15 December 2007

Lionel Britton and the Jewish Working-Class Intellectual in London and New York as Seen by Simon Blumenfeld and Peter Martin

Reception of Lionel Britton's work varied widely, as the two fictional representations below clearly show.

Simon Blumenfeld’s protagonist Alec in Jew Boy (1935) is very disparaging towards Britton (and the recent plays of Bernard Shaw), and pretends to believe that Shaw is dead and that Britton is now writing under his name:

‘If you take the trouble to compare [Shaw’s On the Rocks (1933) and Too True to Be Good (1932)] with Lionel Britton’s Brain and Spacetime Inn, you’re bound to see that they’re written, all four, by the same verbose, muddled, amateur sociologist’ (1).

Peter Martin’s protagonists in The Building have a rather different reaction:

‘In brief, vivid phrases Max began talking of a novel he had just read from cover to cover, a long and cruel book, quite upsetting, whose theme he could not accept, but neither could he put the book down. It traced the life of a London orphan from boyhood through his death in the war. Evidently a crushing experience, Max described it as being the ultimate in novelistic revolt against the war.

Philip said he would like to read to (remembering Uncle Leo Sociable’s remark, “Next time they wanna shoot me, let ‘em do it right here on this side”), and Max said he would give him his copy of Hunger and Love.

“Some title,” Julian said.

“Bigger than War and Peace,” Max replied.

“I have read it,” Paul announced, knocking the ashes out of his pipe.

“And you felt it slightly overdone?”

“Completely. It made me cry. It’s the best goddam best novel ever written in the twentieth century.”

“Thank you,” Max said, delighted. “Since the minute you opened your mouth, I’ve been trying not to tell you you’re a bag of wind. You’re all right”.

Philip found the book extremely difficult, but impossible not to discard. He kept it in the bathroom, reading steadily in it. He knew the author, Mr. Lionel Britton, had overwritten but refrained from skipping as much as possible lest he miss one of the frequent flashes of towering irony directed at the blind forces intent upon the destruction of the insectlike hero, Arthur Phelps. Arthur, a super-human Oliver Twist, gained Philip’s undying sympathy in his struggles to gain minuscule creature comforts such as cooling his inflamed feet on his brass bedposts after a day of running the London streets delivering books from one bookstore to another, reading meanwhile whatever lay closest to his hand.

The book made an indelible impression, partly because of its subject matter and also because he knew Max worked at Kemer’s [a New York bookshop]; the mustiness of the store, the Londonish feel of Fourth Avenue, the dirt of Greenwich Village, and his own good fortune to have been born so high in the world made him rail at Julian to forget Slameroo! [a play he's working on] long enough to crack into Hunger and Love.

After a hundred pages Julian gave up.

“Lissen,” he said in unconscious aping of Pop, “you call this life? I’d rather be an African cannibal” (2).

(1) Simon Blumenfeld, Jew Boy (London: Cape, 1935; repr. Lawrence & Wishart, 1986), p. 245.

(2) Peter Martin, The Building (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1960), pp. 77–78.

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