Monday, April 26, 2010
Alan Sillitoe, ‘Angry’ British Novelist, Dies at 82
Alan Sillitoe, a British writer whose two early works — a novel, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” and a short story, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” — drew attention to the seething alienation of the postwar working class in England, died on Sunday in London. He was 82.
His son, David, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.
Mr. Sillitoe, who grew up desperately poor and left school at 14, had a long and prolific career, and he spent much of it plumbing the privations of his childhood for material. He published more than 50 books — including poetry, essays, travel writing and fiction for both adults and children — along with a handful of plays and screenplays. But he never repeated the acclaim or the influence that accrued to his first works of fiction, which were published in the late 1950s and led critics to group him with the so-called angry young men, writers like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain and the playwright John Osborne who were also describing characters in revolt against the British class system.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Mr. Sillitoe wrote about people who were more concerned with defying the elite class than joining it. Arthur Seaton, the frequently drunk, amorally libidinous 22-year-old factory worker in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1958), sees the world as an us-against-them proposition. His strategy for living is to hoard the pleasures of the moment, to turn life into a perpetual Saturday night in a barroom and a bedroom and fend off the responsibilities of Sunday morning. (The 1960 film was a star-making vehicle for Albert Finney.)
Smith, the narrator of “Loneliness,” a 17-year-old thief who had been sent to a reformatory, is similarly opposed to the straight and narrow. When he proves to have a gift for cross-country running and becomes a favorite of the institution’s governor, he continues his rebellion by purposely losing a race, stopping just short of the finish line as the flummoxed and appalled governor looks on. The moment — later captured in a 1962 film directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave — was a perfect symbol of the divide between the classes. The governor thinks he has lost; the runner thinks he has won.
“Cunning is what counts in life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can,” Smith says at one point. “I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas, we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand.”
Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, England, on March 4, 1928. His father was a laborer, often unemployed, and frequently violent. The family often moved to avoid the rent collector.
As a teenager he worked in a bicycle factory and as an air traffic control assistant. In the Royal Air Force he served as a radio operator in Malaya. He began to write during a recuperation from tuberculosis.
“I was 20 years old when I first tried to write, and it took 10 years before I learned how to do it,” he once said.
His survivors include his wife, Ruth Fainlight, a poet; a son, David; and a daughter, Susan.
Mr. Sillitoe often wrote with a political outlook sympathetic to the working poor, and much of the criticism of his work after “Saturday Night” and “Loneliness” complained of its being bogged down in philosophical heavy-handedness. He spent much of his life traveling, and his novels frequently contrived to transport working-class Englishmen to foreign lands.
In “Key to the Door” (1961) the lead character (Arthur Seaton’s brother) joins the military and is sent to Malaya, and in “The Death of William Posters” (1965) a man escaping the drudgery of a marriage finds his way to Algeria, where he becomes a gun smuggler. More recently, Mr. Sillitoe published “Gadfly in Russia” (2007), a collection of four decades of writing about Russia.
Mr. Sillitoe’s other books include several forays into far-flung literary genres. One, “The General” (1960), is an allegory about art and war that concerns a symphony orchestra on a train that is seized by an enemy army; “A Start in Life” (1970) is a pastiche melding the grit of modern Nottingham with the picaresque tradition of the 18th century; and “Travels in Nihilon” (1971) is a satirical fantasy set in a fictional nation where self-indulgence and self-expression are lionized.
In 1995, he published an autobiography, “Life Without Armour.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 12:55 AM