World Literature

Alan Sillitoe

 

BORN: 1928, Nottingham, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959)

The Open Door (1989)

 

 

Alan Sillitoe. Granville Davies / Writer Pictures / drr.net

 

Overview

British writer Alan Sillitoe is often classed as one of the ‘‘Angry Young Men’’ of 1950s England, a group of novelists and playwrights whose stark portrayals of working class people served as sharp social criticism. Sillitoe is best known for the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959).

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Hard-Knock Childhood in Nottingham. Sillitoe’s fiction is frequently based on his personal life. The son of a functionally illiterate man, Sillitoe was raised in Nottingham, England, where unemployment was widespread prior to World War II. To help ease his family’s financial burden, Sillitoe left school at age fourteen to work in a bicycle plant, then escaped the tedium of factory work by joining the Royal Air Force four years later, in 1946. He served as a wireless radio operator in Malaya (then controlled by the British) just after World War II, contracting tuberculosis while there and thus participating in the long tradition of British colonists and soldiery who have come down with pernicious diseases while stationed in the tropics. Two years after completing his military service, and much travel later, Sillitoe married American poet Ruth Fainlight and relocated to France, where he found the necessary detachment to write about the social injustices of his own country.

A Life Told in Novels. Sillitoe’s best-known characters, the Seatons, mirror his own family and are instilled with the resilient spirit Sillitoe acquired during his harsh childhood. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) follows the life and loves of Arthur Seaton, a bored young factory worker whose life is composed of good wages, sexual adventures, and wild weekends at the neighborhood pub.

The title story of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), a collection for which Sillitoe received the Hawthornden Prize, is set in a boys’ reformatory, and revolves around a cross-country race that becomes a battle between subjection and independence. Both ‘‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’’ and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were adapted for film. Although critics first identified Arthur Seaton as Sillitoe’s fictional counterpart, the author actually expressed an affinity with Brian Seaton, Arthur’s older brother.

Southeast Asian Experiences Find Expression. Written during the early moments leading up to the Vietnam War, the novel Key to the Door (1961), looks at Britain’s own history in Southeast Asia. It concentrates on soldier-protagonist Brian’s military experiences in Malaya, where he is gripped with uncertainty about the war (World War II) and repelled by England’s political system. This protagonist also appears in several short stories. In 1989, Sillitoe published The Open Door, a continuation of Brian’s story written as a stream-of-consciousness narrative. The work is largely autobiographical.

Sillitoe lives and writes still in London, England. He recently published a memoir account of his travels in Russia, Gadfly in Russia (2007).

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sillitoe's famous contemporaries include:

Fidel Castro (1926-): The Cuban revolutionary and Communist who was head of state from the Cuban revolution in 1959 to his retirement in 2008. Castigated by various U.S. administrations as a terrible dictator, Castro was a key player in the Cuban missile crisis, in which the world came as close to all-out nuclear war as it ever has, as well as in the modernization of his country's health-care and employment systems.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964): A key leader in the Indian independence movement and close associate to Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru became India's first prime minister after independence from British rule was secured in 1947.

Albert Finney (1936-): Eminent British actor who first achieved fame for his starring role in the 1960 film adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

John Osborne (1929-1994): British playwright famous for the 1956 work Look Back in Anger. Like Sillitoe, he was considered one of the ''Angry Young Men'' of the 1950s.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963): Kennedy's brief presidency was an eventful one, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, the beginning of America's military involvement in Vietnam, the beginning of the space program, and the civil rights movement. Highly popular and charismatic, his term was cut short by an assassin in 1963, a turning point in American history.

 

Works in Literary Context

Regionalism and the Spirit of the Outsider. On a thematic level, Sillitoe seems to draw inspiration from both the old and the new. As is true of many contemporary writers, he often centers his stories on an individual isolated from society, studying what the Guardian ’s Roy Perrot calls ‘‘the spirit of the outsider, the dissenter, the man apart.'' But instead of limiting himself strictly to the psychological confines of this one person and allowing the rest of the world to remain somewhat shadowy, Sillitoe places his rebellious outsider in a gritty, distinctive milieu—Nottingham, an English industrial town (and the author's birthplace) where, as Charles Champlin explains in the Los Angeles Times, ‘‘the lower-middle and working classes rub, where breaking even looks like victory, and London is a long way South.’’ This strong regionalism, reminiscent of the regionalism common in nineteenth-century British fiction, is one of the most striking features of Sillitoe’s writing.

The Jungle and Brutality. In all Sillitoe’s fiction, the world is seen as a jungle, yet the nature of the jungle changes. In the earliest fiction, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and ‘‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,'' society and the exterior world are jungles in which the protagonist, himself neutral, must survive through a combination of luck and shrewd skill. But, starting with Key to the Door (1961), the jungle is both the exterior worlds of Nottingham and Malaya and the questions, uncertainties, false starts, and violence within the protagonist himself.

The theme of brutality, in Sillitoe’s world, is also treated in its rationalized and institutionalized version, the military. Although many of the working-class characters deride the military and none is patriotic, Sillitoe demonstrates, particularly in the novel The Widower’s Son (1976), the use of the military career as the conscious focus for working out all the stresses of the individual and social jungles within modern man.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Sillitoe is often linked with a group of British authors known collectively as the ''Angry Young Men.'' Other works by writers in this group include:

Look Back in Anger (1956), a play by John Osborne. The archetypical work of the Angry Young Men—indeed, the very phrase was coined in a review of this play— Osborne employed a certain harsh realism in his tale of a love triangle, a stark contrast to the previously popular escapist fare that had dominated the London stage.

