Boy, by James Hanley (preface by Anthony Burgess, notes and appendix by Chris Gostick), Oneworld Classics, 300 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-1847490063
There have, of course, been a great many authors hailed as geniuses and then consigned either after death or, just as likely, after that difficult second novel to the dusty archives of canonical anonymity. James Hanley (1897-1985) is not quite one of these. His sheer profusion might be one reason: with almost sixty novels, short story collections, plays, critiques and an autobiography published between 1930 and 1981 (and that excludes various special editions, uncollected plays and extensive short critical works), his shelf mark is hardly that of a one-hit wonder or might-have-been. The compelling nature of his subject matter could be another: Hanley wrote of the sea, of soldiers, and of both rural and urban working life with a vivid, striking authenticity.
His fans, moreover, are varied and luminous. EM Forster and TE Lawrence were tremendous supporters. Richard Aldington, war novelist and a founding poet of the Imagist movement, writes in the preface to Hanley’s The Last Voyage (1931) that he “is essentially in the tradition of artists of human life and suffering”, whose “relentless honesty, his vision of the human condition, his compassion for the down-and-out” is unparalleled. George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Henry Green and latterly Nick Hornby have celebrated (as Burgess deems it) the “spare, rough-hewn style, [the] unusual power and compassion” of his works, which compare favourably to the “postures” of Hemingway. John Cowper Powys, a good friend, declared that Hanley was a genius and that no one else after Melville wrote of the sea with Hanley’s power or understanding. Paul Theroux recently lamented the rarity of Hanley’s titles on the American book market and Alan Ross, a long-time admirer and sometimes publisher of Hanley, writes in The Last Voyage’s 1997 reissue about his taut, strained, unsettling imagery: “there are only interchanging fragments, glass into ice, dream into nightmare, beauty into ugliness”. Perhaps most impressively, William Faulkner effusively endorsed Hanley as a “chronicler of nomads and potential escapees, a writer who travelled the spaces of sea and consciousness” and who had a universal appeal. But though Seán Ó Faoláin was happy to claim him as Irish, for Faulkner Hanley’s writing was “not British, not American, not South African, not Ebury Street, not Chicago: just language like a good clean cyclone”.
Indeed, Hanley has had many champions: deemed a “writers’ writer”, critics and authors alike agree that there was something uncanny, veracious, difficult and often ingenious about his work. And yet despite such attempts to establish him among the twentieth century’s greatest writers, his literary reputation remains a delicate thing, barely sustained but for a few critical studies and small-batch reprints of his novels issued once or twice a decade at the behest of a zealous academic eager to claim for him the esteem he certainly deserves. Unfailingly, each reprint receives critical admiration; just as unfailingly, it sells underwhelmingly.
One of the most frequently reprinted volumes is Boy, Hanley’s 1931 semi-autobiographical novel of a young lad’s brief life on the high seas, again reissued this April by Oneworld Classics with extensive and excellent biographical material by Chris Gostick. As Gostick notes, the fact that Boy continually bears the moniker “semi-autobiographical” is unsurprising – Hanley’s background lends itself to narrative. Born to impoverished Irish Catholics, he ran away to sea in 1915, later jumping ship in Canada to join its Expeditionary Force and fight in the First World War, whereupon he was gassed. Discharged, he went to Liverpool and worked on the railways full-time in order to support his late-night writing regime until the publication of his first novel, Drift, in 1930. After Drift, he became a full-time writer, married a tattered aristocrat, represented Britain at the 1935 Paris Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, migrated between London and rural north Wales, wrote radio and stage plays, and by his death in 1985 was deemed “one of the best-known little-known writers at work” by Time magazine.
A terse, stark novel, in reality Boy echoed Hanley’s life only inasmuch as it featured an adolescent living the sailor’s life on the margins. Fearon, the eponymous hero (if indeed such a passive figure might be called such), hails from a working-class Scouse household with a loutish, bestial father and a clingy, coarse mother. After being forced by his parents to leave his promising school career at thirteen for a grunt job on the docks, Fearon runs away to sea, where he is abused, beaten, raped and, on shore leave, goaded into sleeping with a prostitute, from whom he catches syphilis. As the disease takes hold of the boy, the captain of his ship, previously a father figure of sorts, eventually euthanises Fearon like a sick dog.
