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Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways,
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This review is from: Clayhanger (Kindle Edition)
This and Hilda Lessways are a uniquely ambitious project in English fiction. Two large-scale and fully worked novels, each of which aims to transform our understanding of life as it was lived in the twentieth century, are mirror images of each other. Each tells the same story from a precisely equal and opposite angle. Clayhanger is Edwin's story, as Hilda Lessways is the story from the point of view of the girl and woman around whom his whole life revolves. The two books complete a perfect circle, and one could go on reading each after the other for the insights that they provide into Edwin and Hilda's folie a deux, their tragically incomplete understanding of what they mean to each other, and what their lives mean when they are together or apart.
Nobody depicts working life, whether it is in shopkeeping, printing, manufacturing or running a guesthouse, better than Bennett, and this alone should be enough to single him out from among British novelists. Too many of our most highly rated writers appear to have no idea what it is like to spend day after day at work, but Bennett does. These two novels are heavy with the weariness of characters who have to earn every penny that comes to them through sweat, blood, tears and compromise.
Bennett's prose has a hypnotic, mesmerising quality. We are drawn into the inner life of every character, his or her consciousness, with an immediacy and authenticity that it is hard to find in any other writer. Joyce's Molly Bloom is nothing to it. The sense of personal presence and lived experience creates an excitement and expectancy that draws the reader on into unknown eventualities, and keeps us turning the pages. We abandon ourselves into the hands of a writer with the magical ability to sustain our interest in the fates of individuals who are unimportant in terms of fame or political or artistic influence.
In the insatiable present tense that Bennett creates it might go unnoticed that he has no other dimension, no entree to any higher level of aesthetic, ethical or spiritual life. There is no transcendence or intuition of beauty or unity in his work, beyond what is suggested almost incidentally through the personal relationships of the main protagonists. Salvation is found in the lead characters' clinging together in the face of the chaotic and demoralising circumstances of their everyday existence.
This is so true to life as most people actually experience it that it is hard to fault Bennett for describing it so faithfully, but it is perhaps the reason why he has never figured as one of the greatest English writers in the pantheon of the most qualified judges. There is among even smart contemporary critics a nostalgia for meaning and for a greater purpose to existence than the grubby realities of our daily lives. But even these grubby realities are beautiful in their way, and Bennett shows us this as few other artists do. Perhaps his time will come.