Nottingham in the fifties : an exuberant, cynical and poetic slice of the times
Alan Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, first published in 1958 rather burst into that territory which came to be described, in literature and especially in theatre, as that of ‘The Angry Young Man’ Playwrights such as Wesker and Osborne were writing about working class experience in a way which celebrated and showed the vigour of a kind of angry, cynical awareness of class politics, and how the establishment worked to grind down the working class.
Sillitoe himself, who died in 2010, had left school at 14, and failed to get into a grammar school – despite the fact that as the adult man would prove, he was fiercely intelligent, with a ferociously enquiring mind, and deeply thinking.
Saturday Night and Sunday morning is the story of a deeply flawed, often unlikeable, mendacious young man of extreme charm and more self-reflective depth than his heavily boozing, serially philandering and enjoying of fisticuffs would indicate. Arthur Seaton, 21, works in a bicycle factory (as did Sillitoe himself, aged 14, and his father before him). He both hates and despises the daily grind of the factory, and prides himself on his manual skills – and the ability to outwit the bosses and the time-and-motion-study piecework rate organisers. He has a good friendship with an older man working in the same factory. Nonetheless despite the odd twinge of guilt, his friendship does not prevent him from having a passionate affair with his colleague’s wife. Nor does that passionate affair prevent him from simultaneously embarking on another affair with a second married woman, and risking the safety and reputation of the two women, who know each other, and have a theoretical loyalty to each other. The women, Seaton, and the husbands all exist within a close knit community. To add to the complexity, Seaton also plays around with a young unmarried woman hoping to catch a husband. As well as charm, Arthur has that much to be admired prospect – at this point, a steady job, and his skills at the lathe are netting good results, on piecework.
Womanising, heavy drinking and a keen sense for sharp dressing fashion are Arthur’s passions. Sillitoe shows that his antihero, despite the fact that he prefers to settle disagreements with his fists and workman’s boots, has a sharply analytic mind. In fact, he muses in an almost existential way on what the point of it all is. Arthur not only loves danger, and excitement, and womanising, but there is a side to him which has passion for something more quiet – days spent solo, fishing by the riverside: a pastime naturally giving the space for reflection.
On one level this book can be said to chart a journey from wild rebellion towards an acceptance of, in the end, accommodating and settling into accepting family life, marriage and parenting.
At times, in this first novel, Sillitoe does labour some of his imagery a little overmuch – fishing, swimming with and against the stream etc. are metaphors which hold a multiplicity of possibilities, and I did feel that by his second outing, the wonderful novella The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, he was trusting his reader, and himself, much more, and paring back.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning became of course an iconic Karel Reisz film, launching the bruised, powerfully sexual young Albert Finney on his road to stardom, a perfect casting for Arthur Seaton. Although Sillitoe himself wrote the screen adaptation for that 1960 film, it is perfectly obvious, from the quality of the writing in the novel, that he did not write the book FOR the film, with ‘this would make a brilliant (and money-earning) film, as his objective. Something I sadly feel is rather different now – there are writers (and many are not very good!) clearly writing with the idea of film, video and TV as their springboard, so that narrative, and often implausible narrative at that, becomes the driver, and operatic desire to shock the tool.
Sillitoe has character, multifaceted, at the heart of his novel. Arthur Seaton is powerfully and deeply realised, and thus becomes an archetype. Writing the archetype, and not the individual is what makes for two-dimensional writing, but if the writer, as Sillitoe does, makes the individual both unique and reflective of his cultural time and place, he will become fully rounded, as the complexity of his humanity is explored
Finney’s portrayal has all the dark, brooding quality of Seaton, Sillitoe’s book, whilst that is very powerfully there, also has savage humour, a cruel celebration of some kind of ability to laugh and self-mock. Perhaps there was a desire to launch Finney as Britain’s answer to Brando. Reading the book I have been more aware of Arthur’s mocking, self mocking laughter – less obviously bitter, more biting and mordant in how the writer shapes things
I received this as a review copy from the excellent digital publishing company Open Road Integrated Media. My version included an afterword, with photographs of Sillitoe, by the writer Ruth Fainlight. Fainlight and Sillitoe were married for 41 years,