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This article is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

On Stanley Middleton J.M. Cohen

Stanley Middleton has published twenty-five novels since 1958, which have generally been well received by the critics. Indeed with Holiday of 1974 he shared the Booker Prize. But it was not until last year that any of his books except that one appeared in paperback. Since I believe him to be one of our best novelists now writing, I propose briefly to account for the static nature of his reputation and then to consider his very real merits. For this purpose I will examine three of his books: Ends and Means (1977), Blind Understanding (1982) and his most recent, An After Dinner Sleep of this year (1986).

Middleton is a novelist in a very English tradition that has concentrated on contrasts of character drawn against a recognizable background. Its concern is with the interplay of persons and their social circumstances. In this tradition are Defoe, Smollet, Jane Austen, Dickens in Hard Times, George Eliot in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, Mrs Gaskell in North and South, Arnold Bennett and the unjustly neglected Gilbert Cannan in his Manchester novels. It is a tradition which has gone underground in the last fifty years, submerged by a dozen fashions from 'stream of consciousness' to 'magic realism'. Stanley Middleton has brought it back to the surface. Yet his manner can easily be dismissed as old-fashioned.

Middleton's characters are life-size, no more. Their problems are of personal relations, marriage, paternity, profession, artistic creation and, in the most recent novels, of facing ...


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