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Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010)

 

English novelist, children's book writer, playwright and social critic, compared to D.H.Lawrence, who also came from Nottingham. Alan Sillitoe was grouped among the "angry young men" of the 1950s, with John Osborne, John Braine, John Wain, Arnold Wesker, and Kingsley Amis. He introduced in the post-World War II British fiction realistically portrayed working-class heroes. Best known for his novels, Sillitoe also published children's books (starring a cat called Marmelade Jim), poetry, plays, and an autobiography, Life without Armour (1995).

Stars, seen through midnight windows
Of earth-grained eyes
Are fullstops ending invisible sentences,
Aphorisms, quips, mottoes of the gods
Indicate what might have been made clear
Had words stayed plain before them.

(from 'Stars' in A Falling Out of Love, 1964)

Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, the second son of an illiterate tannery laborer. His father, Christopher Sillitoe, became one of the long-term unemployed during the 1930s Depression. On different occasions he worked as a house painter. Once he was imprisoned for "running up bills for food that he had no hope of paying." Sillitoe's mother, Silvina (Burton) worked in a lace factory. "We lived in a room on Talbot Street whose four wall smelled of leaking gas, stale fat, and layers of mouldering wall-paper," Sillitoe once recalled.

Sillitoe's childhood was shadowed by the financial problems of the family, but he also found early on the joys of literature and began to plan his career as a writer. However, his first semi-fictional tale about his wild cousins was burned by his mother for being too revealing. At the age of 14, he left school and worked in a number of jobs in Nottingham factories, including a bicycle factory from 1942 to 1946. He served in the Royal Air Force, where he was a wireless operator. After returning from Malaya, he was discovered to have tuberculosis. Sillitoe spent sixteen months in an RAF hospital. During this period he began to write again and read intensively. Pensioned off at 21 on 45 shillings at week, he lived in France and Spain for seven years in an attempt to recover.

In 1951 he met an American poet, Ruth Fainlight, who was married, but they decided to go abroad together. From 1952 to 1958 they lived in France, Italy and Spain - largely on Sillitoe's air force pension. Encouraged by Robert Graves, whom he met on the island of Mallorca in 1956, Sillitoe began to write his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), a story about working-class life in Nottingham.

Sillitoe used working-class speech in his depiction of the weekend of a young, robust laborer, Arthur Seaton. Arthur lives for the weekends, drinking beer in the pub and chasing a girl. Saturday night is "the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a prostate Sabbath." At the outset he declares that "all the rest is propaganda". As an anti-social hero, Arthur had many similarities with the characters found in the works of John Braine and Stan Barstow. Sillitoe's realism was striking to 1950s readers and the novel achieved also huge critical success. It was adapted for the screen by Karel Reiz, whose cinematographer Freddie Francis shot in "documentary" style the long rows of workers' brick houses and grubby homes. However, the film toned down Sillitoe's use of vernacular and the successful abortion was changed into an unsuccessful abortion attempt.

In Key to the Door (1961), a sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the protagonist was Arthur Seaton's older brother Brian. Arthur returned in Birthday (2002), after 40 years. Jenny's 70th birthday brings together Arthur, his wife Avril, and Brian, who has become famous as a screenwriter. Arthur has remained in the East Midlands; Avril is dying; Brian and Arthur miss the old days.

Among Sillitoe's other acclaimed works from the 1950s is The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner  (1959), a collection of stories which was awarded the Hawthornden Prize. The title tale is narrated by a boy in Borstal, Colin Smith, set to run in a race. He finds a kind of freedom in the isolated activity of running. The institute's governor has high hopes that his protegé will be a winner, but the rebellious runner finds an opportunity to show his defiance of authority. Tony Richardson's film version of the book drew on the emerging youth culture and the 'Free Cinema' movement. One script-reader commented on Sillitoe's screenplay before the filming started: "But this story is blatant and very trying Communist propaganda, and particularly worrying for us because the hero is a thief and yet is held up to the admiration of silly young thugs. If the leading citizens of Nottingham didn't like Saturday Night because they thought the hero was not a good representative of that city, I don't know what they will say about this epic."

The various protagonists of Sillitoe's early fiction are generally restless young men from the slum world, who oppose the established order of things, but who are at the same time affected by consumerism and hedonism. Sillitoe r ejected artistic elitism and instead of satirizing cosy middle-class British life, he focused on rebellious individuals and poor people, who have vile lives. "If I lost all I have in the world I wouldn't worry much," Sillitoe wrote in The Ragman's Daughter (1963). "If I was to go across the road for a packet of fags one morning and come back to see the house clapping its hands in flames with everything I owned burning inside I'd turn my back without any thought or regret and walk away, even if my jacket and last ten-bob note were in the flames as well." The collection of short fiction was praised for its vitality. "Every story (and there is not one dud) has the exhilaration of revolutionary writing," stated Julian Jebb in The Sunday Times.

