WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Without Beer or Bread (Dulwich Village, U.K.: Outposts, 1957).
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London: Allen, 1958; New York: Knopf, 1959).
- The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (London: Allen, 1959; New York: Knopf, 1960).
- The General (London: Allen, 1960; New York: Knopf, 1962).
- The Rats and Other Poems (London: Allen, 1960).
- Key to the Door (London: Allen, 1961; New York: Knopf, 1962).
- The Ragman's Daughter and Other Stories (London: Allen, 1963; New York: Knopf, 1964).
- A Falling out of Love and Other Poems (London: Allen, 1964; Toronto: Doubleday, 1964).
- The Road to Volgograd (London: Allen, 1964; New York: Knopf, 1964).
- The Death of William Posters (London: Allen, 1965; New York: Knopf, 1965).
- The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim (London: Macmillan, 1967; Toronto: Macmillan, 1967; revised edition, Sheffield, U.K. & London: Robson, 1977).
- A Tree on Fire (London: Macmillan, 1967; New York: Doubleday, 1968).
- Guzman, Go Home, and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1968; New York: Doubleday, 1969).
- Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1968; New York: Doubleday, 1969).
- Shaman and Other Poems (London: Turret, 1968).
- A Start in Life (London: Allen, 1970; New York: Scribners, 1971).
- Poems, by Sillitoe, Ruth Fainlight, and Ted Hughes (London: Rainbow, 1971).
- Travels in Nihilon (London: Allen, 1971; New York: Scribners, 1972).
- Raw Material (London: Allen, 1972; New York: Scribners, 1973; revised edition, London: Pan, 1974; revised edition, London: Star, 1978; revised edition, London: Allen, 1979).
- Men, Women and Children (London: Allen, 1973; New York: Scribners, 1974).
- Barbarians and Other Poems (London: Turret, 1973).
- Canto Two of the Rats (London: Ithaca, 1973).
- The Flame of Life (London: Allen, 1974).
- Somme: Steam Press Portfolio 2, by Sillitoe, Lyman Andrews, Asa Beneviste, Lawrence Durrell, Fainlight, Sylvia Plath, and Ralph Steadman (London: Steam Press, 1974).
- Storm: New Poems (London: Allen, 1974).
- Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays (London: Allen, 1975).
- Words Broadsheet Nineteen, by Sillitoe and Fainlight (Bramley, Surrey, U.K.: Words Press, 1975).
- The Widower's Son (London: Allen, 1976; New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
- Big John and the Stars (London: Robson, 1977).
- Day-Dream Communiqué (Knotting, Bedfordshire, U.K.: Sceptre, 1977).
- The Incredible Fencing Fleas (London: Robson, 1978).
- Three Plays: The Slot-Machine, The Interview, Pit Strike (London: Allen, 1978).
- From Snow on the North Side of Lucifer (Knotting, Bedfordshire, U.K.: Sceptre, 1979).
- Snow on the North Side of Lucifer: Poems (London: Allen, 1979).
- The Storyteller (London: Allen, 1979; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).
- Marmalade Jim at the Farm (London: Robson, 1980).
- More Lucifer (Knotting, Bedfordshire, U.K.: Booth, 1980).
- The Second Chance and Other Stories (London: Cape, 1981; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981).
- Israel: Poems on a Hebrew Theme (London: Steam Press, 1981).
- Her Victory (London: Granada, 1982; New York: Watts, 1982).
- The Lost Flying Boat (London: Granada, 1983; Boston: Little, Brown, 1983).
- The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye, by Sillitoe and Fay Godwin (London: Hutchinson, 1983).
- Down from the Hill (London & New York: Granada, 1984).
- Marmalade Jim and the Fox (London: Robson, 1984).
- Sun before Departure: Poems, 1974 to 1982 (London: Granada, 1984).
- Life Goes On (London: Granada, 1985).
- Tides and Stone Walls: Poems (London: Grafton, 1986).
- Alan Sillitoe's Nottinghamshire (London: Grafton, 1987).
- Out of the Whirlpool (London: Hutchinson, 1987).
- The Far Side of the Street (London: Allen, 1988).
- The Open Door (London: Collins, 1989).
- Last Loves (London: Grafton, 1990; Boston: Chivers, 1991).
- Leonard's War: A Love Story (London: HarperCollins, 1991).
- The Mentality of the Picaresque Hero, Turret Papers no. 2 (London: Turret Books, 1993; Dallas: Contemporary Research Press, 1993).
- Snowstop (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
- Leading the Blind: A Century of Guidebook Travel, 1815-1914 (London: Macmillan, 1995).
- Life without Armour (London: HarperCollins, 1995).
Editions and Collections
- A Sillitoe Selection: Eight Short Stories, edited by Michael Marland (London: Longmans, Green, 1968).
- Down to the Bone, edited by Kenyon Calthrop, with an introduction by Sillitoe (Exeter, U.K.: Wheaton, 1976).
- Every Day of the Week: An Alan Sillitoe Reader, edited by John Sawkins (London: Allen, 1987).
- Collected Poems (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
- Collected Stories (London: Flamingo, 1995).
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Woodfall, 1960.
- The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Woodfall, 1962.
- The Ragman's Daughter, TCP/Penelope, 1972.
- All Citizens Are Soldiers, adapted by Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight from Lope de Vega's play, Stratford-upon-Avon, 20 June 1967.
- This Foreign Field, London, Roundhouse, March 1970.
- The Interview, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, 16 September 1976; London, Almost Free Theatre, March 1978.
- Pit Strike, BBC television, September 1977.
- Getting Out (Writers and Places Series), written and narrated by Sillitoe, BBC 2, 11 March 1980.
- "D. H. Lawrence and His District," in D. H. Lawrence: Poet, Prophet, edited by Stephen Spender (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), pp. 42-70.
- Emrys Bryson, Portrait of Nottingham, introduction by Sillitoe (London: Hale, 1974), pp. 5-14.
- G. H. Bowden, The Story of the Raleigh Bicycle, introduction by Sillitoe (London: Allen, 1975), pp. 9-10.
- "Introduction to Israeli Poetry," in The Burning Bush, edited by Moshe Dor and Natan Zach (London: Allen, 1977), pp. 7-9.
- Meir Gottesman, collator, Out of the Fire, editedby Sillitoe (Eire: Children & Youth Aliyah Committee, 1979), pp. 7-9.
- "Against Ideology," in The Writer and Human Rights, edited by Lester and Orpen Dennys (Toronto: Arts Group for Human Rights, 1983), pp. 233-240.
- Luis Ripoll, Chopin's Winter in Majorca 1838-1839, translated by Sillitoe (Palma de Majorca, Spain: Mossen Alcover, 1955).
- Ripoll, Chopin's Pianos: The Pleyel in Majorca, translated by Sillitoe (Palma de Majorca, Spain: Mossen Alcover, 1958).
- Lope de Vega, All Citizens Are Soldiers, Fuente Ovejuna, translated by Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight (London: Macmillan, 1969).
- Poems for Shakespeare, edited and translated by Sillitoe and Fainlight (London: Bear Gardens Museum & Arts Centre, 1979).
Selected Periodical Publications--Uncollected: Fiction
- "Late Starter," Times (London), 18 May 1961, p. 19.
- "Harrison's Row," Triquarterly, 33 (Spring 1975): 179-184.
- "Company," New Yorker, 54 (29 May 1978): 29-36.
- "A Matter of Teeth," Daily Mail Saturday Magazine, 18 February 1989.
- "Ivy," Duncan Lawrie Journal (Autumn 1991): 8-10.
Selected Periodical Publications--Uncollected: Nonfiction
- "Portrait of Robert Graves," Books and Bookmen (May 1960): 7-8.
- "Both Sides of the Street," Times Literary Supplement, 8 July 1960, p. 435.
- "Arthur Seaton Is Not Just a 'Symbol,'" Daily Worker, 28 July 1961, p. 2.
