Alexander Baron isn't a well-known novelist nowadays, despite the fact that his first book sold over a million copies in its day. Some background I've researched - the author (born 1917) was brought up in East London, the setting of 'The Lowlife', and was active in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s. He fought six years in the war, and was in the first wave of landings on D-Day. This experience formed the subject of his first novel, 'From the City, From the Plough' (1948), which earned critical acclaim (one critic called it "the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me") and became an instant best seller. It has often compared to the classic, 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. It has recently been re-issued and is available through Amazon.co.uk.
After three war novels, Baron turned to another topic familiar to him - London life and the personalities, destinies, hopes and tragedies of the metropolis. 'The Lowlife' (1963) is one of these novels. It is a gripping narrative of the ups and downs of an East End gambler. Harryboy Boas is intelligent and able, and yet is listless and driven by a secret guilt from his past to escape emotional attachment or responsibility in wild rushes of excitement on the dog tracks or racecourse, in loveless sex in 'swinging' sixties Soho, in drink and gourmet food, or in long sessions of reading the literature he loves. Against his will he finds himself drawn into the life of a neighbouring family, into its petty domestic joys, worries and conflicts, until his inner demons threaten to overwhelm both him and this innocent household. In a gripping climax, he tries to redeem himself and save the family whom his actions have unwittingly but inevitably brought to the verge of destruction.
This book is a compelling and moving narrative of flawed humanity in its dignity and suffering, with its fears and aspirations. It is a realistic portrait of sixties London life and mores (it's one of the first British novels to include Caribbean immigrants among its characters) and of the highs and lows of the 'lowlife' gambler. The style is disciplined, unaffected, precise and yet deeply engaging. Readers who enjoy this novel should try to find another of Baron's London novels, 'King Dido' (1969) - another finely structured, closely observed novel, in this case a tragedy of poverty, violent tribalism and social aspirations set in the East End during 1911, the Coronation year of George V. Unfortunately, this book is out of print. With justification, in my opinion, Baron has been called "the greatest British novelist" of the Second World War and "among the finest of the postwar period." It is time to acknowledge this again.
Two minor points - the Introduction to this book is written by Iain Sinclair, not Pinter. Secondly, the Alexander Baron who wrote 'The Lowlife', 'From the City, From the Plough', 'There's No Home', 'The Human Kind' and ten other novels is NOT the same Alexander Baron as the author of the many highly polemical and politically tendentious pamphlets listed under this name on the Amazon catalogue. Unfortunately, the computer has no way of distinguishing between writers of the same name. It's a pity, since these authors are poles apart.