The Death of William Posters  (1965), A Tree on Fire (1967), and A Start in Life  (1970) formed a trilogy about a Nottingham factory worker. In the 1970s he produced another trilogy, consisting of The Flower of Life (1974), The Widower's Son (1976) and Storyteller (1979). A selection of his short stories, mostly written beween 1959-1981, Sillitoe collected in New and Collected Short Stories (2003).

Sillitoe moved in his later works beyond this lower-class milieu towards analysis of the psychological states of his characters. In the autobiographical Raw Material (1972) he portrayed his grandparents, A Start in Life leaves the protagonist peacefully cultivating his garden, bemused by a prophecy that he will go wild again at thirty-five.

In 1959 Sillitoe married Ruth Fainlight; they had a son and adopted a daughter. The Rats and Other Poems (1960) was Sillitoe's first published book of verse. "I have always regarded myself as a poet before novelist," Sillotoe once said, but he met with little critical success for his poetry. In 1963 Sillitoe spent a month in the Soviet Union, recording his impressions in Road to Volgograd  (1964). Three years later he drove in his car (it was dark blue Peugeot Estate) from Harwich to Leningrad. Sillitoe made several trips to the Soviet Union, where he was viewed as a spokesman for the oppressed working classes. However, Sillitoe's stand against the oppression of free speech annoyed the authorities. Mostly he lived with his family in London, but also spent time in France, Tangier, Spain, and Israel. Alan Sillitoe died in London on April 25, 2010. He was 82.

For further reading: Alan Sillitoe by A.R. Penner (1972); Commitment As Art by Ronald Dee Vaverka (1978 - Dissertation--Uppsala Univ); Alan Sillitoe: A Critical Assessment by S.S. Atherton (1979); The British Working-Class Novel in the Twentieth Century, ed. by J. Hawthorn (1984); Alan Sillitoe by David Gerard (1988); Working-Class Fiction in Theory and Action: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe by P. Hitchcock (1989); Understanding Alan Sillitoe, ed. by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli (1999); The Long Apprenticeship: Alienation in the Early Work of Alan Sillitoe by John Sawkins (2001)

Selected works:

  • Without Beer or Bread, 1957
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1958
    - Film 1962, directed by Tony Richardson, starring Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Peter Madden, Julia Foster
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958
    - Film 1960, directed by Karel Reisz, starring Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts
    - Lauantai-illasta sunnuntai aamuun (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1962)
  • The Rats, and Other Poems, 1960
  • The General, 1960
  • Key to the Door, 1961
  • The Ragman's Daughter, 1963
    - Film 1963, dir. by Harold Becker, starring Simon Rouse, Victoria Tennant, Patrick O'Connell, Leslie Sands
  • A Falling Out of Love and Other Poems, 1964
  • Road To Volgograd, 1965
  • The Death of William Posters, 1965
  • A Tree on Fire, 1967
  • The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim, 1967
  • Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems, 1968
  • Guzman Go Home, and Other Stories, 1968
  • Shaman and Other Poems, 1968
  • A Sillitoe Selection: Eight Short Stories, 1968
  • Lope de Vega: All Citizens are Soldiers, 1969 (translation)
  • A Start in Life, 1970
  • This Foreign Field, 1970
  • Travels in Nihilon, 1971
  • Poems, 1971
  • The Ragman's Daughter, 1972 (play from his story)
  • Raw Material, 1972
  • Men, Women and Children, 1973
  • Barbarians and Other Poems, 1974
  • Storm: New Poems, 1974
  • The Flame of Life, 1974
  • Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays , 1975 (essays, among others on D.H.Lawrence)
  • The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye, 1975 (with F. Godwin)
  • The Widower's Son, 1976
  • Pit Strike, 1977
  • Big John and the Stars, 1977
  • 3 Plays, 1978
  • The Incredible Fencing Fleas, 1978
  • The Storyteller, 1979
  • Snow on the North Side of Lucifer: Poems, 1979
  • Marmalade Jim at the Farm, 1980
  • The Second Chance and Other Stories, 1981
  • Her Victory, 1982
  • Sun Before Departure: Poems 1974-1982, 1982
  • The Lost Flying Boat, 1983
  • Down from the Hill, 1984
  • Marmalade Jim and the Fox, 1984
  • Life Goes On, 1985
  • Tides and Stone Walls: Poems, 1986 (with photographs by Victor Bowley)
  • Out of the Whirlpool, 1987
  • Every Day of the Week: An Alan Sillitoe Reader, 1987 (introduction by John Sawkins)
  • Three Poems, 1988
  • The Open Door, 1989
  • Last Loves, 1990
  • Leonard's War: A Love Story, 1991
  • Shylock the Writer, 1991
  • The Mentality of the Picaresque Hero, 1993
  • Collected Poems, 1993
  • Snowstop, 1993
  • Collected Stories, 1995
  • Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel 1815-1914, 1995
  • Life Without Armour, 1995
  • Alligator Playground, 1997
  • The Broken Chariot, 1998
  • The German Numbers Woman, 1999
  • Birthday, 2002
  • New and Collected Stories, 2003
  • A Man of His Time, 2004
  • Gadfly in Russia, 2007


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