Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Neil Fulwood on Alan Sillitoe's Seaton family

“You left England one person and came back another … " Meet Brian Seaton – Arthur’s older brother. Older and wiser? Probably. More sensitive? Comparatively. But a Seaton through and through. The fortunes, or otherwise, of the Seaton brothers are charted across four novels which punctuate the six decades of Alan Sillitoe’s literary career.
Before Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been even been published in 1958, Alan had written a massive chunk of what would become his third novel, Key to the Door. Eventually published in 1961, Key to the Door details Brian Seaton’s childhood, his poverty stricken family background, his ill-advised marriage at a young age, and his service in Malaya as a wireless operator.
In 1989, Alan continued the saga with The Open Door, now reprinted by Five Leaves. A quarter of a century gap in writing, but this volume picks up almost immediately after Key to the Door. Brian’s about to get demobbed and he’s having mixed feelings about a return to civvy street. He’s pretty sure his wife’s found herself a new fella, and his experiences of travel have set the horizons of his world-view a tad wider than Nottingham. But a call back to the MO’s office sets Brian off along a different and unexpected path. An x-ray suggests a shadow on his lung.
And so Brian finds himself in a sanatorium, where the diagnosis is confirmed: TB. During his lengthy recuperation, aided by an affair with one of the nursing staff, Brian’s burgeoning intellectualism solidifies into an overwhelming desire to become a writer. Even the reader least acquainted with the facts of Alan’s life will know that he served in Malaya, as a radio operator, and received a disability pension from the RAF after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He lived abroad for about a decade, eking this money out frugally, and dedicated himself to writing. The Open Door takes Brian to the cusp of a similar lifestyle.
There’s an academic work to be written on the autobiographical nature of The Open Door, and it would be fascinating to parse out the actual from the invented. But it’s a mistake to redact any reading of the novel in terms of the equation Brian Seaton = Alan Sillitoe. Brian is as rounded and immediate a character as Arthur, and while there is something of Alan in both of them, Brian and Arthur remain very different.
Alan concluded the Seaton saga with Birthday in 2001, although A Man of his Time, published in 2004, can be seen as a prequel of sorts. Birthday reunites Arthur and Brian in their autumn years, Arthur still belligerent despite the family tragedy he’s dealing with and Brian’s literary ambitions diluted by his success as a writer of sitcoms rather than the world-changing novelist the Brian of The Open Door wants to be.
Birthday is a wry, nostalgic, mature work but it suffered from being marketed as “the sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Just as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the definitive Arthur Seaton novel, The Open Door is where the story of Brian Seaton finds its fullest artistic expression.
The novel never loses sight of Brian’s working class background, nor is there anything arty-farty in the depiction of Brian’s journey towards the completion of his first novel. The novelist within a novel can often be a tedious device, but Brian’s experiences are grounded firmly in the reality of his experience overseas, his illness, and his difficulty in shaking off his past and the various mistakes that clutter it. The Open Door also contents some finely-honed perceptions on the nature and craft of writing.

“He only knew who he was when with other people … Confidence and enthusiasm led him to believe that he succeeded more times than not.”
If we carry over the autobiographical elements of The Open Door to its comments on the art of writing, then this passage is both a truthful reflection of writing as an onerous craft, and an exercise in self-deprecation. Alan Sillitoe succeeded more times than not; succeeded in understanding the psyche of his characters; succeeded in capturing the flavours and idioms that define a time and a place; and succeeded, again and again, in creating literary works that were honest and clear-sighted. The Open Door rightfully stands among the best of them.

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