- "Shorts and Long Shorts," Books and Bookmen (May 1962): 16-17.
- "I Reminded Him of Muggleton," Shenandoah, 13 (Summer 1962): 4.
- "Drilling and Burring," Spectator, 212 (3 January 1964): 11.
- "Why We Signed," Sanity: The Voice of CND, September 1965, p. 7.
- "'Bad Form, Old Boy,' and So It Was," Times (London), 8 May 1972, p. 7.
- "When Will the Russians Learn that Humanity is Good for Them?," Times (London), 10 June 1974, p. 14.
- "First Day in Israel," Transatlantic Review, no. 50 (Autumn/Winter 1974): 91-99.
- "My Israel," New Statesman, 88 (20 December 1974): 890-892.
- "Carry on Praying," Die Zeit, 27 August 1975, p. 8.
- "The Book I Never Wrote," Die Welt, 22 March 1976, p. 2.
- "The State of Fiction," New Review, 5 (Summer 1978): 64.
- "Unhappy Families," Centre: Magazine of the North Western Reform Synagogue (January 1979): 1-2.
- "An Older Israel," Geographical Magazine, 52 (August 1979): 787.
- "Patterson the Zionist," Jewish Quarterly (Winter 1980-1981): 16-18.
- "My First Book," Author, 94 (Autumn 1983): 73-74.
- "Galilee Diary, 1977," Forthcoming: Jewish Imaginative Writing (Spring 1984): 30-34.
- "The Dread Which Artistry Cannot Conceal," Jewish Chronicle, 1 March 1985, p. 27.
- "On Trial at the Top," Sunday Times (London), 2 November 1986, p. 52.
- "Is This the End of Politics?," New Statesman, 10 (14 March 1997): 26-27.
[This entry was updated by Jennifer Semple Siegel (York College of Pennsylvania) from her entry in DLB 139: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1945-1980, and from the entry by Catherine Smith in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, volume 8, pp. 356-366.]
When Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published in 1958, critics grouped the author with John Wain , Kingsley Amis, and John Braine as the "Angry Young Men." The label is not entirely appropriate, even for the young author of this riveting, and often raw, first novel and the subsequent short-story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959): while the other "angry" writers depicted poor people trying to emulate the upper classes, Sillitoe's characters reveled in defying the elite. Furthermore, Sillitoe has often shown authority figures as inherently ignorant and ready to be manipulated by the lower classes. Although Sillitoe is known primarily for his novels, his short-story collections, especially The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, reveal an author concerned with the tight discipline of the short-story form. Early in his career Sillitoe preferred short stories to the novel. He revealed why in a 1969 interview with Bolivar Le Franc: "a short story is more tribal, more natural. It's something that existed back in Neanderthal times when people sat around a camp-fire and started spinning out short stories while the light was still living at the end of the day. A short story is the most human form of man assessing his relationship to the natural world around him and to his fellow-men."
Scholars have particularly admired Sillitoe's increasing ability to transcend class consciousness in his story collections: from The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner to The Second Chance and Other Stories (1981), Sillitoe has appealed to an increasingly broad audience while retaining the edge that has made him an important force in twentieth-century British fiction. In his review of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner in the 29 April 1960 issue of Commonweal, Max Cosman predicted that Sillitoe's career would "be a notable one, especially if he gets past his savages in teddy-boy outfits to those humane and thought-conscious members of his chosen working-class." Sillitoe's short-story characters have traded their teddy-boy outfits for more conservative clothes, but they have not forgotten their roots.
Robert Haller believes that Sillitoe's first two books continue to be best-sellers because they offer "a mirror for working-class readers and a window for others into a culture with its own richness of circumstance and its own integrity." Certainly this characterization holds true for his short fiction. Some of Sillitoe's more than forty short stories are admired as minor masterpieces.
The second of five children, Sillitoe was born on 4 March 1928 in Nottingham to Sylvina Burton and Christopher Archibald Sillitoe. As a child Sillitoe witnessed much domestic violence that stemmed from his family's chronic poverty. Until late 1939 the Sillitoes depended mainly on government assistance. To dodge rent collectors the family moved to various locations in Nottingham, events reflected in Key to the Door (1961), perhaps Sillitoe's most autobiographical novel.
In 1933 Sillitoe began school and became fascinated with the Old Testament; he later claimed that "the Christian Testament, which we were also obliged to listen to, never carried the same weight as those Old Testament chapters." His early exposure to the Bible formed the basis of his later strong pro-Israel views and contributed to his "wish to be rootless, that fixed desire to wander the face of the earth."
Sillitoe read avidly, especially adventure and detective stories by such authors as Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . A schoolmaster gave him the first book he ever owned, History Day by Day, a tantalizing volume that offered only brief synopses of historical events; Sillitoe says that "it was a book exactly suited to my avid though shallow brain." Despite his love of reading, he did not pass his eleven-plus exams, the series of tests that would have allowed him to stay in school until age seventeen. Just before leaving school in 1942 and beginning work at the Raleigh bicycle factory, Sillitoe won an award for "Proficiency in Biblical Knowledge." The prize was a limp, black, leather-bound Bible that he still possesses.
World War II brought the constant threat of being bombed by the Axis powers. In Key to the Door Sillitoe recalls, through his character Brian Seaton, the day gas masks were passed out to all the children at school. The war did, however, improve the Sillitoe family's financial situation, although the job at the bicycle factory ended after three months because of a labor dispute. Sillitoe took jobs at various manufacturing firms until 16 April 1945, when he enlisted in the Royal Navy with plans to become a pilot; but with the war winding down, he was told to wait to be called up to a training station. He worked as an air-traffic-control assistant at Langar Airfield; then, when the navy informed him that he would have to sign on for seven years, he resigned in March 1946. He joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) six weeks later and was sent to radio school. On 8 May 1947 he shipped out for Malaya.
Returning to England in August 1948, Sillitoe was diagnosed with tuberculosis. During his sixteen-month hospitalization he read the Greek and Latin classics in translation and began writing poems, short stories, and a novel in imitation of his favorite writers: Aldous Huxley , Fyodor Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence , Henry Fielding , and Joseph Conrad . Many of the short stories appear, reworked, in his novel The General (1960). On 22 December 1949 he was discharged from the RAF and returned to Nottingham. In 1950 he wrote a poem, "Arthur Seaton," in which the title character expresses his thoughts while fishing. On 26 August 1950 his first published short story, "No Shot in the Dark"--which became a part of chapter 21 in Key to the Door--appeared in the Nottinghamshire Weekly Guardian; Sillitoe received thirty shillings for it.
In the autumn of 1950 he met Ruth Fainlight, an American-born poet, in a Nottingham bookstore. In 1952 they left together for France. After a year there they went to Spain. During this time he continued writing, supported by his RAF pension, a National Health Service allowance, and freelance translating jobs.
In 1954 the poet Robert Graves, to whom he had sent some of his poetry, invited Sillitoe to visit him. Graves advised Sillitoe to write about what he knew: Nottingham. Taking Graves's advice, Sillitoe reworked "Arthur Seaton" into a short story about a young man who gets drunk, falls down the stairs in a pub, and lies unconscious as people walk around him. The story was never published, but the hard-living protagonist Arthur Seaton, a character based on an old drinking buddy of Sillitoe's, would appear in a similar scene in his first novel.
In 1956, in Sóller, Majorca, Sillitoe began reworking several short stories set in Nottingham into a picaresque novel; within six months he had completed a four-hundred-page draft titled "The Adventures of Arthur Seaton." In the spring of 1957, while revising his novel, Sillitoe saw a performance of John Osborne 's play Look Back in Anger and was impressed by the playwright's ability to break through establishment barriers. By August 1957 Sillitoe had completed his novel, by then one hundred pages shorter and bearing a new title: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning . One year and five rejection slips later, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was accepted by the W. H. Allen publishing firm, and with his one-hundred-pound advance Sillitoe and Fainlight returned to England. Sillitoe insists that the novel is really "about twenty or thirty short stories stuck together with one central character. It's not a true novel in the sense of being beautifully constructed ... and marvellously built." Chronicling the experiences of Arthur Seaton, a twenty-two-year-old factory worker who lives for the moment, spending all his money on ale, women, and flashy clothes, the book won the Authors' Club Silver Quill Award as the most promising first novel of 1958.
