the touching story of how he went to Nottingham to meet his father with his first published novel and the old man, wonderingly turning the book upside down in his palms, asked him whether it meant he would not have to work for his living—, who, while Sillitoe was growing up, had long periods of unemployment. Sillitoe left school when he was fourteen, and, further education being out of the question, began working in factories. In 1945 he enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller, and, while posted in Malaya, he read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, which was to have a lasting impact on the young man. He contracted tuberculosis (not as a result of reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist), and, after spending a year in various RAF hospitals—he read avidly during his protracted convalescence—, he was ‘pensioned off’ at the age of twenty-one. Back in Nottingham he met the American poet Ruth Fainlight in a bookshop. The two fell in love and in the early 1950s sailed for the continent. Over the next six years they led an hand-to-mouth existence in France, Italy and Spain on Sillitoe’s RAF pension. During their stay in Majorca, Spain, the couple befriended Robert Graves, who encouraged young Sillitoe to write. Much later Sillitoe revealed that during this period he wrote four full length novels, ‘each one four-hundred page length’, which, by his own admission, were highly derivative, influenced as he was in those days, by the styles of Kafka and Joyce. He did not send these novels anywhere for publication. Then he began writing another novel, much of which was composed ‘in the autumn of 1956, sitting under an orange tree’. This novel was sent for publication and was rejected by four publishers. Another one accepted it but suggested changes in the novel’s ending. Sillitoe, who at the time had not published a single novel and had no other source of income than his meagre RAF pension, refused. The novel was eventually accepted by WH Allen and published in 1958. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Arthus Seaton, the twenty-one year protagonist of this novel, is a factory worker. He works the lathe in a bicycle factory whole week. On Saturday nights he gets blindingly drunk. The novel opens with Arthur falling down the stairs of a pub: ‘With eleven pints of beer playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach he fell from the top-most stair to the bottom.’ Arthur’s outlook on life is gloomy. He does not believe there is a way out for him from the daily grind that the life has in store for him. It can even be said that he does not wish to change either because he does not know how, or he hasn’t seen anything different, or both. He looks out only for himself, or, at the push, for his close family and friends. The beauty of Sillitoe’s writing is that he does not spell out these things and instead leaves it to the reader to figure out the protagonist’s rationale and motivation. Arthur is a macho man and is proud of the frequent pub brawls in which he gets involved. He is also carrying on with Brenda, the wife of his boss in the bicycle factory. This is an arrangement of mutual convenience: Arthur has no intentions of settling, either with Brenda or with anyone for the foreseeable future; Brenda, who is considerably older than Arthur, has no wish, on her part, to jeopardise her marriage with Jack with whom she has two young sons. Arthur does not have a trace of remorse or guilt about cuckolding his boss who has always been good to him. At times he suspects that Jack suspects, but does not care. A serious hitch arises when Brenda finds herself pregnant. Arthur’s advice is clear: she must get rid of the baby, which Brenda duly does with the help of a neighbourhood woman. Soon afterwards Arthur sleeps with Brenda’s sister, Winnie, whose ill-tempered husband, Bill, a swaddy , is away on army duties. At the same time Arthur has met Doreen, a girl nearer to him in age, who, at nineteen, is ‘afraid of being left on the shelf.’ She is looking for a relationship, engagement even, while Arthur’s interest in her, to begin with, lies firmly south of the border. A consummate liar, Arthur weaves several on-the-spot yarns to keep each of the three women unaware of what he is up to with the other two; however, when found out by the young Doreen, he is unremorseful and nonchalant about his conduct. Jack eventually tattles on him and Arthur gets beaten up by the swaddy and a friend, but not before he puts up a valiant fight. The first part of the book, titled Saturday Night, which comprises almost eighty percent, ends here. In the second half of the novel, Sunday Morning, Arthur, while still clueless about bettering his lot, shows signs of settling down. He patches up with Doreen and stops his clandestine affairs with married women. He thinks to himself at the end of the novel: ‘Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken, and if you know the big wide world has not heard from you yet, no, not by a long way, though it won’t be long now.’

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a raw, unapologetic, unromanticised account of the working class Britain in the second half of twentieth century, following the Second World War. Sillitoe presents the lives of hoi polli, the proletarian, as they are, close to the bone, without rose-tinted glasses. The novel is assertive in its tone without being offensive or excessively hostile. Beset with the punishing chores and the daily grind in order to survive, Arthur, or, for that matter, any character in the novel, has no time for, indeed they have an attitude of healthy disrespect bordering on contempt towards, lofty principles such as patriotism cherished by those who have by and large more than enough to eat. Arthur’s cousins, his aunt Ada’s sons, are army deserters, and Arthur is full of admiration and support for them. ‘Why do they make soldiers out of us when we are fighting up to the hilt as it is?’ he asks. ‘Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers army, government. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. . . . Dragged –up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into a khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at week-end and getting to know whose husbands are on nightshift, working with rotten guts and aching spine. . .’ A devastating indictment of war and the irrelevance of it to the unorganised lower levels of proletariat.

The novel’s outlook may be bleak, but it is not a grim novel to read. Sillitoe writes with great exactitude and mastery. His descriptions of situations and characters are vivid yet precise. This is how Arthur Seaton’s father is described: ‘Short, stocky, Seaton was incapable of irritation or mild annoyance. He was either happy or fussy with everybody or black-browed with a deep melancholy that chose its victim at random.’ The language spoken by the working class is represented in a clear and striking manner, but is not overdone unlike some of Orwell’s novels. The working class lives are depicted with great warmth without being patronizing. Only those who know their milieus well achieve such authenticity and accuracy.

It is often thought that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is autobiographical, probably because it is set up in Nottingham where Sillitoe grew up, and the protagonist works the lathe in a factory, which is what Sillitoe did for five years. Sillitoe has dispelled this notion and has clarified that while the novel mirrors the sort of atmosphere he grew up in, it is a work of imagination in that ‘all the actors in it are put together from the jigsaw pieces assembled so that no identifiable characters came out in the end.’ This novel, in which Sillitoe found his true voice, was written, as he himself clarified years later, with no theme in his mind other than ‘the joy of writing, the sweat of writing clearly and truthfully.’ In this work, he said, he tried to portray ordinary people as he knew them, and in such a way that ‘they recognized themselves.’ He has certainly achieved that.

When the Times List was published, one Sir Howard Davies, who apparently chaired the 2007 Man Booker prize was quoted as saying: ‘I am very surprised to see no mention of David Storey, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury or Angus Wilson, and astonished by the absence of R S Thomas. All of those, to me, would rank higher than Alan Sillitoe, who is at No 20.’ Ignore Sir Davies (who couldn’t remember, for a start, that Anthony Powell, and not Sillitoe, is at No 20). Sillitoe is a superb writer. Read all of his books. And there is no better one to start your journey than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is a perennial classic.