“Adventurers though, must take things as they find them.
And look for pickings where the pickings are”
It took a little while for me to fully surrender to Julian Maclaren-Ross’s 1947 published novel, Of Love And Hunger, set primarily in the months leading up to the Second World War. The reason for my hold-back is that Of Love and Hunger, both because of subject matter and its setting, not to mention what I knew of Maclaren-Ross within his literary ‘set’, reminded me forcefully of earlier books by writers who are favourites of mine.
Firstly, Patrick Hamilton whose Hangover Square, written in 1941, and also set in the 1939 build-up to war, inhabits a similar achingly sad territory of a weak man, undone by a hopeless love, and yet with something loveable about him
The second is George Orwell’s 1936 Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Like the central character of Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock, Maclaren-Ross’s Richard Fanshawe is a man from the middle classes with some kind of literary pretentions, and a wearily cynical view of his times. Which are those of economic depression.
Fanshawe has had a prior life of some more influence in ‘Empire’ in Madras, but his nature has led to various failures, both professional and personal, and there are hints that he has handled relationships, romantic, and with his parents, badly, and that thinking about his past is a terrible pain and torment, to be avoided. Like Comstock, Fanshawe lacks a certain grittiness about himself, and is prone to melancholy, and a cynical despair.
Whilst I found both the Hamilton and Orwell much more immediately powerful reads, Maclaren-Ross, Fanshawe and his world began to grow on me. Something in the style of writing, the tension between the short, choppy sentences of Fanshawe’s observations, and the ‘left brain’ dialogue he has with himself, and the ‘unbidden’ recollections (stylised in italic text) which rise from his unwilling memories, and which he attempts to stuff down and silence, felt quite alluring and revealing.
Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job
That clippedness, that kind of stiff upper lipped buttoned up emotion is set against the unwanted feelings which threaten to rise up and overwhelm Fanshawe
…we drove along the path that was thick with fallen leaves and up into the wood itself, the tree trunks standing out all around us in the headlamps glare. We bumped to a standstill in the clearing and I cut the engine and the headlamps and there was only the light from the dashboard to see her by: the curly black hair and the high cheek-bones and the eyes set deep that gave her a Russian look and her mouth, her kiss
Maclaren-Ross’s writing began to work on me, and bruised, lost, corrupt, innocent, dishonest, honourable Fanshawe stirred my compassion.
It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock
The narrative – heart-breaking, in its quiet way, and also at times very funny indeed follows Fanshawe through a rather hand-to-mouth existence on the edges of poverty as he runs up ‘tick’ with landladies and shopkeepers, trying to earn a living selling vacuum cleaners for a couple of rival firms who are themselves dealing shabbily with their workforce of casual salesmen. Hunger, and the avoidance of it, is a major theme. Love comes stalking Fanshawe, in the guise of Sukie, the wife of a colleague away at sea. Sukie is an equally complex individual, far stronger and more intelligent than Fanshawe – indeed she educates him, both in terms of making him think about politics and class, and about literature.
Maclaren-Ross’s women – Sukie herself, Jacqueline Mowbray, who is one of Fanshawe’s prospective customers, and even Miss Purvis, a fabulous canvasser of customer leads for the rather ineffectual salesmen – are seen as much stronger and more capable personalities.
This short book, just tipping over 200 pages is a deserved re-issue in Penguin’s Classics collection, conjuring up a world a heart-beat away from war, whilst the ‘little people’ lead their daily lives almost unaware of the larger forces of history which are impacting them.