17 June 2013

Julian Maclaren-Ross: Of Love and Hunger (1947)

Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912–64) is one of that slightly contradictory group of writers – both obscure and well known. Many readers are aware of him in a secondhand fashion, in the pastiche of Maclaren-Ross as X Trapnel in Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room (1970). But quite recently this novel was incorporated into the Penguin Classics canon with J. D. Taylor's eight-page Introduction to this dandyish, hard-drinking, impecunious, self-destructive inhabitant of the drinking dens of Fitzrovia. As he died at the relatively young age of 52, Maclaren-Ross was too young to have attained the status of 'national treasure' or, conversely, to have disgraced himself by embracing conformity in old age; so, fuelled by photographic images of his handsome features, his malacca cane and his cigarette holder, he has developed a kind of cult status, and in 2006 his formerly unmarked grave in Paddington was furnished with a headstone by a group of admirers led by Virginia Ironside.

Of Love and Hunger doesn't have a complicated plot: it portrays the life of a heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking vacuum cleaner salesman chasing door-to-door demonstrations (or 'dems' – which would no doubt be called 'leads' today) and falling foul of the cut-throat nature of the work. Inadvertently he is sucked in by the powers of Sukie, the rather capricious would-be femme fatale who is the wife of his friend and colleague Roper. But in the end the increasingly black clouds of war bring a silver lining in the form of a 'respectable' job for Captain Fanshawe, who is getting married to the reliable, loving Jackie Mowbray. The complexity of the novel is in the network of subsidiary characters, some of whom have bit parts, often supplying humorous diversions, such as Larry Heliotrope who survives the system largely by conning his way through it; or Sukie's unnamed landlady sticking her ear to the keyhole when Fanshawe visits her; or Barnes, who spends more time in and out of the pubs than selling vacuum cleaners, etc.

Of Love and Hunger evokes a number of books, either coincidentally or deliberately: the title is from Auden and MacNeice's 'Letter to Lord Byron' in their Letters from Iceland (1937); the title, the context of poverty and the frequent telegraphic styles recall Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love (1931); this world is redolent of Patrick Hamilton's boarding house novels, and the doomed love affair to a certain extent reminds us of Hamilton's The Midnight Bell (1929); Frank Tilsley's The Plebian's Progress (1933) painfully highlights the twilight world of the vacuum cleaner salesman; Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) concerns the deadening effect of conformity and has a background of poverty (a kind of retribution for those who don't conform), Coming Up for Air (1939) has conformity in a pre-war setting as a major theme, and then there's the coincidence of Orwell and Fanshawe's background in India. D. J. Taylor mentions Hemingway's pared-down style in passing, but in addition there's a vague, general American cultural influence running through the book. Highly interesting for comparison to and contrast with this novel are the depictions of lives of salesmen in two  later plays: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1984).

Frank Tilsley is perhaps of particular interest here, not only in his representation of vacuum cleaner selling, but as a counterpoint to Of Love and Hunger's representations of class and sexual behaviour: Tilsley came from the working class and several of his novels form part of the (more obscure) working-class canon, although Maclaren-Ross wasn't working class and Fanshawe and Sukie don't align themselves with the politics of the left but identify more with the apolitical 'misfit' as Sukie terms it; and whereas Of Love and Hunger is very coy in its portrayals of extra- and pre-marital sex, Tilsley's allusions to sex (particularly to contraception) in The Plebeian's Progress and She Was There Too (1938) are bolder, no doubt largely because they are within socially approved marital parameters.