Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel has been praised for its authentic depiction of postwar Nottingham. But does its innovative style cast off the label of ‘realist’?
‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ warns Arthur Seaton, the rebellious protagonist of Alan Sillitoe’s novel of working-class life in postwar Nottingham, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Playing with the mock-Latin aphorism Illegitimi non carborundum, Sillitoe reminds us that the phrase is a pun on a bastard file, a tool used for grinding: ‘Something about a carborundum wheel when he spouted it in Latin’. While the individualistic Arthur grinds down bicycle parts at his factory job on a capstan-lathe, he struggles against the social institutions trying to grind him down: work, marriage, sobriety. At the heart of the text is the tension between the individual and the community, which Georg Lukács styles as ‘the dialectic between man-as-individual and man-as-social being’. Rather than offer a solution, Sillitoe utilises Arthur Seaton’s unique perspective to question the perceived opposition of realism and modernism in literature.
Sillitoe’s novel was widely praised at the time of publication for its realism, a bi-word for admiring the accuracy with which Sillitoe depicted the labour of the working man. However, Sillitoe’s third-person prose inhabits Arthur’s inner life in a manner atypical of realist texts, achieving its naturalism through a mimetic stream of consciousness:
I’m just too lucky for this world, Arthur told himself as he set his lathe going, too lucky by half, so I’d better enjoy it while I can. I don’t suppose Jack’s told Brenda yet about going on nights, but I’ll bet she’ll die laughing at the good news when he does. I might not see her at weekends, but I’ll get there every night, which is even better. Turn to chamfer, then to drill, then blade-chamfer. Done. Take out and fix in a new piece, checking now and again for size because I’d hate to do a thousand and get them slung back at me by the viewers. Forty-five bob don’t grow on trees. Turn to chamfer and drill, then blade-chamfer, swing the turret until my arms are heavy and dead. Quick as lightning. Take out and fix in, shout for the trolley to take it away and bring more on, jotting down another hundred, not noticing the sud smells any more or belts over my head that gave me the screaming ab-dabs when I first came in the factory at fifteen, slapping and twisting and thumping and changing direction like Robboe the foreman’s mind.
This passage incorporates a detailed account of working on a lathe through imperative actions and Arthur’s first-person internal monologue. It plays out in real time, and idiolectical phrases and grammar indicate the transition from third-person to Arthur’s point of view. As Sally Minogue and Andrew Palmer write, ‘it is through the interplay of inner and outer worlds that the novel’s take on reality is established’. Just as this style is both a literal depiction of Arthur’s thoughts and an appropriation of a calling-card of modernism, the lathe itself comes simultaneously to represent the reality of factory life and symbolise the cyclical routine that is at the novel’s literary centre.
Arthur reflects on the workings of the mind, emphasising Sillitoe’s play with time:
Time flew while you wore out the oil-soaked floor and worked furiously without knowing it: you lived in a compatible world of pictures that passed through your mind like a magic-lantern, often in vivid and glorious loonycolour, a world where memory and imagination ran free and did acrobatic tricks with your past and what might be your future, an amok that produced all sorts of agreeable visions.
Where the foreman’s mind is like the factory belts, Arthur’s is a ‘glorious’ alternate reality. ‘Loonycolour’ is almost Joycean, a nod to the modernist canon. Though Arthur might initially perceive Nottingham to be as ‘vivid and glorious’ as James Joyce’s Dublin, Sillitoe’s choice of the archaic magic lantern, associated with childhood entertainment – an undertone emphasised by the ‘acrobatic tricks’ of Arthur’s overactive mind – portends Arthur’s reluctant acceptance of adult life at the end of the novel. It emphasises that Arthur’s point of view is subjective, a flawed ‘agreeable vision’ that the novel interrogates.
Sillitoe contrasts this interiority with a more distant narrative style during incidents that are disruptive to Arthur. Where his thoughts at the lathe are recounted in real time, the passage of time as Arthur waits for his married lover, Brenda, to carry out a home-remedy abortion is measured only by Arthur ‘smoking cigarette after cigarette’. His desire for ‘boozing’ becomes ‘a glass of beer attracted him’; his mind, once vivid to the reader, becomes ‘feverish and weary’ as it moves out of focus. Karel Reitz utilises the interplay between inner and outer worlds in his 1960 film adaptation starring Albert Finney, by juxtaposing shots from Arthur’s point of view with wide angles that keep the audience at a distance from Arthur. Domestic interior shots in which Arthur glances at himself in a mirror are visual manifestations of the self-reflection written by Sillitoe: ‘Sometimes he was part of the scene […] then he was looking down on it, like watching the telly with no part in what he was seeing. He was only real inside himself’.
Arthur Seaton claims that ‘whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not’, now a catchphrase of youthful rebellion. But it’s also a useful position from which to critique Sillitoe’s prose, rich with simultaneous meaning. Take this simple sentence:
But listen, this lathe is my everlasting pal because it gets me thinking, and that’s their big mistake because I know I’m not the only one.
On one hand, it is overtly political: ordering the reader to ‘listen’ situates Arthur as the type of soapbox speaker he ridicules, and reading the lathe as a synecdoche of labour turns the sentence into an industrial threat. But the lathe as symbol of circularity, a connotation emphasised here by the coupling with ‘everlasting’, hints at the individual’s ability to break the cycle enforced by the group. Most importantly, perhaps, is that the lathe ‘gets me thinking’: Sillitoe tells us what he has already shown us, a wink at the reader, revelling in the metacriticism that underscores Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as an exploration of literary style as much as a depiction of postwar Nottingham.
Bibliography and further reading
Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London: Pan, 1960)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, dir. by Karel Reisz (Bryanston Films, 1960)
Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. by John and Necke Mander (London: Merlin Press, 1963)
Sally Minogue and Andrew Palmer, ‘Helter Skelter, Topsy-Turvy and “Loonycolour”: Carnivalesque Realism in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, English: Journal of the English Association, 51.200 (2002), 127-43 <https://doi.org/10.1093/english/51.200.127>
Nick Bentley, ‘Alan Sillitoe: Realism, Representation and the (Ir)responsibility of Writing’, in Realism’s Others, ed. by Geoffrey Baker and Eva Aldea (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), pp. 189-208
Peter Hitchcock, Working Class Fiction in Theory and Practice: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe (London: UMI Research Press, 1989)
Lewis MacLeod, ‘“Various Pubs Gave Signs of Life”: Of Drink and Time in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 42 (2012), 113-31 <https://doi.org/10.5699/yearenglstud.42.2012.0113>