Friday, March 4, 2011

Alan Sillitoe: Post War Disillusionment, Beat, Angry and the Retro-Bohemian Nostalgia

I have a friend who believes – and not without justification – that after the final bomb falls and what we know of civilization is reduced to a heap of glowing rubble, what survivors may crawl across this battered earth will seek not only food and shelter but the comfort of books.

This presents an intriguing image: Man, alone and bestial, reduced to scavenging to survive, will seek books for wisdom, enlightenment and perhaps entertainment. But ultimately those survivors will be seeking answers to questions they may be unable to articulate. The decline of western civilization is fodder for doomsday prophets, crackpots, zealots, and emotional malcontents. The pessimistic view popularized in Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish The Road stands in uniform alignment to the lessons of history which literature has recorded for humanity’s benefit. This brings us to Alan Sillitoe whose 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has stood the test of time.

Hailed as a product of the “Angry Young Men” movement in British literature (a phrase that Sillitoe scorned) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was ostensibly a novel about a working class rogue named Arthur Seaton. Of course it was much more than that. It is a character study, a piece of social commentary, a slice of modern British history, all in addition to being a rousing good semi-comic-tragic yarn. At the time of its publication the much vaunted “Beat Generation” was underway here in the United States and these literary movements were a product of the post-war alienation and discontentment felt by working class people in both countries.

The Beats, with Alan Ginsberg (whom I met once and immediately despised) and Jack Kerouac, struck a chord with disaffected youth who capitalized upon the Bohemian culture they experienced through the works of Henry Miller whose previously banned books were finding a new audience with the Grove Press editions in the late 1950s. Miller’s influence, and that of George Orwell, combined with the Beats to help create a new wave of literature that would continually metamorphose and adapt throughout the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. A detailed discussion of these elements can be tabled for another day, but suffice it to say Sillitoe’s work also struck a cord. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was his first book.

“Ay, by god, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.”
            - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p. 220.

Arthur Seaton’s destiny has been fashioned by the world that pushes him in a direction he finds unacceptable. “Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter.” (p.239)

Arthur Seaton’s anger jumps from the page. Sillitoe was one of several writers who documented the post-war disillusionment that spread throughout British and American culture. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has resonance today, perhaps its bite is even sharper now that we’ve seen this endless cycle in world politics where the masses are beaten down, but the Arthur Seaton’s of the world refuse to give up. Seaton is not a likeable character, but he is a sympathetic character. Reading the book again after many years I couldn’t help but wonder of the millions of Arthur Seaton’s today, and what novelists of the future live among them, surviving against the odds to one day perhaps write a book as meaningful as Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Photos: 1958 Signet paperback and 2010 edition from Vintage International

2 comments:

  1. I understand that a remake of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as a film (the original movie starred Albert Finney) was one of the things Allan Sillitoe wanted to see happen and he gave his permission for it but for some reason the estate of the late Natasha Richardson (whom I met and instantly liked) refused to go ahead. Her father had adapted the book for the screen in the 60's and her estate owned the book rights. Allan Sillitoe passed away just last year (April 25, 2010) at age 82.

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  2. I never knew that. I did enjoy the original film but had no idea that Natasha Richardson owned the rights. I did hear that Sillitoe published a sequel before he died but I haven't tracked it down yet. Thanks for your comments!

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