As might be expected, Boy is not pleasant reading, but it is good. Filled with sailors’ jargon and slang, Hanley’s steel-tipped prose reverberates like a hammer striking iron, and has in speech, in thought and in outlook an authenticity that makes even such a remote context seem immediate and visceral. Thankfully, for a book so steeped in destitution and flecked with social realism, it avoids the naturalism of, say, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Girl of the Streets or the proselytising of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: while class, poverty and overall circumstance certainly lead to Fearon’s demise, so too do his own weakness and the human failures of those around him.
Hanley has a wonderfully keen ear for dialect, individual speech patterns, and for humanising the inhumane. When the drunken cook, for example, is reprimanded for raping the boy, he responds: “S’orlright. S’orlright! Fiss off. Go on. Don’t be worrying me. Anyhow that kid’s all right. You bet … Chuck it, mate. Chuck it, mate.” Even amid the most sordid situations, a grim humour arises – in a book otherwise devoid of poetic euphemism, the boy thinks of a prostitute’s vagina as her “philosophic centre”.
Most famous of all, however, are Hanley’s descriptions of seafaring life. Wry, hard-nosed, and colloquial, the cadence of his language echoes its setting:
But the ship was merely a hulk and nothing more, a kind of weapon with which an order can squeeze the guts out of labour and extract from it just sufficient to keep the average shareholder from getting really low-spirited …The crew had worked like Trojans. And below the engineer had goaded on his men, driven them, jeered at them. Something had to be done. The sea could not act thus without serious reactions. And as one could not chastise her, then the men must be chastised. The men must be made to work harder. The firemen must extract every ounce of energy from her coal, that was not much better than dirt itself. Not a man must wear a look of contentment. Everybody must suffer for the caprices of the sea.
More chilling is Hanley’s cynical take on interpersonal relationship. Just as he presents the human side of the seemingly inhuman, so too can he twist even the most generous act of kindness into cruelty and callousness, reducing jokes and smiles into rictus facades. Rescued from the coalscuttle in which he stowed away, Fearon’s first impression of the ship’s steward is heroic. “The steward had by his efforts broken down the hitherto impossible barrier that appeared to exist between them. All the coldness, darkness, fear, rats, hunger and terror seemed to have been blown away by that single smile.” Two pages later, after the steward notices the boy’s “wine-dark skin, the fine eyes, the delicateness of the features” and the boy smells the steward’s alcoholic exhalation, the momentary bond is fragmented into the grotesqueries at which Hanley so excels. The amiable steward’s hands transform into “paws”, his noises become “grunts like a well-filled sow”, and the bestial essence of humanity resurfaces: “all the other things that went to make up the steward as a man became manifest. His eyes were bloodshot, his was a straggling moustache, his face was bloated, and his neck a violent red.” Indeed, although Boy employs a largely realist tone, Hanley’s evocations of alienation are wholly modernist – all moments of unity are rendered brutally transient.
It is exclusively in these rare but abrasive acts of extremity that Hanley permits himself to employ the sea to metaphorical effect. But he never carries it too far, even undercutting such imagery as it is evoked. When Fearon is abused by the steward, for instance, “the seas heaved a frenzied poem … so that each time she pitched the poop appeared to be lifted shock out of the water by a gigantic hand. In that moment the roar of the engines in the after wheelhouse drowned even the roars of the waters and the wind” … and yet Hanley immediately returns our attention to the boy’s unpoetic reality: “But for the boy the only sound was the incessant grunting of this man on top of him.”
Still more arrestingly, as Fearon succumbs to syphilitic hallucination, “a veritable fury of sound seemed to deluge the room wherein he lay. A powerful wind had sprung up. The ship heaved. The crockery rattled, the ventilators shook.” But as the storm climaxes and Fearon’s death nears, Hanley rejects full-on pathetic fallacy. While the sea appears to surge mightily and tear at the ship’s seams, its description is revealed as largely symptomatic, relative: “To Fearon, all these things had changed. Everything was now a voice in his ears. The ventilators rattled, ‘BOY. BOY.’ … The ratlines whistled against the stays, ‘BOY. BOY.’ The engine hummed, ‘BOY. BOY.’ All these things appeared to the boy to have become suddenly humanized.”