The Less Deceived (1955), a selection of poems by Philip Larkin. The first major poetry collection of one of Britain's greatest living poets, the poems in this book address England's place in the postwar world and its movement away from the previous heights of Empire.

The Outsider (1956), a philosophical treatise by Colin Wilson. Published when Wilson was just twenty-four, this philosophical work addresses the role of the ''outsider'' in literature, from Albert Camus to Ernest Hemingway, and in culture and the arts, citing such examples as Vincent van Gogh and T. E. Lawrence.

 

Works in Critical Context

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Beyond

Upon the publication of his first two major works, critics associated Sillitoe with the Angry Young Men, a group of writers whose literary output reflected the social consciousness of post-World War II England. Reviewers contended that both books powerfully evoke the country’s prosperous yet bitter postwar atmosphere, and many commentators have characterized the title story of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner as a masterpiece of short fiction. Critics also commended Sillitoe’s humorous, perceptive portrait of his protagonist in The Open Door. Brian Morton notes, ‘‘The Open Door is an extraordinary, almost symphonic development of deceptively familiar materials, and confirms [Sillitoe’s] standing as one of Britain’s most powerful and sophisticated fiction writers.’’ The conclusion of Her Victory (1982), however, in which Pam returns pregnant and subservient to Tom, elicited negative critical reaction. Several reviewers considered Her Victory to be a chauvinistic treatment of the feminist movement, impugning the lack of emotional growth in an ‘‘emancipated’’ character. Although his later collections of short fiction have not achieved the enormous success of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Sillitoe’s short stories are usually considered superior to his longer works of fiction. Eric Moon argues, ‘‘The background of Sillitoe’s stories is generally as unrelieved as that of his novels, but in the stories he is more able to vary his pace and his attitudes. He often reveals humor and a greater compassion, and sometimes he achieves a curiously convincing blending of his usual realism and passion with a lyrical romanticism.’’

Angry Young Man or Throwback? What reviewers cannot agree upon in their evaluations of Sillitoe’s work is whether he writes in the tradition of an earlier age (notably the American proletarian novelists of the 1930s) or in the tradition of certain British authors of the 1950s and 1960s whose bitter attacks on the political and social establishment earned them the name Angry Young Men. Stanley Kauffmann, for one, feels Sillitoe is a victim of the cultural ‘‘timelag’’ that exists between the United States and England and is therefore merely rediscovering the themes that once preoccupied American writers such as John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos. Saul Maloff shares this view, commenting: ‘‘Sillitoe is a throwback.... His protagonists are profoundly rooted in their class, and draw such strengths as they possess—or come finally to possess—from that identification.’’ This, he adds, makes Sillitoe very different from other postwar writers. ‘‘[He] is a historical surprise. In the utterly changed circumstances of the fifties and sixties, he has partially validated as art the ‘proletarian novel’ of the thirties; and standing eccentrically against the current driven by his defter contemporaries, he has made possible a working-class novel.’’

John W. Aldridge suggests that part of Sillitoe’s inspiration may date back even earlier than the 1930s. States the critic: ‘‘Sillitoe stands as a comforting reminder to the English that the grand old roistering ‘low life’ tradition of [Henry] Fielding and [Charles] Dickens may have lost its sting, but is not yet dead. ... Although [the author] does have his grievances, he seems basically content to keep the working man in his place, and as a writer he evidently wants to remain a working man.’’ Aldridge indicates, however, that other writers ‘‘did all that he has done first and better than he.... There is little virtue in repeating the discoveries or the mistakes ofone’s predecessors, or in trying to make literature out of a cultural lag that merely social reform and the payment of some money can rectify.’’

On the other hand, some critics see nothing but youthful anger in Sillitoe’s writings. Commenting in the New York Times Book Review, Malcolm Bradbury notes that ‘‘if the heroes of some ... English novels are angry young men, Mr. Sillitoe is raging.’’ Although John R. Clark of the Saturday Review also sees Sillitoe as an Angry Young Man, he feels that ‘‘his anger and fictions have altered with time. In [his] early work there was something single-minded and intense in the actions and scenes, particularly in the shorter novels.’’ On the other hand, ‘‘Later novels reveal a broader social and political horizon. Sillitoe’s characters not only privately rebel but become dedicated to larger ‘movements.’’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. In your opinion, is Sillitoe’s early work a ‘‘throwback’’ to the work of American authors of the 1930s like John Steinbeck, or a part of the new existentialist Angry Young Man movement? What evidence can you provide from Sillitoe’s writing to support your position?

2. Discuss how madness and freedom are interrelated in Sillitoe’s stories. Do you think Sillitoe believes madness is necessary to achieve freedom?

3. Sillitoe has been accused of antifeminist characterization in Her Victory. Do you think this accusation is accurate? Why or why not? What evidence from the text can you use to support your interpretation?

4. Analyze the question of identity in Sillitoe’s love stories.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Atherton, Stanley S. Alan Sillitoe: A Critical Assessment. London: W.H. Allen/Virgin Books, 1979.

Hanson, Gillian Mary. Understanding Alan Sillitoe. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  

Hitchcock, Peter. Working-Class Fiction in Theory and Practice: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1989.

Rusz, Renata. Keyword: Anger. Saarbruecken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2008.

Sawkins, John. The Long Apprenticeship: Alienation in the Early Work of Alan Sillitoe. New York, Berlin, Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.