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Moggerhanger, p.1
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       Moggerhanger, p.1

           Alan Sillitoe






  A Novel

  Alan Sillitoe

  with a preface by Ruth Fainlight


  by Ruth Fainlight

  the American poet, who was married to

  Alan Sillitoe for over fifty years

  Thinking about what I would write for the preface of this book, it occurred to me that in fact this had already been done—far more appropriately (and probably far better)—by the author himself, in his essay, “On the Picaresque Novel and the Picaresque Hero,” included in A Flight of Arrows—opinions, people, places, Robson Books, 2003/Open Road Distribution 2016.

  It is fascinating to read Sillitoe’s references to the not yet written (at least, not yet completed) third volume of the trilogy. The book you intend to read now proves that he was unable to resist the blandishments of its hero, Michael Cullen. I know that he had wanted to write a modern picaresque novel, its tone culled from those earlier works of the picaresque by Mateo Aleman and Alain LeSage, shadowed by the works of those great masters. I was as captivated and amused by this book as by the earlier volumes—although there is no real need to have read them in order to understand and enjoy the tale of Michael’s latest adventures. Alan waited for fifteen years to write volume two. The interval between that and the third volume was double: thirty years. It seems unlikely that he (or anyone else) could have lived long enough to continue with this story.

  As far as I remember—and deducing from references to what was happening in the various worlds of politics, current events and popular culture at the time—the first draft of this book was written in the late 1980s. We have tried to keep the integrity of the text and the author’s voice—Sillitoe was adamant on the subject of editorial “assistance”: he rejected it entirely. Apart from the absolute minimum of alterations (mostly things I am sure he would have noticed and later altered himself), basically this is the unedited, uncut version of the book. We can never know what further changes he would have made himself. And what a pity that Sillitoe will not be able to continue the story further because, in spite of his insistence that this book is definitely the last he will write about his picaresque hero, I wonder. …

  On the Picaresque Novel and the Picaresque Hero

  Life is brief, and the picaresque hero knows it more than most. The true hero, statuesque rather than picaresque, knows it least. The picaro acts as if he is going to die tomorrow, while the true hero lords it as if he will live forever. The picaro, in other words, wants everything today. He craves to escape into the world of reality from youthful fantasy, but never quite gets there. The picaro is both the dreamer and the man of action, but his dreams are not so intense that they keep him from action, nor his actions so deeply considered that they destroy his dreams.

  The picaro’s character can vary, because though his clear goals occasionally seem like ambition, he is often consumed by false ambitions that are no more than goals. Such impulses eventually lead to a feeling for ambition but, more often than not, they lead to disaster. Though he may have no clear notion as to what his ambition might be, he feels that only quick advantage can take him closer to obtaining it.

  There are no disasters to a picaro, only setbacks, and he will do anything to further his schemes. He has a will to succeed rather than any well-defined path in life, and he will pursue his way by all the charm and guile of his nature. He will not do so by work. Sufficient people already labour to maintain an opulent world for him to enjoy, and there is no place for our hero in an occupation that from the outset would seem both disagreeable and tedious. In any case, not altogether uncharitably, our hero knows that for him to work would mean taking bread out of the mouths of others. Modesty would, in this instance and no other, lead him to protest that bread of so little value can only be scorned.

  Adaptable and intelligent, the picaro looks upon work as something which would not allow him to display and exploit the full range of his peculiar genius. From the point of view of the picaresque hero no values in the world appear to be stable. If he is a born thief it is merely to acquire money quickly, which after all is only earning it but as in a film speeded up.

  He is also a born thief of ideas, when he needs them, because to devise any philosophy or justification for his actions would only lead to the discovery, when they were put to the test, that someone had propagated them before him.

  Therefore he is a conservative, believing in the basic order of society, so that he can learn all the rules and know better how to exist, otherwise he would vanish forever.

  Within the limits, rough as they may be, the world is a merry-go-roundabout, and he is at that calm place in the middle from which he jumps onto the spinning part, with all its prize-like glitter and colour, or opportune moments to brag, cheat or seduce. He leaps off the roundabout when it becomes too fast and threatening for comfort, back to his centre island of safety, on realising that outside it are no secure places for him.

  He must have a refuge from the perils of the world, and sometimes it exists only within himself. That is the frailest refuge of all, which he can hardly bear to be in, since it contains so little to support him. Better to be outside, rather than rely on interior resources. The kind of life he is temperamentally fitted to pursue is often harsh, but as long as the danger does not come too often, it is tolerable because, as a picaro, he can usually change things at least temporarily for the better.

  If we were to define the picaresque tale, one chapter would describe how a temporarily destitute young itinerant came to an evening campfire over which a pot of succulent stew was cooking. He would tell a story, which could only be what is known as picaresque. In the tale he would have no time to develop character, or style, or indulge in prolonged research. The hero of his tale—like himself—has to be young, good looking, witty, brave (to a degree) and daring, as well as sexually potent and promiscuous. In short, he must have many of the qualities that the people around the campfire, in charge of the provisions, cannot possibly possess.

