Alan Sillitoe (SIHL-ih-toh) is one of England’s best writers of proletarian fiction and the spokesperson for the English working class of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was born in Nottingham, England, the setting for much of his fiction. The son of Sylvia and Christopher Sillitoe, the latter a tannery worker, he grew up in the slums. Through his family’s struggle for survival during the economic depression of the 1930’s, he gained the subject matter and the political beliefs that found expression in his work. Though an avid student, he left school at fourteen and between 1942 and 1946 worked in a bicycle plant, then in a plywood mill, and later as a lathe operator. He worked as a controller at the Langar Airfield in Nottingham before serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Malaya in 1947 and 1948. After his stint with the RAF, he married an American woman.
While in Malaya, Sillitoe began writing, but he destroyed the poems, short stories, and first draft of a novel that he completed while recuperating from tuberculosis. In 1949, following his convalescence, he returned to Nottingham and then traveled to France and Majorca, where he met and became friends with the influential British poet and mythologist Robert Graves, who urged him to write about what he knew best: Nottingham. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was awarded the Authors’ Club Prize as the best English first novel of 1958; the following year, Sillitoe won the Hawthornden Prize for The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The Nottingham novels and books of poetry that followed his initial success reflect his leftist political views, which were also the subject of The Road to Volgograd, a topographical and ideological journey to Russia.
After 1970, Sillitoe completed his Nottingham trilogy and, while returning sporadically to his Nottingham settings, would use more diverse settings (including Antarctica in The Lost Flying Boat). He also experimented with narrative strategies (as in The Storyteller and Down from the Hill). He was one of the first British stylists to use “metafiction.” Despite the change in setting and style, Sillitoe’s fiction remained consistent in his criticism of the English establishment and of capitalism generally, though increasingly his focus was on the individual rather than society. The Widower’s Son, for example, attests the failure of the human heart to survive society’s conditioning and to sustain human relationships.
Sillitoe’s reputation rests on his Nottingham novels and short stories, with their proletarian protagonists, their struggle between the authority figures and the working class, and their condemnation of social and political institutions. Sillitoe’s early protagonists, Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, embrace their working-class status and refuse to bow to a coercive and alienating society. Their behavior is at odds with the ambitious social climbing of Joe Lampton, the working-class hero of Room at the Top(1957), by John Braine, with whom Sillitoe is often compared. With Key to the Door, however, Sillitoe’s switch of protagonists meant a new focus–the plight of the working-class intellectual with literary interests in a repressive society (the tie to Sillitoe is obvious). When Brian Seaton refuses to fire on the Malayan communists, his action is overtly political. Similarly, Frank Dawley, the protagonist of Sillitoe’s trilogy (The Death of William Posters, A Tree on Fire, and The Flame of Life), joins the struggle to free Algeria from colonialism and learns to channel his anger into a worthwhile course of action. These decisions are both personal and political.
Some of Sillitoe’s later fiction (Out of the Whirlpool and a few of the stories included in The Second Chance, and Other Stories) are set in Nottingham and do involve the working class, but Sillitoe extended his range and became more concerned with style. Life Goes On, a sequel to A Start in Life, continues the earlier novel’s account of the improbable adventures of lower-class outcasts, but it becomes more focused on literary technique and incorporates a novel-within-a-novel. The same concern with metafiction occurred earlier in The Storyteller, which depicts a working-class protagonist who tells stories to survive. As the protagonist’s stories begin to merge with his life, Sillitoe allegorically poses questions about the nature and motivation of the writer/creator. Down from the Hill, a memory novel, depicts the storyteller-protagonist first as an apolitical youth, then as a politicized screenwriter. The Widower’s Son, on the other hand, concerns a more mainstream subject, the institutionalizing of the human heart.
Though The Widower’s Son and Her Victory seem closely related to the work of D. H. Lawrence, another Nottingham writer with an underprivileged background, it is only in the later novels that Sillitoe was able to get any Lawrentian distance from his subject, so closely had he been tied to his characters in the past. In fact, he was associated with the “angry young men” of the generation of John Osborne. Despite his movement from the Nottingham working-class jungle to a more inclusive English society, a more detached stance, and a less overtly political subject matter, Sillitoe will be remembered as the proletarian novelist of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, the spokesperson whose career parallels the rise of the New Left in England. His style is poetic, and had he not written fiction so appropriate to his time, he certainly would be remembered for his several books of poems.