It’s no secret that the novels I tend to like are by women, about women, and (some would say) for women – just think of the Provincial Lady, the novels of Jane Austen, and any number of other examples. Of course, my favourite novel is by a man (Miss Hargreaves) but I don’t think anybody would guess that from reading it. And yet, dear reader, I seem to be developing an affection for a new variety of British literature: men of the 1940s.
The first Proper Grown Up novel I ever read (besides teenage books and the odd Agatha Christie) was Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the relatively late age of 13. I loved it then, and I loved it on re-reading it a few years ago. It’s entirely plausible that my tastes would have developed along Orwellian lines first, rather than wavering off – but better late than never, I have discovered a deep admiration for quite a few novels of the downtrodden, 1940s, lower-middle-class-hero[ine] variety. Most notably Patrick Hamilton’s extremely brilliant The Slaves of Solitude – and it was my love of this novel which led Dee (from LibraryThing’s Virago Modern Classics group) to send me a distinctly non-Virago novel: Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross.
A long intro to a short book – Of Love and Hunger (which takes its title from Auden and MacNeice’s Letters From Ireland) concerns Richard Fanshawe, a vacuum cleaner salesman who is always in debt and never in luck. I don’t believe the novel has a ‘message’ (it’s too sophisticated for that) but this quotation does rather set the tone:
Straker said: “Doesn’t seem much place for fellows like us, does there?””No.””What I mean, we’re kind of out of things. Nobody seems to want us much. Fellows who’ve been out east, I mean. We don’t seem to belong any more.”
Fanshawe has spent some time ‘out east’, and found that the return home is not a welcome for heroes. He is stuck in a dead end job, behind with the rent on his flat, and without any particularly close friends – but, before you vow never to read a word of Of Love and Hunger, this isn’t a particularly despondent novel. Maclaren-Ross was a few years too early to be an Angry Young Man, and instead is one who embraces the bohemian, and shows the fundamental ordinariness of man. Not the fundamental goodness – Fanshawe is not good – but nor is he bad. He lives day to day, trying to earn his keep (and, if possible, keep his keep), and being friendly with people when he gets the chance.
One of the people he befriends is Sukie, who is (I quote the blurb) ‘dark, desirable – and married to his friend’. Which makes the novel sound a bit like a love triangle – and, although it is a bit, it’s not pivotal. More important, to my mind, are the men he meets through work. There are some very amusing depictions of the bureaucracy and farce of vacuum selling that reminded me of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (albeit rather less hyperbolic) and I had a soft spot for Heliotrope – larger than life and twice as crooked – who is full of gusto and deceit, but a friendly face (and prolific offerer of raw onions.)
For the most part, nothing momentous happens. Maclaren-Ross depicts an ordinary life that can’t get much better and won’t get much worse – the daily trundle to keep the wolf from the door, and the lack of ambition or drive that means Fanshawe will never be a rags-to-riches story (not least because he’s never been as low as ‘rags’ implies). But somehow Of Love and Hunger isn’t hopeless. It isn’t a celebration of the everyday, or raging against it, but simply a depiction of it – and it is the truly great writers who can show us the ordinary, and wish to do no more. I’m used to many exceptionally good (and not so good) writers doing that when ‘the ordinary’ is a tea table in a drawing room – I’ve only recently started finding them elsewhere.
It’s always nice, not to mention a little ego-boosting, to read an introduction and discover that one has had the same thoughts as the Noted Expert (in this case, D.J. Taylor, who writes cogently and informatively, all too rare in introductions). I read it after I’d finished the novel, of course, and was pleased to see that he also mentioned Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell. Of course, it was really Dee who spotted the connection, and she was right. And fans of those writers will find much to admire in Of Love and Hunger.