Such intoxicating anthropomorphosis has the same subliminal resonance as A Passage to India’s Malabar caves and subcontinental soil (“the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion … they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices”). For Forster, such apostrophising is integral to his literariness. Hanley on the other hand employs it only for subversive effect, questioning the artifice of such devices even as he tests their limits. Thus, the idiosyncrasy of Fearon’s fantasy is highlighted not once but twice (“To Fearon …”, “all these things appeared to the boy…”) – in Hanley’s world, vulgar reality inevitably interrupts poetic fancy.
Boy is not a perfect book: one of Hanley’s earliest, it sometimes seems derivative or mannered, echoing Balzac and Chekhov and presenting an exaggerated blue-collar-ness. In a manner perhaps intended to demonstrate Fearon’s relative naivety or to satirise the poetic impulse as above, Hanley’s descriptions occasionally edge tediously towards cliché (waves like galloping horses, Fearon’s mother sitting “like a statue in stone”). And it is most certainly a difficult read existentially if not aesthetically, although that is no criticism.
Nevertheless, Boy is hugely compelling and deserving of far more critical study than it has to date received. Beyond providing a vivid record of a marginalised history, the novel seamlessly interweaves realist method with modernist ethos and, in its scepticism towards traditional narrative conceits even inches towards a nascent, very forward-looking postmodernism. Yet it is also very accessible, relating in plain, stark language a gripping and tragic story.
That Boy would become Hanley’s best-known book is understandable in hindsight. While itsliterary strengths are undeniable, its publishing history – given its taboo-defying nature – is irresistible. Boriswood, Hanley’s publishers at the time, were attracted to the book’s stark realism and to Hanley’s unusual background and the 1931 edition was marketed as heavily as possible. Minimalist in design, its cover features a simple typeface with a single vertical line and a prominent endorsement from TE Lawrence, an excerpt from a letter to Hanley wherein he commends Boy as “very remarkable … Your writing is just a transparent medium, through which what you want to say slips invisibly and silently into my mind. I like that: it seems to me the essence of style.” The recommendation is signed, in a type size almost as big as the title, “Col. LAWRENCE”.
Lawrence’s endorsement, however, proved unavailing. The first edition trickled off of the shelves slowly, unaided by an unusually critical TLS review that deemed the story “unrealistic” for its lack of an uplifting message: “Power the story has, but it stirs to no mood of acceptance of life, only to a sickened repudiation”. Hanley, meanwhile, grew disenchanted with Boriswood’s low sales and signed on to Chatto & Windus. Later, Boriswood censored a few phrases with asterisks (thus implying a vulgarity the original seldom contains) and reissued Boy with a sexed-up pulp cover that predictably sold much better – that is until a single complaint was brought against it in 1934 for obscenity because of the subtly described references to sexual abuse. Although Hanley was mortified by the charge, the obscenity trial became something of a cause célèbre, with Forster addressing the 1935 Paris Writers’ Congress and urging one and all to rally belatedly to Boy’s defence. (As James Armstrong notes in his “The Publication, Prosecution and Re-Publication of James Hanley’s Boy”, this might have had something to do with its portrayal of male rape: beyond his enjoyment of Hanley’s prose and his abhorrence of censorship laws, Forster’s own suppressed desire to write about homosexual experience might well have spurred his solidarity.)
After Boriswood was fined £400 in an agonisingly public trial, it tried to recoup its losses by selling the book to Paris’s Obelisk Press, which reissued Boy in 1934 with a risqué cover featuring a heavily stylised erotic dancer. Hanley was so dismayed by its overall reception and trashy reputation that he refused to endorse any further publication of it during his lifetime. Since his death in 1985, however, ithas been reissued three more times, with each edition’s marketing flirting slightly with its outré sexual realism while enthusiastically emphasising the ever increasing critical reverence for Hanley’s stark, brave style.