Praised for its verisimilitude in depicting working-class life, this account of the young Seaton follows his progress toward marriage. The novel immediately establishes some favorite Sillitoe themes: the social injustice inherent in working-class life, the "jungle" of social classes, the mindlessness and monotony of the only work accessible to the lower classes, and the "us versus them" mentality of workers pitted against establishment, whether in the person of politician, policeman, or foreman. Arthur's affairs with two sisters, both married, result in pregnancy and subsequent abortion for one and Arthur's defeat by the husband of the other. The end of the novel finds Arthur at once rebelling against society and conforming to some of its expectations by preparing to marry. Sillitoe does not consider the novel autobiographical because Arthur represents a compilation of many personalities, including about ten percent of Sillitoe's own, tempered by memories and imagination. An immediate popular success, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains a favorite of later critics as well as early reviewers.
Early in 1959 Sillitoe and Fainlight moved to London, where he revised The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Later that year, with advances from publishers, Sillitoe leased a cottage in Whitwell, Hertfordshire. In November he and Fainlight were married, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was published by W. H. Allen. A commercial and critical success, this short-story collection about working-class people alienated from the establishment represents some of the best fiction ever written by Sillitoe. In the title story Smith, a hardened and antisocial seventeen-year-old, must decide between winning a long-distance race for his Borstal (reform school) or remaining an outsider by losing purposefully. He revels in the routine of running around the Borstal grounds early each morning, even during the winter when "Everything's dead, but good, because it's dead before coming alive...." When he realizes that those in charge are "dead" after having been barely alive, Smith has to decide whether he wants to remain "alive" by losing the race or become "dead" by winning the race for "them." Smith is probably the most idealistic character in Sillitoe's work, for the young renegade does not deviate from his personal moral code. By losing the race, he becomes a hero of the disenfranchised.
Eight more short stories complete The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. In "Uncle Ernest" the protagonist befriends two girls who are obviously poor, buys them food, and gives them presents. He grows to think of the girls as surrogate nieces; the authorities, however, view his generosity differently and order him to leave the youngsters alone. Sillitoe captures Ernest's outrage at "them," who have so misinterpreted his motives. "Mr. Raynor the School Teacher" is told from the viewpoint of one of "them," a married, middle-aged schoolteacher who dislikes his working-class students. In "Noah's Ark" Colin, a ten-year-old version of Arthur Seaton, and Bert, his errant eleven-year-old cousin, are typical Nottingham working-class children who grab what little pleasure they can find. Although "On Saturday Afternoon" continues the alienation motif, one begins to see a hint of maturation themes. A sixteen-year-old boy who has inherited the family "bleddy blackness"--depression and angst--remembers witnessing at age ten a man trying to hang himself from a light fixture. The youth recalls the ensuing confrontation between the man and a policeman:
"Well, what did you do it for?"
"Because I wanted to," the bloke croaked.
"You'll get five years for this," the copper told him. I'd crept back into the house and was sucking my thumb in the same corner.
"That's what yo' think," the bloke said, a normal frightened look in his eyes now. "I only wanted to hang myself."
"Well," the copper said, taking out his book, "it's against the law, you know."
"Nay," the bloke said, "it can't be. It's my life, ain't it?"
"You might think so," the copper said, "but it ain't."The boy realizes the implications of such a law in the context of his own life and his relationship with the authorities.
"The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale" is a tragicomedy in which a boy-narrator presents an obvious "moral": that people need to develop spirit and stubbornness so as to assert their independence and avoid the "do-gooders" of the world, who will soon tire of their work. The boy tells the story of Jim Scarfedale, who married an upper-class woman who set out to "reform" him; however, the marriage failed, for Scarfedale's wife grew weary of his simple ways. He moved back with his mother and eventually tried to prove his manhood by poaching and by frightening little girls after dark. The narrator uses Jim's story to illustrate the consequences of failing to assert one's independence early in life.
Allen Richard Penner suggests that "The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller" is a "nostalgic sociological document" in which Sillitoe is recalling his childhood in fictional form. The narrator reminisces about his friendship with Frankie Buller, a childhood mentor. Then in his twenties, Frankie, who possessed limited intellectual abilities and identified with the neighborhood children rather than with other adults, befriended twelve-year-old boys and taught them war games. The boys respected this man-child, attributing to him special powers that they had not yet discovered in themselves. When the narrator returns to his neighborhood ten years later he finds a changed Frankie; something vital is missing in his old mentor. More important, the narrator recognizes his own altered class consciousness. His nostalgia turns to anger when he discovers that Frankie had been hospitalized for a year and given shock treatments: "I wanted power in me to tear down those white-smocked mad interferers with Frankie's coal-forest world, wanted to wipe out their hate and presumption."
Though such "us versus them" themes prevail in the collection, Sillitoe had begun developing the more sophisticated psychological and marital motifs that would emerge more fully in his later fiction. In "The Fishing-Boat Picture" Harry, a fifty-two-year-old postman, has to deal with his former wife's attempt to establish a platonic relationship with him. As she walks up the yard for the first time in years, Harry says, "It gave me a funny feeling ...: ten years ain't enough to change anyone so's you don't recognize them, but it's long enough to make you have to look twice before you're sure." Out of kindness Harry accepts her weekly visits and even begins to look forward to them until she asks for the return of a wedding gift: a picture of a fishing boat that depicts calmness and placidity, the opposite of their stormy marriage. This story is the first in which Sillitoe pulls away from the theme of class conflict. "The Match" continues the marital theme: Lennox and Fred attend soccer matches together but live very different lives: Lennox abuses his wife and children, while Fred adores his bride. Fred, however, is simply a younger version of Lennox, for in Sillitoe's view violence is inevitable in the Nottingham working-class family.
Anthony West praised the collection in the 11 June 1960 issue of the New Yorker: "These stories are, indeed, so firmly rooted in experience, and so ably handled, that they do not seem to have been written at all; they seem to be occurrences of a most engrossing and absorbing kind." On the other hand, John Updike, writing in the New Republic (9 May 1960), felt that Sillitoe had stereotyped all "Haves" as "pop-eyed potbellies." Still, Updike conceded that "I liked best those endings in which the boy-narrator stood right up in his shabby shoes and explained what lesson he had learned, as if he were assembling a personal Bible out of scraps of sadness and folly blowing in the gutters."
In 1960, after selling the film rights to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for £4,500 ($12,600), Sillitoe wrote the screenplay, for which he was paid an additional £750 ($2,100). Also that year, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize, awarded annually to an author under forty for the best imaginative writing. Sillitoe was now an established writer in several genres and was already preparing The General (1960), his second novel, for publication.
The General proved a disappointment to critics, who quickly dismissed it. Though some criticized it as a hasty effort written to cash in on the success of Sillitoe's earlier two works, The General was actually written over a long period of time. It developed from a story Sillitoe first wrote in 1949 and later revised while living in Majorca in 1953, and during the next seven years it went through several more thorough revisions. A fable about war, art, and the nature of man, The General chronicles the actions and reactions of an anonymous protagonist, the General, commander of the somewhat barbaric Gorshek forces, and of Evart, conductor of a symphony orchestra that, on its way to the front lines to entertain troops, is captured by Gorshek forces. While awaiting instructions about the orchestra's fate, the General and Evart debate the relative merits of war and pacifism. When the high command's computers demand the musicians' deaths, the General, at high personal cost, arranges for their escape. His decision, influenced in part by the orchestra's moving performance, introduces freedom of choice into the central debate of the novel as the General selects integrity over blind obedience and so assures himself of certain disgrace and punishment. His insistence that the orchestra members carry weapons spells a type of defeat for the pacifist Evart as well. Either ignored or condemned by critics, The General was made into a film, which also failed to win an audience.