  The hero has certain disadvantages in that he does not know his parents (or one of them) and so believes himself to be a bastard. He has been cast off without resources because his petty crimes can no longer be tolerated, an event which he, however, puts down to a malign fate.

  He has little education, though much aptitude for acquiring a gold-leaf veneer of sophistication—like the kind which, when painted on someone at a sumptuous Renaissance feast, kills them because the skin is eventually unable to breathe. Lack of diligence has sharpened his wits. Having no set aim in life gives him freedom of manoeuvre. Such advantages engender optimism. He never lacks energy. He develops diplomacy and cunning.

  When he tells his story by the campfire, after an adventure in which the above qualities availed him nothing, he relates his life-story to the rich travellers but stops at the point where it will be necessary to explain why the last adventure failed, and lets it be known that he cannot go on until he is given the best of meat and drink.

  They fall under his spell, and while imbibing, our hero eyes the glitter and panoply of the parked caravan, or the lures of the fixed settlement around him. But the appurtenances of civilisation are not for him, not even to stay with for a while, or accompany a few miles down the road. He is a rover, an observer, a tale-teller and confidence man—the artist without an art except for the expertise of occasionally getting what he wants.

  Being born without that adult ability of buckling down to the dull plod of making a living in some established trade or profession, he is of no fixed value to society. He cannot the
n be a rival to the people he is both entertaining and sponging off. He is affected by a subtle and incurable illness that will never let him know peace. Even when the well of fortune stops in his favour he cannot keep still and enjoy what he has got, either because the danger has thereby increased and he must escape, or because, by feeling that he can acquire still more riches, he overreaches himself in his greed and loses all. A gambler who is not content till he has gained heaven often ends up by losing the warmth of hell as well.

  Every established trader in the caravan, every settled professor or solid bureaucrat, or prosperous self-satisfied preacher, each of whom is slowly accumulating fame or wealth (or both) has a side to him that warms to the picaro’s tale.

  The yarn is spun out of his own backbone. A wandering no-good thief has many tales to tell. While not narrating he is acting out his falsehoods and exaggerations. Nothing daunts him.

  He may be in tatters, wounded, starving after a series of misadventures that he brought on himself by unwise and precipitate behaviour, but his face is bright, his gestures cool, his words seducing. He can go from rags to opulence in a night by a chance meeting with a gullible priest, generous nobleman or warm-hearted widow—or the other way with more alarming rapidity. He is the epitome of life with the lid off where, but for the grace of God, go all. Despair is not for him, since it would rob him of the energy to pursue the kind of life that has chosen him for its victim.

  He finds his way out of any labyrinth because he is God’s plaything, but he never knows the grace of God. God is for those who believe in the superiority of the spirit, the necessity of ethics, the comfort of morals. While they pray, he preys on them, without whom he would have no existence. He is the devil on two sticks, the spirit of anarchy, which resides in everyone. Neither would they exist without him. He is the open prison-window of themselves, and acts as if there is no tomorrow in a world that lives as if the day after tomorrow was worth waiting for. That is his strength, because he will live for as long as the world goes on.

  By middle age the picaro must have established his identity, made or married into a fortune, and reconciled himself to the life of a gentleman. He is no longer a picaro. If atrophy or boredom get the upper hand he loses all, descending into oblivion and beggary. Age kills off our picaresque hero, but there is always another to take his place.

  The picaro has existed in all ages, and it is the novelist who perpetuates him. He is the two-way mirror, in which the novelist sees both himself and society outside. It occasionally happens that the novelist, busy with literary theories, or fighting those who would dictate them to him, cannot always give the picaresque hero the fictional and philosophical honour he deserves. But the novelist neglects him at his cost, because the picaresque hero, more than any other, gives an accurate picture of the world in which he operates.

  By his antics, adventures and observations, and by his fate, which is specific to that age, the eternal Guzman takes society most ruthlessly and entertainingly to pieces, for the edification and delectation of all.

  Some time in the 1960s I read Guzman de Alfarache (1559) by Mateo Aleman, Lazarillo do Tormes (1553) by—as far as we know—Diego Hurtado Mendoza, and El Buscon by Francisco de Quevedo. Such an enjoyable experience gave me the idea of writing a picaresque novel set in modern-day England.

  The picaresque novel came from Spain of the Siglio de Oro, and led through France to England, taking a firm hold among its writers. Where the Armada failed, literature succeeded—as it always does. Writers subsequently influenced included Defoe, Fielding, and Tobias Smollett. Sir Walter Scott later claimed to be a devotee of Alain le Sage, who wrote Gil Blas, translated by Smollett. Le Sage, however, was a Frenchman.

  In August 1804 Henri Beyle—the great Stendhal—advised his sister Pauline to read Gil Blas, thinking that from his books she would learn something about the ways of the world.