Despite Boy’s resurrection, however, there have been only a handful of articles and monographs and just one full-length critical study (University of Swansea professor John Fordham’s James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class. Popular success eluded him, even amid the aftershocks of the obscenity trial (scandal, of course, being always a hot seller). Moreover, though heralded during his lifetime by the greatest writers of the twentieth century as easily their equal, he was to continually worry about the next royalty cheque. Those who have read Hanley have only praise for him and wonder how it is his reputation still flickers so dimly.
The answer to this question has multiple aspects, but one might begin by noting that Hanley was frequently his own worst enemy. For a writer whose books were often, as with Boy, very eye-catching, he had a recalcitrant relationship to the limelight. Although he engaged occasionally in literary politics and society – vocally attending the same Paris congress at which Forster so eloquently defended Boy, for example – he was generally regarded as a literary recluse. He once wrote to fan Frank Harrington that a “creative writer’s real home lies on the fringe of society. I can see far better, and more distant, looking in, rather than looking out.” When he first moved to London he camped out in the house of Progressive Bookshop owner Charles Lahr, who sold illicit copies of Boy alongside Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and yet did not attend Lahr’s famous left-wing book forums and discussion groups. While he did write for The Spectator, New Britain, The Left Review, The Criterion andthe TLS, and copiously for BBC drama, his avoidance of literary London’s social side may well have influenced both his publishing record and his popularity.
Hanley’s workingman background could also have been a factor in both his discomfort with salon culture and his uphill struggle for widespread recognition. John Fordham suggests that his continual semi-obscurity might in part be attributable to his working class upbringing and persistent class-based themes – not, he suggests, the most popular wares to peddle, particularly when combined with a demanding prose style. But Fordham’s Marxist analysis of the works often seems one-sided and over-extended: Hanley’s writings probe psychological extremities and the difficulties of interpersonal interaction with a striking clarity that begs for an approbation which transcends class politics.
Such an analysis also overlooks the fact that several publishers tried to package Hanley’s blue collar background as a selling point. As an autodidact and working class immigrant made good, Hanley was a publicist’s dream, and his biography was (and is) certainly employed by publishers anxious to shore up yet another round of lukewarm sales. Macmillan requested that the last of his volumes in a multi-book contract might be a memoir so as to raise his profile. But Hanley had a deeply troubled relationship with personal promotion, particularly when it meant employing his background as a sensationalised selling tactic. “A book must stand on its own, make its own way,” he repeatedly told his son.
Aware of his back story’s marketability, Hanley obliged Macmillan’s request only reluctantly, producing Broken Water: An Autobiographical Excursion in 1937, a volume which insightfully examines his peripatetic definitions of homeland and nationality, his literary-aesthetic ideology and influences and the depths of his commercial tetchiness. “Excursion” is an apt description of the memoir, as it resists the boundaries of autobiography as stridently as Hanley himself rejected attempts to pigeonhole him as “working class”, “Irish-Catholic”, “Northern”, “rough-hewn” or any other category employable in the service of advertisement.
Fierce and playful, Broken Water opens in Dublin, with the boy Hanley ascending Howth Hill with his grandmother and “petit bourgeois”-turned-sailor father after a slapstick voyage through Dublin’s streets in the hands of a beer-sodden coachman. From the vantage point of Howth, he rhapsodises not about the cityscape but the sea, and vows to reject his grandmother’s demand that he not follow his father’s path to “hang by his shirt tails to the top-gallant mast, or whatever the devil they call those queer things they have on ships”. He goes on to assess the Irish coastline in terms that he will later apply to England: less sentimental homeland, more maritime gateway to a tumultuous, horizon-expanding world of adventure and struggle. So far, so Conradian – more so as he ironises any romanticisation of the sea with a Conradian persistence. (The comparison with Conrad haunted Hanley throughout his career, although it often worked in his favour: Anthony Burgess notes that while Conrad’s seafaring modernism “stood on the Edwardian brink”, Hanley’s was superlatively “full-blooded”.)
