Top positive review
The Chaos and the Quiet
on 12 March 2017
Arthur Seaton's drunken and womanising escapades eventually lead to him being given a beating by an angry husband and soldier pal. The novel finishes on a positive note as he eventually settles down to marriage with Doreen.
What great characters and an intriguing story! I can almost feel at every chapter how the book must have caused a sensation in 1958. The portraits of different husbands and Arthur's attitudes towards marriage are interesting, comparing in the final section of the book to being caught on a hook, like the fish he throws back and offers one more chance (p219).
I personally found chapters such as Brenda's abortion and the fight where Winnie's husband, Bill and his solider friend beat Arthur up minutely detailed and described with an urgency and passion I've never read anywhere else. But strangely, detailed description of how the characters look is conspicuous by its absence; This is a lived life and a lived experience that only a writer with a detailed and intimate knowledge of many of these episodes can write.
It is almost as if we are dipping into the character's lives and this is no doubt a consequence of Alan Sillitoe's construction of the book through short stories over a number of years with a sustained period of writing during the autumn of 1956. I do understand the point Sillitoe makes in an interview in the notes, that the characters are not any one individual and have become composites of many different people, so possibly this contributes to the lack of detail around the facial characteristics of individuals as he doesn't want to draw any one person's features onto a character that is many different people from his memories and life.
The compartmentalisation and drag of Arthur's life into 'Saturday night/Sunday morning' and also the working week from 'Mondays' is very modern and adds to the feeling that this book is nearly as relevant now as it was in the fifties. Certainly with the exception of the bath-abortion scene there is little to date this book and binge drinking is still a live issue today. Sillitoe notes that a visit to Nottingham whilst writing the follow-up in 2001, left him with the distinct impression that many of the drinking practices contained in the original novel were still taking place.
The philosophy contained in this debut novel is one of the most striking features, for a writer often lumped in with the 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950s and for a book published in 1958 – I was expecting something of a left-wing, socialist agenda for a narrative set amongst the working class protagonists. I was surprised by the individualistic nature of the views expanded by Arthur and the the oppression he feels from the establishment pushing down upon him. The section about money being 'milked' from his wage packet (p202) reads like an argument for lower taxation and an almost 'Thatcherite' rolling back of the state. Anti-union as well, Arthur is a vivid illustration of working class Toryism in-action and something of a ass of the theories behind it. Interesting I don't perceive Arthur as an 'anti-hero', I see him as something of a hero for getting on with his life.
The lived experiences of cycling round country lanes with fishing rods on his bike, with summers spent outdoors were lovely pieces of nostalgia and examples of how we all remember our lives and perhaps romanticise certain times.
I will be fascinated to read the follow-up book, 'Birthday'.