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Alan Sillitoe, 1928 - 2010

The Auteurs Daily

"The author Alan Sillitoe has died aged 82," reports the BBC. "The Nottingham-born novelist emerged in the 1950s as one of the 'Angry Young Men' of British fiction.... His novels included Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, both of which were made into films."

Loneliness is actually a short story that would appear in a collection bearing the same name. Tony Richardson would direct Saturday Night (1960) and produce Loneliness (1962), directed by Karel Reisz.

Saturday Night, the novel, turned 50 in 2008, an anniversary that led to a flurry of profiles in the British papers. Mark Hodkinson in the Times: "Flinty and self-possessed, the book's protagonist, Arthur Seaton, was further cemented in the nation's consciousness through his masterful portrayal by Albert Finney in the film for which Sillitoe wrote the screenplay. Seaton was a composite of characters Sillitoe had known in Nottingham, including his brother Brian. He had wanted to write of people and places he knew intimately. 'I didn't really know what the hell I was doing but I knew it wasn't the usual stuff that people write about.' ... While reviewers fixated on the anger, they missed the book's other qualities — its pacing, energy, truthfulness and absorbing narrative. Arthur Seaton was the first literary celebration of fag-end charisma and how it coalesced with sexuality and savvy."

"He found it slightly odd to find himself lumped in with the Angry Young Men group of writers as he'd spent most of the previous nine years sunning himself abroad, but otherwise fame left him somewhat unfazed," wrote John Crace that same year in a profile for the Guardian. "'I was doing what I wanted,' he insists, 'and nothing was going to get in the way of that. A Hollywood studio offered me £50,000 to write a film script after the success of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and I thought about it for a bit and then told them to fuck off. I even moved to Tangiers when the film came out as I didn't want to get caught up in all the hype.'"

"[T]he film is an incisive portrait of the personal struggle between conformity and identity that is inherent in the process of maturity," wrote Acquarello in 2007, "where youthful idealism and a sense of invulnerability collides with the travails of everyday survival and the realization of human frailty." In 2002, the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw wrote that "the counter-Hollywood bloody-mindedness packs a knockout punch."

See also BFI Screenonline's collection of essays on the British New Wave; Books and Writers, Contemporary Writers and Google's timeline.

Updates: While "he is still routinely perceived as a member of the kitchen-sink branch of the Angry Generation," writes Richard Bradford in the Guardian, "Such characterisations obscure the breadth and originality of his writing. Among his 53 volumes — including novels, short stories, plays, children's fiction, poetry, travel books, drama, memoirs and criticism — there are works that defy classification. A Start in Life (1970) and Life Goes On (1985) marry a picaresque style with the drabness of post-1950s Britain. Travels in Nihilon (1971), inspired by his experiences in the USSR, invokes the tradition of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World, but supersedes both in its manner. It is as though Finnegans Wake has been unselfishly rewritten, with coherent sentences and a story, and it offers a magnificent evocation of totalitarianism, inhumanity and farce. The Rats and Other Poems (1960) shows a disdain for the conventions of verse unmatched since Blake."

The Telegraph: "If Alan Sillitoe never regained the fame and focus of his early years, he nevertheless produced a substantial and variegated body of work that was, when taken as a whole, probably as underrated as his initial success, though undoubtedly merited, was excessive."

The Times: "Reflecting on his career at the age of 80 he said: 'There must have been a point in my life when I had to choose between living and writing, and I chose writing. Of course, that doesn't mean you aren't attached to life through troubles, possible tragedies, and so on. But you have to know in which direction your spirit wants to go, and never lose sight of that.' He was married to the writer Ruth Fainlight. They had a son and a daughter."

Updates, 4/26: Books and Writers quotes from The Ragman's Daughter, a story written in 1963 and evidently published in the New York Times: "If I lost all I have in the world I wouldn't worry much. 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." AH Weiler reviewed Harold Becker's 1972 adaptation for the NYT in 1974 and found it "befogged by unsympathetic, if believable, principals and thick Nottingham accents that dampen the youthful escapades and blasted romance it tenderly dramatizes."

"This was what made Sillitoe and his generation significant: they pinned down the two-fingered attitude to authority of the new, non-deferential working-class." In the Guardian, Michael Billington also points out that the British Board of Film Censor's examiners dismissed Loneliness "as 'blatant and very trying communist propaganda.' But it was really nothing of the sort: simply a symbol of a young generation's contempt for established authority."

"Among those to pay tribute to the author was the poet Ian McMillan," notes Jonathan Brown in the Independent: "He said: 'He wrote this great line which said, "The art of writing is to explain the complications of the human soul with the simplicity that can be universally understood," and I think that's what he achieved.'"

Saturday Night and Loneliness "have aged far, far better than most of the like-minded so-called 'kitchen sink' dramas," writes Vadim Rizov at Indie Eye. "[A]t the very least, they've dated better than the film version of Look Back in Anger, the original prototype. This would seem to be because Sillitoe was simply a much better writer than those around him. They're worth watching as films, not just as social documents."

Update, 5/1: "Just as Kingsley Amis's reputation, one suspects, will ultimately stand or fall on Lucky Jim (1954)," writes DJ Taylor in the Guardian, "so posterity will almost certainly end up judging Sillitoe's long and combative career on the basis of its two opening salvoes — the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and the high-octane short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). The fault is not Sillitoe's, who wrote at least half a dozen novels ripe to be compared with his groundbreaking debut. Rather, it lies in the nature of the literary stage — a stage where TS Eliot featured as a grand panjandrum and Iris Murdoch as a promising ingénue — on which he took his bow."

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I had literally just started an essay on ‘Saturday Night…’ and the Brit New Wave when I had heard about this. Very sad news indeed.
Such sad news for such a brilliant writer. Don’t forget “The Ragman’s Daughter,” which is also a great film.
Many thanks for the reminder, Teresa!
You’re very welcome, David! This is rare to find. I’m not sure your whereabouts, but on Netflix in the USA “Ragman’s Daughter” is available streaming. Luckily, I also have a copy of his books “Loneliness” and “Saturday Night” with other short stories. Very underrated writer AND screenwriter…
You’re right in suspecting Netflix USA won’t help me here (in Germany), but I’ll definitely keep an eye open for this one. Thanks again!
You’re welcome - Maybe now there will be an interest in his work and they’ll release it on DVD. :)

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