But it is to a Joycean mode that Hanley eventually turns: after depicting his nomadic and violent adolescence, Broken Water eventually confronts the country he had left as a boy. Indeed Irishness receives special inquiry here, echoing Joyce’s Portrait in its protagonist’s quests for self-definition, self-reliance and a homeland – pursuits that self-consciously recur throughout Hanley’s corpus. For Hanley, reared by an expatriate father who revered and deeply mourned Parnell, Ireland is more than the sum of its politics. Near the conclusion of his memoir, presumably set in the mid-1920s, he upbraids his father for condoning the violent aftershocks of independence:
I say now, and for the last time, I can’t see the significance in a man shooting another man in cold blood and then calmly going to mass immediately afterwards. And all their cock shots at England leave me cold. I’m not a bit interested. Of course you’ll up and say, ‘Ah! But when you’ve learned your history properly you’ll realise they were in the right.’ It’s quite illogical. I call that stuff third-rate gangsterdom, and you can go on deifying it until you’re blue in the face. In Ireland the grass grows greener than in any other country in the wide world. That’s a lovely thing to think about, isn’t it? Well, then, isn’t it a big step down from that to putting a bullet in a man’s lug and shouting, ‘Ireland’s saved!’? I don’t agree with you there, and never will. Mother doesn’t either, and she knows the colours of all the stones in Cobh, and even the size of the mackerel they catch there, but she loves the stones and the fish and the green grass and the great quiet you get there, and that’s Irish too. No. I wouldn’t speak to my cousin because we never get anywhere at all. And he can shout and rave till he’s sick, but it won’t shift those two destroyers out of Bere Island, and that is that …
For Hanley, the act of writing usurps acts of sectarianism. Ireland, then, becomes located not in political particulars but rather in the descriptive physicalities of place: that green grass, “the colours of all the stones in Cobh”, “the fish and the … great quiet”. His call, he claims with the fervency of young Daedalus, is to the pen, not the sword – a proud assertion rendered self-deprecating by Hanley’s father’s reported response: “yes, well, you’re a queer sort of lad”.
Whether these pacifist representations of place are taken to convey political intelligence, defeatism or apathy will depend on the interpreter. But what it does, perhaps, suggest is the landscaped memory of the exile, a matured nostalgia as distinct from his youthful maritime wanderlust as his Liverpool residence was from Howth Hill. What it also exposes is a refusal, as evident in Boy, to romanticise or over-elaborate. Neither Irish politics nor place is heroic; neither is poetic. His artistry is in his unfiltered directness and generosity towards readerly interpretation: for Hanley, the quietude is just quietude, the mackerel are of unspecified size, the stones are of unspecified colour.
Indeed, for an autobiography, the book sometimes reads very impersonally and inexactly, as if descriptive detail or the universal muddles of biographical trauma impede the pace and tone of narrative. “I did not see my mother for seven and a half months, my father for nearly two years, my eldest brother I never saw at all,” Hanley summarises telegraphically, then resumes character-based seafaring yarns. A sometimes joyful and careless, sometimes artistically self-conscious book, Broken Water is a strange hybrid of the Boy’s Own tales, a Joycean Künstlerroman and the aggrandised ramblings of the loquacious old drunk dribbling onto the bar. It is well and convincingly evoked: as Hanley matures so too do his reflections, interests, aesthetics and politics. It is also studiously literary: he sees Strindberg’s pariah slumping down a Liverpool Street, Hugo’s “symbolical man washed overboard” horrifically realised in the drowning of his ship’s steward. (From this trauma, he takes refuge in Don Quixote, observing of the novel: “I began all over again. I suppose I had to empty myself fully before I could get back to normal again.”)
And yet for all of Hanley’s consistent refusal to prettify either his own life or that of his characters, what is remarkable about Broken Water is the contrast between the beautifully minimalist narration and the poetic license of its overall premise. It becomes apparent that the memoir is tongue-in-cheek, at once playing up to his publishers’ attempts to hail him as a diamond-in-the-rough reformed old tar and meticulously contradicting such a reading by emphasising its inaccuracy. Although there are few hints of this within the text itself, Broken Water’s narrative differs significantly from the biographical record. It is the most creative, disingenuous and disconcerting kind of autobiography, blending fiction and fact with a playfulness in a pointedly sarcastic reply to those publishers seeking to capitalise upon his background.
