3 April 2008

Harry Slochower on Lionel Britton

The literary critic Dr Harry Slochower (1900–91) is perhaps better known for his book No Voice Is Wholly Lost (1946) rather than his Three Ways of Modern Man (1937) (1). However, the earlier book contains an interesting paragraph on Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love:

'An unusual prose-work shaped by the war-era is Hunger and Love by the English writer Lionel Britton. The novel is a passionate social and spiritual autobiography of a young worker and intellectual of pre-war England. Britton uses an unsophisticated Joycean technique, producing a sharp, direct and naked naturalism (2). The novel sketches the questionings of young Arthur Phelps, his awakening from a nebulous "cosmic citizenship" to his cognizence of class-restrictions. The worker Phelps is hungry for knowledge as such. He soon learns that most of it has been "interpreted" and disseminated by "Pastors and Masters" for their own group-benefits. This realistic Englishman is not moved from his critical dissidence by vodka, metaphysics or music (3). His "hunger" for bread, he realizes in the end, is a hunger for beauty, love and knowledge. We lose sight of him at the outbreak of the War. But the "whys" he has asked at evey point will prevent him from fighting in the unquestioning way of a Hans Castrop [from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain]. Phelps' struggle against hunger is part of the battle for the emergence of the human. Britton's hope lies in the fact that "all over the world", the Phelpses are finding this out. The prose of Ralph Bates (Lean Men, The Olive Tree) is the most heartening confirmation of this hope' (4).

Slochower is one of the few critics to realise that Arthur Phelps did not necessarily die at the end of the novel. Slochower's copy of Hunger and Love is held at Brooklyn College.

(1) Harry Slochower, Three Ways of Modern Man (International Publishers, 1937; repr. Kraus Reprint, 1969); Harry Slochower, No Voice Is Wholly Lost: Writers and Thinkers in War and Peace (London: Dobson, 1946; repr. as Literature and Philosophy between Two World Wars: The Problem of Alienation in a War Culture (New York: Citadel Press, 1964).

(2) But if Britton was influenced by James Joyce – as C. E. M. Joad also claims in Under the Fifth Rib: A Belligerent Autobiography (1932) – it was by cultural osmosis: Britton had never read any of the modernists, and hated what he perceived as their elitism. In an unpublished essay, Britton responds to Joad's claims in a typical exuberant manner: '[Joad] specifies writers like James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Who are these people? What's that to do with me? I don't know anything about these blokes. [...]. I've heard about them, and every now and again I think to myself I ought to know something about this, and I pick up one of their books. And that's as far as it gets. [...] I'm a writer and I don't intend to take poison. If I read this stuff I find I can't think afterwards. It muddles up the speech centre in the brain. [...]. If I force myself a few sentences too far into one of their books, then until I take a mental purgative or emetic I'm done. I might as well be dead. I won't do it.' When Joad quotes a paragraph from Joyce's 'Ithaca' section in Ulysses to illustrate the similarities to Britton's writing style, Britton denies it: 'If I had written that passage it would not be the same. I could never say "On solitary hotel paper she writes". I should say: "She writes. Hotel paper. Solitary hotel." I should not say "In dark corner young man seated." I should say: "Young man sitting in dark corner." I'd run a mile rather than use a word like "seated". Be seated, madam! Not me!' (The above exerpts are from the essay 'Unreason in Modern Literature', a typescript of which is held at the Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (Lionel Britton Collection, Box 75, Folder 1, pp. 4–5)).

(3) Slochower was almost certainly unaware that Lionel Britton was teetotal, or that he was contemptuous of music, although he appears to have guessed as much.

(4) Ralph Bates, Lean Men: An Episode in a Life (London: Davies, 1934); Ralph Bates, The Olive Tree (London: Cape, 1936). Relevant here is the juxtaposition of Britton's work to a noted working-class writer.

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