The Rats and Other Poems, also published in 1960, includes the long title poem and thirty-three short lyrics from Without Beer or Bread (1957), a small collection of poems published in a limited paperback edition. For the most part undistinguished, the volume did introduce a favorite Sillitoe theme: individual rebellion against the collected pressures of government and other bureaucracies. Though Sillitoe considers himself first a poet, then a novelist, critics regard his fiction much more highly. Interestingly, however, the passage in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that most critics single out for praise was originally a long poem. Sillitoe spent the rest of 1960 preparing the screenplay for the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
When that film, starring Albert Finney, opened in London to good reviews, Sillitoe and Fainlight fled to Morocco for four months to get away from the limelight. On returning, he collaborated with the director Tony Richardson on the screenplay for the 1962 film version of "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner." Some critics felt that Sillitoe and Richardson had excessively "sanitized" the protagonist for the screen: the hardened, antisocial criminal of the story had become a romantic hero who had been dealt a losing hand by an uncaring society. Other critics and the public, however, responded enthusiastically to the film.
Key to the Door , published in October 1961, returns to Nottingham as Brian Seaton, the older brother of Arthur, grows up amid poverty and family violence. Later, Brian is conscripted and shipped off to Malaya as a wireless operator, where he must decide what to do with a captured enemy soldier, a Communist. Although critics praised the first two sections of the novel for its depiction of Nottingham and the Seatons, the Malaya sections drew censure for Sillitoe's often overworked style and artless attempts to inject his political philosophy into the novel. Uneven, but worthwhile, Key to the Door evidences a preoccupation with politics that colors Sillitoe's succeeding works.
Sillitoe's daughter, Susan, was born in 1961. Shortly after his son David's birth in 1962, Sillitoe and his family traveled to Tangier and elsewhere in Morocco. There Sillitoe revised the stories for his second collection, The Ragman's Daughter and Other Stories (1963). In the title story the narrator, Tony, is stopped after work by the police, who open his suitcase for inspection: "I was lucky my suitcase had nothing but air in it. Sometimes I walk out with a box of butter and cheese from the warehouse I work at, but for once that no-good God was on my side--trying to make up for the times he's stabbed me in the back maybe." Then Tony recalls his youth, when he fell in love with Doris, the daughter of a wealthy ragman, and led her into a life of stealing. Tony was not really interested in the things he stole, for he routinely dumped his booty off the Trent bridge just to hear it splash into the water. Tony eventually got caught and spent three years in a Borstal. Now a semirespectable young working-class man with a wife and two children, Tony mourns the loss of his high spirits. At the end he says about the night he and Doris got caught: "when I switched off the light because I sensed danger, we both went into the dark, and never came out." Tony went "into the dark" by taking a comfortable job in a factory, thereby joining the system that has kept his people poor.
"The Good Women" was originally serialized in the Communist-party newspaper, the Daily Worker. This story is particularly significant because it demonstrated for the first time that Sillitoe could create a female character who was something more than an empty-headed working-class girl: Liza Atkin is a true revolutionary. While supporting an ailing husband and a large family she consistently bucks the system, evading the means-test man (an official who decides how much assistance families should receive) and others who would threaten her way of life: "They wain't stop me doing what I like. If the getts want to tek my few bob off me I'll throw it in their effing phizzogs."
In "The Other John Peel" Sillitoe transforms the aristocratic hunter of John Woodcock Graves's nineteenth-century ballad into a twentieth-century working-class man named Bob who moonlights as a poacher, subverting the romantic notion of the "hunt," a sport typically enjoyed by the upper classes. Bob's friend Ernie is convinced that a revolution is coming and that the Russians will "liberate" them from the class system. In "The Bike" Colin is a young man just starting work in a bicycle factory. Bernard, a coworker, betrays him by selling him a stolen bike, but Colin still feels obligated to protect Bernard from the clutches of "them." Colin believes that justice will prevail when the revolution comes, for Bernard, with his "lily-white hands," will be one of the first people shot. In "To Be Collected" the brothers Donnie, Bert, and Dave eke out a precarious living by soliciting junk door-to-door. Donnie discovers a cache of Sten machine guns, a potential source of wealth and a way out of their grim life, but Dave and Bert do not want to risk getting caught selling them. After much discussion the brothers toss the guns into a reservoir, throwing away their last chance at freedom from poverty.
The narrator of "The Firebug" recalls when, as a boy, he became fascinated with the sound of fire trucks passing by his house and decided to set his own fires; he began by lighting small fires in his own yard and progressed to more serious fires. Finally he set a major blaze in the woods so that he could watch it leap out of control; the fire
was a sheet of red flame and grey smoke, a choking wall and curtain that scared me a bit, because I was back to life, as if big hands would reach out and grab me in for good and all. Like my uncle had said hell was--though I never believed him till now.
It was time to run.His deed went unpunished, but setting fires lost its thrill for him. Although his fear of apprehension has persisted for years, the narrator remains unrepentant.
"The Magic Box" represents an important departure from the themes of Sillitoe's first story collection, foreshadowing an "us versus us" motif in which characters experience their conflicts internally rather than waging battles with the authoritarian "them." After Fred wins £250 in a football pool, he and his wife, Nan, begin to experience marital difficulties. Instead of being happy about his windfall, he is disappointed that he did not win the grand prize of £100,000. He buys a shortwave radio and sets it up in his dead son's room, where he listens to Morse-code messages from sailors to their lovers. This pastime hints at Sillitoe's increasing disenchantment with modern culture and technology: Fred retreats increasingly into a world where relationships are formed and broken through dots and dashes rather than real human contact. The old "blackness," a common malady in Sillitoe stories, falls over him; he recalls his son, a once-lively boy who had also fallen prey to the blackness before drowning in a river. Fred suffers a nervous breakdown and smashes everything in the boy's room, and Nan has him committed to a mental hospital. While he is away Nan spends her share of the football pool on drinking and "fancy-men." When she becomes pregnant, she believes that Fred will accept the child as his own. A major scene ensues; Nan dares him to leave; and he strikes her for the first time. Nan rationalizes, "He hadn't hit me before then, and he wain't hit me again, either. Maybe I deserved it though."
In the New York Review of Books for 5 March 1964 Stanley Kaufmann called "The Magic Box" the best story in the collection, citing Sillitoe's restraint in using a child's death not as a source of pathos but "as a cold fact of their lives." The collection itself received mixed reviews, some critics believing that Sillitoe was just rehashing his "us versus them" theme. Although most critics admired the author's technical skill, some felt that his oppression themes were oversimplified and that character development and psychological analysis suffered.
In an essay in the 25 September 1963 issue of the Queen titled "Poor People," which was collected in his Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays (1975), Sillitoe describes the frustrations of the working class that provided the themes for his early fiction:
The poor know of only two classes in society. Their sociology is much simplified. There are them and us. Them are those who tell you what to do, who drive a car, use a different accent, are buying a house in another district, deal in cheques and not money, pay your wages, collect rent and telly dues, stop for you now and again at pedestrian crossings, can't look you in the eye, read the news on wireless or television, hand you the dole or national assistance money; the shopkeeper, copper, schoolteacher, doctor, health visitor, the man wearing the white dog-collar. Them are those who robbed you of your innocence, live on your backs, buy the house from over your head, eat you up or tread you down.
In 1963, after returning to England from Morocco, Sillitoe received an invitation from the Soviet Writers' Union to visit the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He remained there for a month, and later that year he spent four weeks traveling through Czechoslovakia. His travel journal The Road to Volgograd (1964) reveals Sillitoe's increasing dissatisfaction with British life and growing affinity for the Soviet Union.