All assertions of aesthetic or political ideology must accordingly be read as ambiguous. Take his own sense of Irishness: though Hanley often claimed he was born in Dublin in 1901, Chris Gostick’s investigarions reproduced in his notes to Oneworld’s Boy reveals that he was actually born in 1897 in Liverpool and that his Irish-Catholic family had been established there since the 1880s, leaving it likely that the pilgrimage to Howth Hill was heavily fictionalised. Hanley’s pacifist stance on Irish politics must be regarded as similarly complex: one might read it as twenty-twenty hindsight, as a pandering fabrication for his English audience or as a telling summation of the priorities of the second-generation immigrant.
His artistic ideology also resists easy categorisation: as a young worker, he hails the “poetry of the daily life of men” in a mode that borrows from primitivism, vorticism and straight-up social realism: “the hand that coils a rope, that hauls a weight from a hatch, writes his poem upon air and upon that minute life of this task. The core of all movement and rhythm has been revealed to me in such ways …” Later, however, the romanticisation of industrial gesture dissipates into the distressing decrepitude that inspired Boy:
my eye caught the drabness and greyness of a certain stone upon which it had fallen, and whilst I looked a boy passed me by. He was dragging a cart loaded with rope … and I saw the look in his eye and it was different to mine. It wasn’t the far away look, nor the wondering look, nor again the innocent look. Just a dull look, a dull staring at the grey stones.
And even though Hanley camps up his life at sea to the hilt, peppering the memoir with caddish rapscallions and cranky old helmsmen, he also quite factually complicates any reading of his much-vaunted background as exclusively working class. As confirmed in Gostick’s notes to Boy, Hanley was certainly a working man, but his father began life as a law clerk before hitting the seas, and his family on both sides was middle class and educated, if not particularly affluent. John Fordham in part acknowledges this, observing that, “the move to Liverpool produced an effect of ‘proletarianization’ on the migrant middle class, and the cherishing of a former status or lost heritage restores in some measure the loss of esteem that comes with the conferred identity of ‘immigrant’” (hence explaining perhaps the elder Hanley’s emerald-tinted spectacles). But to paint Hanley himself as working class is to forget that his family regularly attended theatre and concerts; that he often went to the opera with score in hand and played the piano excellently; that his early heroes were Gogol, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Strindberg and Zola; and that he had a literate, patient family (his brother Gerald also became a writer).
As read through the filter of Broken Water, Boy’s “semi-biographical” status erodes somewhat. Philip Roth once declared: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” There is certainly some of Roth’s insouciance in Hanley’s approach to life-writing. While Hanley did run away to sea and writes of it with an expert’s vividness, he did so at seventeen, not at thirteen, and he repeatedly rejected any suggestion that Boy’s still shocking depictions of male rape were based on his own experience.
Indeed what becomes most apparent when these two texts are read in parallel is how resistant Hanley is to glib categorisation, be it stylistic or biographic – claiming Irishness then rejecting its expectations, poeticising the worker only to dehumanise him pages later, writing of the modern(ist) industrial city as “fascinating” and coloured with all the “tapestry and texture and machinery and sounds of living” just before he calls it a “desert” and decries the “wilderness of brick and stone, all space choked by it”. With its dubious relationship to fact and its rollicking anecdotes, Hanley’s autobiography is about as close as he comes to accessible light entertainment – an irony that no doubt would not have escaped him.
In the end, however, even Broken Water’s charms failed to bolster Hanley’s ever-flagging sales, no doubt in small part because of his refusal to tailor his story as requested. But there are a few other factors to consider when diagnosing his anaemic sales. For one, his resistance to traditional generic expectations occasionally led to situations where his literary imagination proved difficult to reconcile with real world constraints – for instance, in writing a stage play, The Inner Journey (1966), which featured a red-haired dwarf in the lead (against all odds, it was performed to great success at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1969). His difficulties with publishers also stemmed not just from his resistance to advertisement, but also from his irritability and impatience – by his death he had either abandoned or been released from contracts with dozens of publishers, which burnt myriad bridges and helped him little in an industry often characterised by insider sycophancy. His disaffection for the editorial process also did him no favours.
