“The Magic Box,” which is the longest story in Alan Sillitoe’s new collection, is also the best. A working-class couple in a Midlands city fall into estrangement following the accidental death of their child. The husband, who was a radioman in the Army, buys a short-wave set with his share of some football winnings and spends much of his time in the dead boy’s room, listening to messages from ships at sea. His emphasized isolation drives him out of his mind for some months. While he is in the hospital, the wife, who has long been lonely, has an affair and becomes pregnant. When he returns, she announces it calmly. He tries to retreat again to the room and the radio. He cannot. He beats her. Then they cling together desperately.
The story is beautiful for several reasons. The attrition of the couple’s marriage is rendered surely but reticently. The effect of the child’s death, often too handy a commodity in fiction, is unflawed here, is used only residually, as a cold fact of their lives. The characters step forward by engagement in their activities and inactivities, not by being pushed. The story develops with inevitability yet without triteness. At the end there is a chord that makes the story close satisfactorily without stopping.
These virtues are named to imply converse defects in most of the other stories—in fact, much of the author’s previous writing. Even “The Magic Box” is not quite free of his principal insecurity: his style. It fluctuates from straight hard prose to Nottingham slang to the most literary effusions, often all on the same page. The objection is not academic; the change distracts from his intent because the speaker’s voice keeps cracking like an adolescent’s.
His second insecurity is in his use of pathos. Often he appeals for sympathy with music-hall blatancy. (On the very first page of the book: “For once that no-good God was on my side.”) Related to this is his display of chunks of misery as if his experience of them relieved him of the necessity to make art of them. And related to that are his often faulty attempts to make art of them. In this book he glibly constructs vouthful neuroses (thieving and arson) out of psychosocial factors, yet these disorders disappear at the author’s snap when he has no further need of them.
A third insecurity is his proletarian-revolutionary position. He writes to expose the plight of the poor, and there are flirtations with revolutionary ideas all through his books. For example, Liza Atkin, the heroine of “The Good Women” in this volume, is disappointed after the workers win a strike. “She thought that such a downing of tools as had taken place meant little because instead of coming back to work they should have stayed out solid and gone on from there.” (That is also a fair sample of Sillitoe’s prose. Bogger that bleddy gerund, duck.) But the revolutionary position for a writer in our society is, sooner or later, non-dynamic.
Partly this is due to paradox noted recently by Stephen Spender: Sillitoe wants to write for working people but is in fact read by the middle class. The more that such a writer succeeds, the more he becomes a “success” in terms of the very bourgeoisie he presumably loathes. O’Casey in Black-and-Tan Ireland, Gorki in Bolshevik Russia, were writing on the barricades. But what is the most that Sillitoe can hope for? Best-sellerdom and book clubs. There is no vital relation between him and a working-class audience to complete the circle and draw him onward. In the public’s eye, if not in his own, his work must become eventually a kind of shivery slumming tour between novels about itself, rather than a catalyst of change.
This proletarian insecurity is underscored paradoxically by “The Magic Box.” It is not a proletarian story as such, like Gorki’s “26 Men and a Girl.” Without any distortion of its essential values, it could easily be jacked up one class to Graham Greeneland; up another to Muriel Spark country; it is not inconceivable in the rarefied air of I. Compton-Burnett. Think of Sillitoe’s past stories. It is the lyric of hate that we remember about the long-distance runner, not, essentially, his class position; a juvenile delinquent from a middle-class home (which homes supply them in plenty) could have fought just as pathetically boyish a fight against the Establishment. “One Saturday Afternoon” is not a class story, it is about a child’s first encounter with adult despair. His only really successful proletarian work was his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. What price then the proletarian writer when most of his good work is classless, when his class fiction is usually, to some degree, mechanical?
Let us only touch on an additional defect that English proletarian writing of the last decade has for Americans: the time-lag. The Sillitoes and Barstows and Braines have told us effectively that the English working class has taken pen in hand, but they have done little more than that for us, as against our experience of early Dreiser, early Steinbeck, early Dos Passos, early Caldwell. (The necessity for the adjective “early” speaks volumes about the proletarian position in this country.) We all know by now that, in this regard, the Atlantic is thirty years wide. What is specifically more important with Sillitoe is that he himself betrays insecurity about class dedication by his recurrent dollops of fancy writing. These occur, I believe, out of a desire to impress in a “lit’ry” way. When, in one of his stories, a working class boy thinks that a fire engine sounds like “an aeroplane of bells going along at ground level with folded wings,” we are permitted to think that it is not the boy speaking but the author, who wants to make sure that we do not identify him with his characters, that we give him full marks for verbal gifts and sensitivities greater than theirs. Proletarians should be made of sterner stuff.
But the chief insecurity in his basic outlook is the suspicion he raises that he does not entirely believe in it himself. There is no question of his compassion, of his hatred of poverty and war, of his engagement with his experience. But the ragged tags of slogans in his novels and stories, the ambiguous threats, the hit-and-run revolutionary snippets, tempt us to think that his work covers both sides of the ideological street. On the one hand he has included these materials, thus chapter and verse can be cited to prove proletarianism. On the other hand it can be claimed that he is merely reporting and recording what his Brian Seatons and Liza Atkins said and thought, and that he himself is unshackled. Our society is not demonstrably hungry for Marxist fiction; but if any is to impress as such, to dramatize forcefully the Marxist cosmos, its first job is a conviction of convictions. I do not impute chicanery to Sillitoe, simply lack of this conviction, a writing mind that sweeps all experience along rather untidily and believes rather boozily in it all.
When his first novel was published, Anthony West made the comment, quoted often since then, that the book assured its author of a place in the history of the English novel. That is coming true in an unhappy way. Sillitoe’s place is now that of a historical marker in postwar British fiction, rather than of a growing writer with a visible career ahead of him. His second novel (The General) was an allegorical dud, his third (Key to the Door) was a large lump of boyish ironies, plus assumptions of revolutionary agreement between author and reader that did not press to the point of assault and victory. (Or even to assault and repulse; no one feels the need to rebut the political arguments in the book.) At his best, his dramatic sense, his humor, his concern, link us with his millhands and their kids. At his worst, which is often, he reads like an English amplification of the Christmas lists of the New York Times Hundred Neediest Cases.
March 5, 1964