In 1965, Sillitoe finished The Death of William Posters , the first novel in a trilogy that includes A Tree on Fire (1967) and The Flame of Life (1974). The Death of William Posters begins with protagonist Frank Dawley deserting wife, children, and job in order to find freedom and a sense of identity. Dawley creates an imaginary figure, William Posters--a name suggested by the signs Dawley sees everywhere: "Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted"--who comes to symbolize the underdog workman apparently hounded by authorities. Dawley's alliances with an eccentric painter, a new lover, and an American revolutionary lead to his enlistment in the Algerian rebellion against France. As Dawley begins his new life as a revolutionary, his old symbol of the oppressed workman, William Posters, dies. Difficulties in style and weaknesses in the conception of Sillitoe's hero prompted critical reservations.
Appearing in 1967, A Tree on Fire continues the story of Dawley's own revolution. In this novel Dawley's lover, Myra, and their son return to England and share a home with Albert Handley, the painter who earlier befriended Dawley. The scene then shifts back to Dawley and the desert fighting, which incorporates the most basic of working-class biases--the "us versus them" dichotomy. After attacking with the rebels, Dawley is sick for ten days, and deciding he would be more useful in England raising money for the insurgents' cause, he returns and joins his lover and child at Handley's home. A successful painter but also a confirmed revolutionary, Handley enlists Dawley in his efforts to establish a utopian community, which becomes the subject of the third novel. While reviewers commended Sillitoe's rendering of battle scenes, they criticized his style in other passages. As his characters receded before his theme of violent rebellion, his art degenerated into propaganda.
Though begun in 1967, the final novel of the trilogy, The Flame of Life , was not published until 1974, and the delay proved devastating. In this novel, Dawley, Handley, and various members of their families keep trying to establish a utopian community while disrupting the English society around them. Yet their own bickering continually interrupts and delays their revolutionary plots to correct social injustices. Little action, less direction, and too much purposeless theorizing coupled with such stylistic excesses as overlush prose and self-conscious imagery make this novel Sillitoe's weakest.
In 1967 Sillitoe and his family went to Majorca, where they stayed in a house lent to them by Graves. There Sillitoe finished some short stories, the poetry volume Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems (1968), and the play This Foreign Field, performed in London in 1970. In September Sillitoe, who had become increasingly disenchanted with the Soviet Union's treatment of minorities and writers, returned to that country and gave a lecture at the Gorki Literary Institute titled "The Freedom for the Writer."
In the 1969 interview with Le Franc, Sillitoe, the former angry young man, commented: "I never did, in any case, trust the word anger--never had any truck with it at all. I mean, what's the point in being angry if you can't destroy what you're angry about?" At the end of 1968 his third book of short stories, Guzman, Go Home, and Other Stories , was published. In the title story the narrator, Chris, and his wife, Jane, are an English couple vacationing in Spain. When their car breaks down a man named Guzman takes them to a garage he owns. While waiting for his car to be repaired, Chris listens as Guzman reveals his past as a Nazi. Sillitoe told Le Franc that
the whole point of the story of Guzman's life is how one can be drawn, almost without knowing it, almost against one's instincts, into this terrible situation. So if there is a moral to this story it is: you can't escape politics. There's no way of living apart from politics. And also: watch your step. Every step you take, every word you say, you have to measure with great care because it's so easy, before you know it you're in some precarious situation in which you're a threat to other people.After hearing Guzman's story, Chris decides that he cannot abandon politics.
The six remaining stories are set in Nottingham. The characters are less desperate and poor than those in Sillitoe's earlier collections, but, as Alan Hislop pointed out in The New York Times Book Review for 14 December 1969, "failing marriages and dying hopes" still prevail. The narrator of "Revenge," Richard, is a forty-year-old schizophrenic who fears human relationships and only understands things that are mechanical and, thus, predictable. He marries Caroline, but the marriage breaks up when he accuses her of trying to poison him. In "Chicken" Sillitoe exhibits a flair for black comedy: a foundry worker steals a neighbor's chicken for Sunday dinner and chops off its head, but the decapitated bird leads him on a merry chase right onto the neighbor's dinner table. In "Canals" Dick, a married London schoolteacher, comes home to Nottingham for his father's funeral. On a whim he visits an old girlfriend to apologize for his betrayal of her and, perhaps, to reestablish a relationship with her. Like Harry in "The Fishing-Boat Picture," however, he soon discovers that he has changed, while his former girlfriend and Nottingham have remained in the past. In "The Road" five-year-old Ivan watches his parents argue about trivial matters throughout a day trip to the beach. In "The Rope Trick" Jack steals money from a church collection box to give to a stranger whose husband has abandoned her but discovers that she, in turn, has abandoned him, leaving him holding the stolen money. Class conflict returns in "Isaac Starbuck." Isaac deserts his wife and children and finds a girlfriend. He buys a car but refuses to show his registration papers to the police, preferring to buck the system by "stealing" his own car. Unlike Smith in "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," Isaac rebels with a sense of humor and without political overtones.
Guzman, Go Home, and Other Stories was well received by most critics; in the Saturday Review for 20 November 1969 Richard Clark Sterne called Sillitoe "a Chekhovian Robin Hood" who tells "wry, virile stories" about "the aborted or frustrated passions, compassions and rebellions of laborers and marginal bourgeois." Hislop in The New York Times Book Review said, "If the stories lack the force of those in his earlier volumes, that is because Sillitoe mapped out his territory so well. He isn't repeating himself; we are simply seeing some new parts of his world."
Sillitoe spent most of 1969 writing short stories and working on his long, picaresque novel A Start in Life (1970), in which he experimented with such traditional comic forms as satire, irony, farce, and parody as he followed in the tradition of Henry Fielding , an author he had long admired. The protagonist, Michael Cullen, flees his Nottingham background, his pregnant girlfriend, and the dubious circumstances surrounding his dismissal for unethical real-estate dealings. Escaping to London, he has a series of adventures that eventually land him in prison. At the end of the novel, Cullen retires to the country, obstensibly to lead a respectable life. Generally receptive to A Start in Life, critics appreciated the writer's humor and his skill in manipulating traditional literary forms.
Also in 1970 Sillitoe found himself at the center of a controversy. When the Soviet writer Anatoli Kuznetsov, who was visiting London, ran into the Daily Telegraph offices and asked for political asylum, the KGB accused Sillitoe of assisting in the defection by luring Kuznetsov's guard away. Sillitoe says, "I admit that any self-respecting police force would have had reason for suspicion," but he denies that he acted as a decoy so that the Russian writer could escape.
Sillitoe spent most of 1970 writing the screenplay for The Ragman's Daughter (1972). He practiced his own brand of rebellion in 1971, when he paid a fine for refusing to fill out a census form. In the fall of that year he published Travels in Nihilon, a fantasy exploring the possibilities of life in a totally nihilistic state. The novel follows five travelers to Nihilon, where citizens value cheating and violence, scorn honor and loyalty, and deliberately create chaos and disaster. The five travelers join an insurrection against the established government but ultimately realize that the rebels are as corrupt as the government they want to overthrow. The novel met critical reserve and public indifference.
Of greater interest was Raw Material , published in 1972. Both novel and memoir, biography and autobiography, Raw Material attempts to explain how someone of Sillitoe's background becomes a writer. According to its author, the book attempts to trace, through the "raw material" of his grandparents' lives, the events and circumstances which shaped his decision to become a novelist. In part 1 he alternates sections of philosophical speculation, primarily about the relativity of truth, with accounts of family history, so that he can examine the interrelationship of a writer and the raw material of his own life. Much of part 2 concerns World War I as Sillitoe interweaves carefully researched facts, memories of relatives about the war, and his own theories about the misuse of power by government and other bureaucracies. The last chapters include anecdotes about more recent family history between commentaries on writing. The book works best when Sillitoe explores his familial relationships. The indirect, oblique analysis of the fiction-making process in these passages succeeds much more than the direct philosophical speculations of the commentaries. Somewhat uneven, the work offers valuable insights about Sillitoe, who considers it one of his most important works. To his gratification, a slightly revised edition was published in 1978.
