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This report is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.In Memory of Alan Sillitoe
Everyone loved Alan. He was a wiry man, with an impish face, a lively contempt for authority, and a genuine indifference to media opinion. After winning the Hawthornden, he never allowed his publishers to enter his books for literary prizes.
He was the best of England: decent without being priggish, always ready to mock pretension, unimpressed by status. Although he made his reputation alongside the so-called Angry Young Men, he had little in common with them. He was an autodidact who had formed his literary ambitions not in a university or even a grammar school but through reading the great classics of Russian, French and Roman literature on a sick bed. Far from disdaining the world beyond this English island, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of its geography and a particular passion for Jewish history. He lent me a remarkable book about the stetls of Belarus in the week before he died.
I think of him now in shirtsleeves and a leather waistcoat, gleefully poring over a map of Eastern Europe. There were some eccentricities in his study – for instance, the wireless equipment through which he liked to communicate in Morse – but he kept his immense library of books in perfect order.
Rather like D.H. Lawrence, another working-class son of Nottingham, Alan relished making a home wherever his wanderings took him. With his RAF pension, granted as a consquence of TB caught in Malaya, he and Ruth Fainlight lived frugally, in Morocco, the South of France, and Majorca, where they made a close friendship with Robert Graves and his family. Both of them delighted in markets, and local shopping, and had a practical resourcefulness which balanced their daily, dedicated writing lives. In his lovely top-floor flat in Notting Hill, Alan liked to set or clear a table while Ruth stirred the soup.
Some forty years ago he and Ruth had a big house in Wittersham, Kent and invited my husband and me with our three children to stay with them, and I remember him pottering about the immense garden, tying up beans, with a hat on the back of his head. His phenomenal productivity was untrammelled.
Something in his childhood, or perhaps in in the jungles of Malaya, made him fearless, especially as a traveller in the Eastern bloc which always fascinated him. In Russia where, in Soviet days, it always seemed essential to stay in touch with your minders, Alan gave his the slip, as he describes in Gadfly in Russia, and drove a hired car across country, risking the food in wayside cafés, to take an unusually unfettered look at villages off the beaten track.
Alan wrote with unnerving honesty about his violent, illiterate father, and battered mother, who often had to move house with all their property in a handcart to escape creditors. Unlike Orwell, say, who investigated a world he found largely repellent, Sillitoe understood amoral rebels like Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning, because he had been one of them, leaving school at fourteen to work in the Raleigh bicycle factory before enlisting in the RAF. He was in any case profoundly sympathetic to the pursuit of pleasure in a world of Puritanical monotony.
Like Lawrence writing about the ‘sizzle of spit on an iron’ in Sons and Lovers, the details of the life Alan describes are as important as the story he tells, and far more important than the message. Alan Sillitoe was a stylist. He had a brilliant command of narrative, an acute ear for natural speech, and a determination to get rid of clutter, in order to make his sentences simple and clear. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner put into lyrical form the defiance of a Borstal Boy who chooses to lose the race he is running rather than provide a feather in the cap of the bloated Governor he despised.
Soviet Russia fêted him as a genuine working-class genius, but he did not succumb to the welcome and the flattery as so many Left Wing writers did. When invited in 1968 to address a Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union, with Brezhnev present, he dared to condemn the cruel abuses of human rights they had carelessly allowed him to observe and record. Thereafter, he campaigned on behalf of all political prisoners in the Eastern bloc and individual Jews, such as Ida Nudel, who were subject to an old-fashioned Russian anti-Semitism – dubbed Zionism – when they tried to emigrate to Israel.
He was always unfashionably loyal to the beleaguered State of Israel and was scornful of the British liberal intelligentsia as they became more and more automatic in their support of Palestinians. He was disgusted by the hypocrisy which led them to ignore other global evils to label Israel an apartheid state.
He never lost the sense of writing from the vantage point of an outsider. The French revered him, I am told, as an heir of Camus. Nevertheless, he was not a political writer. ‘I tell stories,’ he said – and indeed he excelled in short stories. But he was a poet too, unfussy, direct and always musical as in this short lyric:
Landfall after the storm, going home through
White waves crumbling along the shore
Like piano keys pressed by invisible fingers
Blue sky unfeeling what the sea does
To your boat, winds and subtle currents
Getting safe home through the storm
Provides no harbour or grandmother’s face.
Waves turn you back as in a mirror breaking
Each cliff falling on the soul
Like an animal with endless teeth.
This report is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.