At his best, Hanley is a model of spare, striking precision and eloquent restraint – take, for instance, Sailor’s Song (1943), a dramatic dialogue between four sailors on a lifeboat whose memories drift deliriously between wars; The Closed Harbour (1952), a potent psychological study of a land-bound captain in Marseilles; or The Welsh Sonata (1954), a prose-poetic exploration of Welsh dialect which Victoria Glendinning in 1970 reviewed as “echoing” themes of Dylan Thomas … to which Hanley furiously responded that The Welsh Sonata was published before anyone had ever heard of Under Milk Wood. At his worst, however, his prose becomes distended, flatulent, as evident in his penultimate work, Dream Journey (1976) and in some instalments of his epic, slightly Victorian series The Furys.
Hanley’s prodigious output might also have flooded the markets somewhat. “James Hanley is oddly and wrongly neglected,” wrote Val Cunningham in a 1978 Times Literary Supplement review of his last story, A Kingdom. “The academy won’t let students have him … Left-wing orthodoxy doesn’t want him either … It’s the whiff of hackery, of course, about the too prolific author… [but] From first to last he’s kept up a fictional intensity that hacks never manage: a fiction strikingly powered by the energies violence affords.” Such prolificacy was further compromised by his inability to resist the late-life temptation to recycle previous themes and, indeed, whole chunks of text. The entirety of No Directions (1943), for example, is cut and pasted into the middle of 1973’s Dream Journey, a contextualising that significantly distracts from the brilliance of the original.
No Directions, incidentally, is Hanley at his very best and most ground-breaking. A terse novel set in a Chelsea house during a single night of the London Blitz, the novel takes many of its cues from the high modernism that preceded it. Like Woolf’s The Waves or Joyce’s Ulysses, it relies on an immediacy of stimuli, depicting shapes, colours, movements, small details and insignificant utterances. Dialogue-heavy, it refrains largely from narrative interpretation: one sees events through eyes uprooted from context and robbed of analysis, with the outside geopolitical tumult reduced into the anonymous, claustrophobic innards of a small house rocking on its cornerstones and brimming with alienated, individualistic strangers. It is, perhaps, one of the most formally and thematically progressive works to arise out of wartime. Steeped in irony, No Directions pushes against the boundaries of high modernism until it attains a purely postmodern pose, testing and rejecting literary constructs with a nihilistic glee, conjuring the carnivalesque and grotesque with abandon, and deconstructing the notions of historical monument and neo-romantic rebirth that provide the foundation of much WWII artistry. Uncompromisingly existential, Hanley’s narrative arrives at a Beckett-like aporia, with survivors relying on the touching comforts of empty pleasantries to stave off the echoing, encroaching void.
Contemporary reviews of it were justly complimentary: the TLS hailed it as conveying with maximum authenticity the “elemental terror” of the Blitz; Robert Hewison later noted that it was Hanley’s vicious, maddening, epigrammatic ambiguities that so accurately conveyed the “surreal horror and muddle” of bombardment. “As the Luftwaffe Blitzed London, so too did Hanley Blitz English,” Anthony Burgess wrote, adding that No Directions “remains one of the best records we have of what it was like to be a civilian under fire. It is, of course, profoundly disturbing.”
These assessments of No Directions hint at a final explanation for Hanley’s shaky hold on posterity. Despite his alienating disregard for literary society, his at best strained relationship to editorial and marketing protocol and his admirable but difficult defiance of generic categorising, Hanley’s continual struggle for recognition is largely the fault of his artistic integrity – of his sometimes brave, sometimes foolish disregard for public appetite. His writing of the thirties rejuvenated an unpopular (occasionally social-) realism, albeit in an often abrasive and forlorn guise. His works of the forties, fifties and even sixties applied postmodern irony, dark psychological insight and visceral grotesquery to situations at once sympathetically familiar and terrifyingly extreme. Finally, in the last two decades before his death Hanley volte-faced into an oddly retrogressive if intelligent mysticism predicated on the verdant Welsh countryside, a mode similarly (and thankfully) unappealing to prevailing literary tastes.