Sillitoe's fourth collection of short stories appeared in 1973. Unlike the three previous collections, Men, Women and Children has no title story; the title refers to the protagonists, whom the Sewanee Review for July 1975 described as "husbands who leave their wives, wives who leave their husbands, parents who abandon their children, lovers of all kinds who prove untrue." In "Mimic" the narrator, a mime who has forgotten how to be himself, slips into insanity and begins mimicking nature. In "Pit Strike" Joshua, a fifty-year-old coal miner, agrees to go on strike for better working conditions for his co-workers, even though his own life is already comfortable, and becomes a reluctant hero. Sillitoe combines the best and worst attributes of Smith and Guzman into Joshua, creating a more complex and interesting protagonist who agonizes over his decisions. (In 1977 a television version of "Pit Strike" was produced and directed by Roger Bamford for the BBC.) In "Before Snow Comes" Mark falls in love with a woman who later returns to her abusive husband. "Enoch's Two Letters" is the unhappy tale of an eight-year-old boy's abandonment by both parents simultaneously, each without the knowledge of the other: two "goodbye" letters arrive, one from the mother to the father and the other from the father to the mother. A sequel, "The End of Enoch?," reveals the boy's eventual fate. "The View" is a chilling story about a man who is obsessed with watching from his window as people are buried in the cemetery adjacent to his yard; when he dies, the story is continued from his wife's viewpoint. In "A Trip to Southwell" two teenagers fall in love; during their unconsummated romance, the boy and his family move away from Nottingham. When he returns to visit the girl, she is pregnant. In "The Chiker" Ken, a married, middle-aged man, is obsessed with secretly watching others make love, including his own daughter and her boyfriend. Finally, "Scenes from the Life of Margaret" tells of a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, leaving her with their three children. She falls in love with another man, who also leaves her after impregnating her. For the most part, the critics praised Sillitoe's attainment of technical sophistication in his short-story writing.
In 1973 Sillitoe traveled to the United States for the first time, spending some time in New York City before going on to Lincoln, Nebraska. In a London pub he had run into some students from the University of Nebraska and, after "a pleasant drinking bout," had promised to teach at the university for a week when he visited America. In 1974 the Israeli Foreign Office invited him to spend ten days in Israel. Sillitoe felt that visiting Israel was like "going home for the first time after two thousand years of bitter exile." Comparing writers everywhere to Jews, he sees in both groups a separateness from mainstream culture and believes that "Old Testamentism, or Judaism, is a deeply motivating force in the English non-conformist spirit." Late in 1975 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Early in 1976 he attended a conference in Brussels, where he criticized the Soviet Union for its treatment of Jews. As a result of that talk, Sillitoe wrote a short play, The Interview, which was produced on 16 September 1976 at St. Martin's-in-the-Field, coinciding with the publication of another novel, The Widower's Son.
Well-received by critics, The Widower's Son examines the life of William Scorton, raised by his widowed father, a retired professional soldier dedicated to molding his son in his own image. Conditioned from an early age to perceive life in military terms, first as a young cadet at gunnery school and later as a colonel in the royal artillery, William never comes to terms with his background. He can resolve neither the immediate conflicts with his father, who secretly considers his son better off as a noncommissioned officer, nor his later conflicts with his wife, a brigadier's daughter who can never quite overcome the differences in their backgrounds. Over his wife's objections, William resigns his commission to discover much about life that the army failed to teach him. William's initiation destroys his marriage. Sillitoe's elaborate extended metaphor of marriage as war details the collapse of William's relationship with his wife. His subsequent mental breakdown culminates in attempted suicide from which he emerges with the beginnings of a self-awareness denied him in his army career and in his relationships with both wife and father. Beginning in midlife a new career as a teacher, William prepares to face life on his own terms, no longer colored by the orders and desires of others. In this novel, Sillitoe does more than catalogue the problems caused by working-class origins; he focuses on the inner agonies of one individual. Also in 1976 Sillitoe wrote the introduction to Down to the Bone, a collection of his reprinted short stories.
In 1977 Sillitoe produced Big John and the Stars, a story for children which was well received. The 1978 Three Plays collected This Foreign Field, retitled The Slot-Machine; The Interview, an expanded and revised version that was performed in March 1978 in London; and Pit Strike. During the summer of 1977 Sillitoe and his family spent two months at the invitation of the mayor of Jerusalem at the Mishkenot Sha'anamin, a retreat for celebrated artists. After the publication of The Incredible Fencing Fleas (1978), another story for children, Sillitoe released his ninth volume of poetry, Snow on the North Side of Lucifer (1979). More important, in fall 1979 Sillitoe produced his tenth, and most ambitious, novel, The Storyteller.
The Storyteller chronicles the progress into madness of Ernest Cotgrave, who begins storytelling to escape the violence threatened by the school bully and ends committed to a mental institution following a suicide attempt that renders him mute. Cotgrave retreats into schizophrenia as his life becomes so intertwined with those of his characters that he can no longer distinguish reality from illusion. Peopling his tales with persons and events from his own life, he is finally so overwhelmed by the multiple personalities that the only response possible to his lover's rejection is attempted suicide. Because he is mute, Cotgrave's complex oral existence is reduced to "block capitals" on "bits of paper."
Multiple personalities characterize writers for Sillitoe, who pictures the writer as empty before he peoples his mind with his fictional creations. In The Storyteller Sillitoe deliberately blurs distinctions between fantasy and reality, as intricate interior monologues become, without warning, perorations before audiences both appreciative and hostile. Though some overextended metaphors and awkward sentence patterns persist, the word-echoes and refrains, the expert interweaving of inner thoughts and public performances, and the sophisticated treatment of what Sillitoe terms the "same old identity situation" mark The Storyteller as one of his best novels.
The Second Chance and Other Stories appeared in 1981. These stories lack the rawness of those in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: most of the characters are sophisticated and complacent; their eyes have lost the hard glint of starving youth and are dulled from years of staring at the telly and collecting material goods. Still, Anne-Marie Brumm applauds Sillitoe's increasing exploration of "the subtleties of interpersonal relationships" between women and men.
Sillitoe's growth is especially evident in "The Second Chance." Major George Baxter, a retired RAF officer, meets Peter, a young confidence man who resembles Baxter's son, who was killed in World War II. Baxter lures Peter into acting the role of the son for Helen, Baxter's wife, who, after twenty years, is still grieving for her son; she and Baxter have never discussed the boy's death, and now they have stopped communicating altogether. When Peter begins playing his role, the fallout from twenty years of suppressed emotion becomes violent. The characters--even Helen, who has deep psychological problems--know that the scenes they are acting out are not real but that they are necessary all the same. Peter feels that the Baxters offer him a chance to make crime pay one last time before he settles down to a respectable occupation; Mrs. Baxter wants to recapture the essence of their son's life; and George Baxter sees a chance to reestablish communication in his marriage. All three have their needs met, but at a price: one of the characters is shot fatally. A new order ensues that has implications that are even more shocking than the original family order. In "The Second Chance" one finds neither working-class Nottingham people struggling for a precarious existence nor revolutionaries fighting for a cause: the setting is a country house, the Baxters are well-off, and Peter comes from an upper-class background.
"The Meeting" continues the role-playing theme. A couple meet in a bar, and the narrator, through omission, implies that they are strangers; eventually the dialogue reveals that they are former spouses who have arranged for a yearly meeting "to see if we can't get back together again and make a go of it." They discover, however, that sex is their only common denominator. In "Confrontation" a man at a cocktail party tells a woman named Mavis that he has only three months to live. When the two meet at another party a year later, Mavis is furious that he lied to her. He callously responds, "Did I? I'm sorry about that. Parties are so deadly boring." The lie destroys his marriage, and he ends up in a doomed relationship with Mavis.