  How much wiser if he had told her to begin with Mateo Aleman. But at least Le Sage’s picaresque novels were to influence Stendhal, in the writing of Le Rouge et le Noir, and La Chartreuse de Parme.

  For over a year—and a very enjoyable time it was—I entertained myself, as much as I hoped to amuse any future readers, by writing a novel called A Start in Life. As to what it was about, I quote in the publisher’s blurb—since I wrote it myself:

  “A Start in Life describes the ordinary and not so ordinary adventures of a bastard and a proletarian to boot, of his birth and youth in his native city, and of what befalls him when the star of his destiny takes him to London and sundry places beyond. It tells of his infamous follies and foolish mistakes, of how they led to an ending which should surprise no one, but which will not be revealed until you get there.”

  The hero, Michael Cullen, after many adventures, and a term in prison for gold smuggling, was left at an appropriate end. But a picaro never dies, at least in the mind of his author. My hero nagged me to take him up again, even if only to increase the breadth of his experience.

  It is comparatively easy to embark on a novel, but very difficult to know in what state of finality to leave the main character, before writing—with relief and satisfaction (those two magical words) ‘The End’ on the last page. The definitive ending would be if everybody died—or nearly everybody—but an author must avoid such self-indulgence or malice, tempted though he often is.

  Nevertheless, a character who had been very real for several hundred pages, and a year or two in the writing, might not be at all satisfied with his (or her) circumstances at the end of a novel: “Why did you leave me in that situation at the end of A Start in Life? I served you faithfully for 351 pages, and you left me living in an abandoned railway station with a wife and three kids. Get me out of here, for God’s sake!”

  What should I do? Almost immediately after the novel was published, in 1970, I began filling a notebook, describing perils and pitfalls I could put my dissatisfied hero through, and weaving them into a narrative. But other novels were being even more demanding, and fifteen years had to go by until the notebook was full enough for me to think once more about Michael Cullen, and release him from his servitude.

  All picaros have a particularly engaging nature—when not being cruel, selfish, and downright criminal, as much as or even more than the writer who gives in to the indulgence and often pleasure of describing him

  So I was impelled into writing a sequel to A Start in Life, with its title of Life Goes On. This second novel involving Michael Cullen was translated into Spanish, and published as La Vida Continua. At least one of my chickens came home to roost!

  Even then, I could not leave my hero alone—or he could not leave me alone. I left him in a somewhat better state, though in an equally ambiguous condition, than at the end of A Start of Life.

  After finishing Life Goes On I again began keeping a notebook, whose content suggested still further adventures for him, although rather more than fifteen years have since gone by—an author hopes he is going to live forever. I am these days tinkering with early chapters of volume three.

  If, or when, the trilogy is complete, the ups and downs of Michael Cullen’s existence will have been displayed in over a thousand pages, at which point, however, I will leave him, in an elevated station for which all his adventures have prepared him, and to which, I hope, he can have no objection. I don’t, after all, want to be pestered by him for the rest of my life.

  One of Joseph Conrad’s characters in Lord Jim—I forget who it was—remarks: “Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece.” The picaresque hero goes from one shady incident or daring exploit to another, as if striving to become exactly that—a masterpiece in the art of living, a complete depiction of glorious life itself, which almost from birth he had half-consciously believed himself able to attain.

  If he doesn’t finally appear to be anywhere near that masterpiece of the art of living then only the writer can be held responsible, because he being all-powerful created th
e picaro as much as the picaro created himself. The picaresque hero was the template on which the art of the writer was practised—or attempted.

  The writer himself couldn’t, of course, be the masterpiece Conrad was alluding to. That would be an impossibility, because anyone who becomes a writer is flawed from the beginning—though he may at least endeavour to make one out of his hero. Whether or not he fails is only for the reader to say.

  The writer and picaro are different, but they are bound up together in society, though both may well dislike the fact. I confess that two very different careers were open to me in my youth. One was to become a criminal, and the other was to be a writer. How much luckier mankind is that I became a writer is not for me to say, but having viewed the alternative around me in childhood gave some insight into the workings of the picaresque mind—the mind of the picaro, that is.

  The fact that both picaro and writer are so firmly embedded in society makes the symbiosis complete. A writer, by creating his own idiosyncratic picaro, proves that all picaros are unique. It is the world that is the same, both picaro and writer united by its social framework.

  During his Herculean endeavours the writer portrays himself as his own picaresque hero, but because he writes instead of lives, he suffers no perils by his temerity. He uses his imagination, he observes, he remembers. The landscape is his, as are the people in it, and his occupation is to write about them rather than harm them. If he does harm them, in the way of morals, it is only on paper, which they can take or leave as they wish. Nevertheless, he does not forget that he is the god who controls, who amuses himself by fabricating adventures, and thereby instructing and entertaining his readers.

  Society and the picaresque hero are bound together, then, and the writer tells the story that is essentially for both. Writing about the picaro may cause less harm to society than the immoral exploitations of the picaro himself but, all the same, it would be a pity of cosmic proportions if the picaresque hero ever faded from literature.

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