His Second World War fiction is, perhaps, the most extreme example of Hanley’s dissonance with reader preferences. While critics loved his writings of the period, the public was busy taking refuge in the Waverly novels and bodice rippers. No Directions is to Blitz fiction what Francis Bacon’s early “Crucifixion” triptych was to wartime visual art – horrific, jarring, dehumanising and the antithesis of comforting. Although the historical comparison is far from proportionate, the qualities WG Sebald commended in post-Dresden author Gert Ledig might also be true of Hanley: he “break[s] through the cordon sanitaire cast by society around the death zones of the dystopian incursions that actually occurred” and, like Ledig, gained only a small readership for his efforts. Indeed Hanley’s wartime radio plays, which were censored by the BBC for their “overly-realistic” portrayals of ordinary sailors’ and soldiers’ lives, were deemed by one producer so demoralising that “Goebbels himself might have written them”.
Ultimately, Boy suffered a similar fate. As Burgess notes in his introduction, Hanley’s writing “is not easy reading; it offers no concessions to the middlebrow in search of a rattling good yarn”. (This is not quite true. Beyond the playful storytelling of Broken Water, Hanley’s narratives often are “rattling good yarns”, though couched in a desolate and often deconstructive framework.) Certainly, despite alternating attempts to assert its high- or lowbrow nature, the visceral forthrightness that is Boy’s strength might also explain its gradual disappearance. Its pessimistic portrait of humanity, outlined in such stark, simple language, offers a seasick, vertiginous journey without any promise of a quiet harbour for Fearon or for Hanley’s readers.
Whether Hanley’s shock value has diminished over time is debatable. Certainly his language is as fresh and his imagery as arresting to modern readers as it must have been to his contemporaries. But it is possible that our present distance from both the settings he represented with such stomach-jerking immediacy and the legacy of his authorial and publishing failures might allow reappraisal of his corpus with a bit less discomfort and prejudice. It is certainly long overdue. If so, Sailor’s Song, The Ocean, The Closed Harbour, The Last Voyage, and even Broken Water provide excellent starting points, all the better if – like Woolf’s ubiquitous oscillations of waves and tides – considered as part of an organic whole. (As Alan Ross writes, Hanley’s novels “are component parts of a single experience, swept by a powerful searchlight that moves about in time as well as space”.) No Directions, though different from Hanley’s ocean-going fare, still echoes the maritime novels’ pulsing cadences. While difficult, its innovation and poignant alienation reward persistence immeasurably.
Finally, despite its flaws and challenges, Boy itself is an accessible and gratifying way into Hanley’s oeuvre. Oneworld Classics’ new edition, with its lengthy and well-researched biographical apparatus and unexpurgated original text, will reward readers of all levels and interests and open the door wide for further studies. (I particularly look forward to editor Chris Gostick’s promised biography of Hanley.) Indeed, for all of its irony, violence and gristle, Boy also conveys a warm compassion. One critic praised Hanley thus: “He may expect nothing but squalor and betrayal, and he may be right. He may also find a common humanity which perhaps he never believed to exist. Mr Hanley’s novels put the case for both views equally … Of the greatness of his power, however, of the force of his pity, there can be no doubt.”
Hanley himself wrote that Boy sprung from his realisation that in the “midst of all that riot of colour and sound, the endeavour and courage and strength” of modern industrial life, “lay greyness”, the bleak reality of the stony-eyed boy he saw on the street. The resulting novel, despite its grim portraits of humanity in extremis, breathes life into that grey heart.
Kristin Anderson is a doctoral student at Exeter College, Oxford, where she tutors in modern English literature. Her doctoral research focuses on literary, historical and aesthetic representations of London during the Blitz. She is a contributing editor with the Oxonian Review of Books.