"The Sniper" is one of Sillitoe's best pieces of fiction. Nevill, an eighty-year-old man, has been hiding a sordid secret for more than fifty years: his murder of his wife's lover. Before he dies he wants to confess his guilt publicly. He jumps onto a table in a pub and begins to dance while reciting the grim details. But no one seems to care, and when the old man finally collapses the others react to his desperate dance:
"Funny bloody story he was trying to spin us," one of them said, "about killing somebody in Robins Wood."
"Couldn't make head nor tail of it. I've known him for years, and he wouldn't hurt a fly. A bit senile, I suppose."
"No Name in the Street" returns to the Nottingham poor. Albert, a middle-aged man who makes his living picking up and selling lost golf balls, communes with his dog by abusing it. "It's a good dog," he reflects, "but it gets on my nerves a bit too much at times." The dog is a metaphor for Albert himself: both are down and out, abused by those in charge. When Albert agrees to move in with a woman, the dog refuses to leave their old place: "It didn't want to leave. Well, nobody did, did they? He didn't want to leave, and that was a fact, but a time came when you had to. You had to leave or you had to sink into the ground and die. And he didn't want to die. He wanted to live. He knew that, now." Albert eventually tosses a golf ball to the animal, an incentive for the dog to give up his home just as the woman is an incentive for Albert to relinquish his independence. Although the setting is Nottingham and the main character lives in poverty, Sillitoe does not bring class conflict into the story; Albert is philosophical rather than angry about his lot and has learned to live with forces beyond his control.
In "A Scream of Toys" Edie remembers a childhood scene in which she and a neighborhood bully thought that they had found a large box of toys on the street. Edie soon discovered that the fancy box was empty--a foreshadowing of her bleak future. When Edie told her mother about the incident, the woman reacted in typical Nottingham fashion: she scolded Edie, telling her that "she should have had more bleddy sense because nobody leaves a box of toys at the end of the street." Thus a vestige of the old "us versus them" conflict emerges; yet the narrator blames no specific "them" but life in general: "All through life you were robbed. At the beginning the greatest act of robbery was when you were taken from the safety of your mother's womb and fobbed off with air that barely allowed you to breathe. Nobody had any choice about that, but the various robberies of life multiplied thereafter, each occasion leaving you more at the world's mercy."
In "Ear to the Ground," also set in Nottingham, the main character, middle-aged and on the dole, spends his time lamenting the state of the world and of his family; he is no longer angry at "them" for his fate. In "The Fiddle" a middle-aged Nottingham native tells the story of Harrison's Row, a block of redbrick townhouses, long since demolished, in which the people were so poor that "a rent man walked down cobblestoned Leen Place every week to collect what money he could. This wasn't much, even in the best of times." "The Gate of a Great Mansion" consists mostly of long descriptions of the terrible living conditions in Malaya; the protagonist is a thirty-five-year-old clerk who is dying of consumption. The mood is one not of anger but of sadness and despair.
"The Devil's Almanack," a macabre tale, takes place in 1866 in Kent. Twice a day Mr. Stevens, the postmaster, records the weather conditions in his almanac as a hobby. This day is anything but ordinary: his daughter, Emily, lies dead in the parlor, killed by her father to keep her from running off with a "disreputable" young soldier and leaving Stevens alone.
In "A Time to Keep" young Martin accompanies his cousin Raymond to work one day; on the job site Raymond's truck accidentally rolls over and kills a man. Raymond tells the boy, "I'm glad you came to work with me today.... I wouldn't have liked to drive home on my own after that little lot." The boy follows Raymond's blasé lead, assuming his normal routine when he arrives home.
In Her Victory (1982), one of Sillitoe's most interesting novels, the protagonist is female, a character based on a fleeting moment in Sillitoe's life. While out for a walk, he encountered a woman whose expression captivated him, and his imagining about her circumstances led to the novel. Her Victory received mixed reviews; some applauded Sillitoe's creation of a complex female character, while others faulted the novel as overwritten and, at 715 pages, much too long. Still, Sillitoe proved that he was capable of portraying intelligent women with complex emotions as well as the shallow working girls so prevalent in his early fiction.
In 1983, Sillitoe published the adventure novel The Lost Flying Boat , set in Malaya. "Sparks," the narrator, is a wireless operator. In a plot involving a secret mission and a flying boat, Sillitoe effectively manages conflicts both external (the mission) and internal (Sparks's confrontation of an ethical dilemma). The novel is filled with suspense, foreboding, and tragic events.
Sillitoe returned to short fiction in 1987 with the novella Out of the Whirlpool , set in Radford Woodhouse, a tough colliery town. Peter Granby, an eighteen-year-old orphan who lives with his grandmother and works at a furniture factory, becomes a handyman for a wealthy widow who teaches him about love, sex, and the ways of the world outside of his working-class neighborhood. Unlike Sillitoe's early work, Out of the Whirlpool includes graphic sex scenes and profanity.
In 1989 Sillitoe reassessed familiar settings and sharpened characterization in The Open Door , a sequel to Key to the Door. Brian Seaton returns from Malaya and, like Sillitoe, ends up in a sanatorium for his tuberculosis. As the story progresses through a series of lost loves, Brian's alienation from his surroundings renders the Nottingham backdrop itself increasingly diffuse. Critics felt that The Open Door possessed an introspection and a precision absent from Sillitoe's earlier work and that the writer's character development was more refined and satisfying. Also in 1989 Sillitoe's "A Matter of Teeth" was published in the Daily Mail Saturday Magazine. This first short story since "The Second Chance" continues the theme of noncommunication between husbands and wives. Denis, the middle-aged protagonist, endures several painful dental appointments to carry on an affair. In 1990 Sillitoe was granted an honorary doctorate by Nottingham Polytechnic and was made an honorary fellow of Manchester Polytechnic.
Sillitoe's increasing sensitivity toward his characters is also evident in Last Loves (1990), the unhappy tale of George and Bernard, two sexagenarians returning to Malaysia after a forty-year absence. Over the years, they have become tired old men, unsure of themselves; but when they encounter a younger woman who attaches herself to George, the two men begin acting recklessly. The novel also displays Sillitoe's increasing mastery of narrative method: his skill at managing multiple viewpoints, particularly that of the young woman, drew critical acclaim. In the novel Leonard's War: A Love Story (1991), Sillitoe once again evoked the atmosphere of wartime Nottingham, and his sensitive characterization of the middle-aged, working-class protagonist and his faithless prostitute lover won praise.
Snowstop , a novel published in 1993, is set at the White Cavalier, a run-down hotel in the Derbyshire Peak district, during a major blizzard. A dozen travellers--including a murderer, an I.R.A. terrorist, a forger, an embezzler, a senile father, an unhappily-married middle-aged woman, some empty-headed working-class girls, and a trio of Hell's Angels--take shelter at the inn. The I.R.A. terrorist, on a mission to deliver a van which is hopelessly stuck in the snow and filled with explosives set to go off at 8:00 a.m., sweats out his dilemma as the other guests interact with him and each other in violent ways. In a review for the Times Literary Supplement (14 May 1993), Sean O'Brien charges that the novel is overwritten and promotes stereotypes, noting that while the book shares the "cruelty and ... crudity of characterization" of "a 1970s disaster movie such as The Poseidon Adventure," it comes off as a bad thriller.
Also in 1993, Sillitoe published The Mentality of the Picaresque Hero, a six-page monograph in which he offers his own definition of the picaresque character in all his manifestations. Sillitoe concludes:
The picaro has existed in all ages, and it is the novelist who perpetuates him. He is the two-way mirror, in which the novelist sees both himself and society outside. It occasionally happens that the novelist, busy with literary theories, or fighting with those who would dictate to him, cannot always give the picaresque hero the fictional and philosophical honour he deserves. But the novelist neglects him at his cost, because the picaresque hero, more than any other, gives an accurate picture of the world in which he operates.
Collected Poems (1993), a revision of Sillitoe's earlier work, was not well-received. John Lucas, in his 12 August 1994 Times Literary Supplement review, says, "Too many of these poems are muffled by dead language, inert rhythms and pointless stanza divisions, as though Sillitoe is determined to come on as a 'poet,' but has chosen to leave behind the virtues that make him at his best a valuable writer of fiction." Collected Stories (1995), a selection of thirty-eight stories from the previous collections, fared somewhat better. Albert E. Wilhelm commented in the Library Journal (15 September 1996) that "These disquieting tales remain vibrant and sharply focused even as the energies of his characters are sadly dissipated." The 26 August 1996 Publishers Weekly review notes, "Taken individually, the stories in this collection are searing and dead-on. Taken collectively, they render Sillitoe's pessimism and vitriol hard to take."
Sillitoe enjoys talking about his youth in Nottingham, his young adulthood in Malaya, his marriage, the births of his children, and the early years of his writing career. In interviews over the years, he has freely shared much personal information, including incidents from his painful and violent childhood. However, Sillitoe is reluctant to talk about his current personal life, which perhaps explains why Life Without Armour, his 1995 autobiography, concludes in 1961 after the Hawthornden Prize and the filming of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Reviews of the volume were mixed. Andy Croft, writing for the New Statesman and Society (21 July 1995), calls the book "a marvelous escape story" but expresses puzzlement that Sillitoe chose to end the story of his life so soon. But as Sillitoe had explained in his 1984 Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series article: "apart from the birth of our son David in March 1962, my autobiography from [1959 to the present] ceases to be interesting (or relevant) in any personal way. The only events are in the title of books which have been produced."
In 1995, Sillitoe incorporated his hobby of collecting nineteenth-century guide books into Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel, 1815-1914 , which pieces together one hundred years of narrative travel advice from a time when travel presented significant risk to life and limb. In her 3 November 1995 Times Literary Supplement review, Annette Kobak says that the book captures on one level an "amusing, anecdotal wander round nineteenth-century Europe, Britain and the Middle East, with an imaginary (male) traveller--'our traveller'--led by the guidebooks, and on another, a piece of social history, as we watch stereotypes of the Englishman and woman abroad and of foreigners spring into being, sometimes visibly generated by blindness." Other critics found the book "delightful," but agreed that it should have included a bibliography.
Sillitoe is currently working on a new short story collection, Alligator Playground, and he continues writing articles and reviews for various publications in England. His writing thus far reflects his affinity with the disenfranchised and the helpless. His later work retains much of the disenchantment with the establishment that earned him, at the beginning of his career, the label "angry young man," although many of his characters have aged and mellowed, becoming more philosophical and introspective and less aggressive and impulsive. Still, as the author admits, he is the writer he is today because of his humble beginnings. While Sillitoe was one of those who established the working-class-fiction genre in British literature, he has developed into a writer who is comfortable with a wide range of themes and is able to depict complex emotions.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- "Silver Quill for New Novelist: Mr. Alan Sillitoe Looks Forward to Wider Travels," Times (London), 23 April 1959, p. 9.
- Bob Leeson, "Return from Siberia," Daily Worker, 7 May 1963, p. 2.
- "Alan Sillitoe," Times (London), 6 February 1964, p. 15.
- Igor Hajek, "Morning Coffee with Sillitoe," Nation, 208 (27 January 1969): 122--124.
- Bolivar Le Franc, "Sillitoe at Forty," Books and Bookmen, 14 (June 1969): 21--22, 24.
- P. H. S., "Very Alive," Times (London), 21 July 1969, p. 4.
- Brendan Hennessy, "Alan Sillitoe," Transatlantic Review, no. 41 (Winter-Spring 1972): 108--113.
- Barry Norman, "Alan Sillitoe Avoids the Complacency Trap," Times (London), 26 October 1972, p. 12.
- M. Lefranc, "Alan Sillitoe: An Interview," Etudes Anglaises, 26 (January-March 1973): 35--48.
- John Halperin, "Interview with Alan Sillitoe," Modern Fiction Studies, 25 (Summer 1979): 175--189.
- Leonie Rushforth, "Interview: Alan Sillitoe," Bananas, 17 (Autumn 1979): 34--36.
- "In Conversation with Alan Sillitoe," Fiction Magazine, 1 (Spring 1982): 27.
- Melanie Silgardo, "Class Is Irrelevant," Keynote, 1, no. 2 (April 1982): 3.
- Joyce Rothschild, "The Growth of a Writer--An Interview with Alan Sillitoe," Southern Humanities Review, 20 (Spring 1986): 127--140.
- David Gerard, Alan Sillitoe: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988).
- Stanley S. Atherton, Alan Sillitoe: A Critical Assessment (London: Allen, 1979).
- Anne-Marie Brumm, "Alan Sillitoe--From Angry Young Man to Universal Writer," Neohelicon, 14, no. 1 (1987): 89--113.
- J. A. Byars, "Initiation of Alan Sillitoe's Long-Distance Runner," Modern Fiction Studies, 22 (Winter 1976--1977): 584--591.
- David Craig, "The Roots of Sillitoe's Fiction," in The British Working-Class Novel in the Twentieth Century, edited by Jeremy Hawthorn (London: Arnold, 1984), pp. 94--110.
- James Gindin, "Alan Sillitoe's Jungle," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 4 (Spring 1962): 35--48.
- Robert Haller, "Crux of Merging Deltas: A Note on Alan Sillitoe," Prairie Schooner, 48 (Winter 1974--1975): 151--158.
- Gillian Mary Hanson, Understanding Alan Sillitoe (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).
- Peter Hitchcock, Working-Class Fiction in Theory and Practice: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989).
- N. D. Isaacs, "No Man in His Humour; A Note on Alan Sillitoe," Studies in Short Fiction, 4, no. 4 (1966-1967): 350--351.
- Anna Ryan Nardella, "The Existential Dilemmas of Alan Sillitoe's Working-Class Heroes," Studies in the Novel, 5 (Winter 1973): 469--482.
- Marie Peel, "The Loneliness of Alan Sillitoe," Books and Bookmen, 19 (December 1973): 42--46.
- Allen Richard Penner, Alan Sillitoe (New York: Twayne, 1972).
- Norma Phillips, "Sillitoe's 'The Match' and Its Joycean Counterparts," Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (Winter 1975): 9--14.
- Eugene F. Quirk, "Social Class as Audience: Sillitoe's Story and Screenplay," Literature-Film Quarterly, 9, no. 3 (1981): 161--171.
- Janet Buck Rollins, "Novel into Film: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," Literature-Film Quarterly, 9, no. 3 (1981): 172--188.
- D. M. Roskies, "Alan Sillitoe's Anti-Pastoral," Journal of Narrative Technique, 10, no. 3 (1980): 170--185.
- Roskies, "'I'd Rather Be Like I Am': Character, Style, and the Language of Class in Sillitoe's Narratives," Neophilologus, 65, no. 2 (1981): 308--319.
- Michael K. Simmons, "The 'In-Laws' and 'Out-Laws' of Alan Sillitoe," Ball State University Forum, 14 (Winter 1973): 76--79.
- Hugh B. Staples, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: Alan Sillitoe and the White Goddess," Modern Fiction Studies, 10 (Summer 1964): 171--181.
- W. J. Weatherby, "The Middle Age of the Angry Young Men," Sunday Times Magazine, 1 March 1981, pp. 36, 38.
- Ramsey Wood, "Alan Sillitoe: The Image Shedding the Author," Four Quarters, 21 (November 1971): 3--10.