Friday, May 29, 2009

The Beauty of Arnold Bennett

Neglected master whom we should be reading

The poetry section of my local Waterstone's is definitely improving - though contained in two small columns of shelves, it has a good number of new collections from a range of presses.

Of course, downstairs there are oceans of fiction. But when I looked recently I was surprised to see they had not a single copy of a single novel by Arnold Bennett - neither on the A-Z shelves nor in the 'classics' section. (I put that word in scare-quotes because, while poetry and cookery and travel and what-not can be defined by subject matter or formal features, the definition of classics is a bit more nebulous, including: books published in the Penguin and OUP classics series; anything that's old and has recently been adapted for film or TV; anything old produced in a luxury edition – I don't blame Waterstone's, by the way.)

Bennett's reputation seems to have disappeared. I always thought of him as one of the big novelists whom I would read at some point. But now I've got round to it, it seems that nobody else is interested. It's odd, because he's a really impressive writer, capable of some brilliant moments (and, admittedly, some slightly lame ones too).

So far I've only read one and a half of his books. The Card is a sort of Sunday-evening-TV comic pastoral. The Five-Towns setting is the thing: rich, charming and nostalgic. It's true that the plot is flawed – the same pattern is repeated over and over without significant variation – and I wonder if this might be the case throughout Bennett's work: strong setting, weaker plot. Answers on a postcard, please.

Clayhanger, which I'm halfway through now, is a different ball game. The plot is stronger, but perhaps still secondary to the phenomenal setting. Again, that setting is the Five Towns, of course, and Bennett's treatment of it encompasses physical, social, political and historical details. As in The Card, there's a pastoral feel, but this time it's complicated by a contrary vein of grim-faced naturalism (the chapter where he describes Darius Clayhanger's life as a child worker could be straight out of Zola, or George Moore), with the odd socio-political comment thrown in when you least expect it. The total effect is hardly of straightforward realism (it's too affectionate and at times cartoonish for that), but the opposition of sober criticism and affectionate nostalgia creates a vivid and convincing picture.

Take chapter three, where Bennett describes the Clayhangers' printing shop and surrounding streets:

Edwin came steeply out of the cinder-strewn back streets by Woodisun Bank [hill] into Duck Square, nearly at the junction of Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street. A few yards down Woodisun Bank, cocks and hens weere scurrying with necks horizontal, from all quarters, and were even flying, to the call of a little old woman who threw grain from the top step of her porch. On the level of the narrow pavement stood an immense constable, clad in white trousers, with a gun under his arm for the killing of mad dogs; he was talking to the woman, and their two heads were at exactly the same height. On a pair of small double gates near the old woman's cottage were painted the words, 'Steam Printing Works. No admittance except on business'. And from as far as Duck Square could be heard the puff-puff which proved the use of steam in this works to which idlers and mere pleasure-seekers were forbidden access.

There are two pages or so more of this, absorbing to read but too lengthy to quote. Then:

The history of human manners is crunched and embedded in the very macadam of that part of the borough, and the burgesses unheedingly tread it down every day and talk gloomily about the ugly smoky prose of industrial manufacture. And yet the Dragon Hotel, safely surviving all revolutions by the mighty virtue and attraction of ale, stands before them to remind them of the interestingness of existence.

This principle and technique, showing the landscape as a historical record by describing its familiarity and everydayness in detail, reminds me of Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival and, particularly in the attraction to architecture (i the novel Edwin wanted to be an architect), of WG Sebald.

It's not flawless. The extras (such as the old womand and the constable) are excellent – part of the setting really – and the main characters have depth and sympathy, but some of the minor characters have a kind of sub-Dickensian simplicity which dulls their interest. For example, you have to try to ignore the rather fawning depiction of the middle-class Orgreaves, which I rather think is supposedly to reflect ironically Edwin's view of them, but which comes across as a bit Enid Blyton.

But such wobbles are worth it for the cumulative sense of a historical world, punctuated suddenly by little, pithy sentences with great imaginative leverage. For example, two hundred-odd pages in, there's a big event to celebrate the Centenary of Sunday schools (trust me). Everybody's going, except the cook:

Families must eat. And if Mrs Nixon was stopped by duty from assisting at this Centenary, she must hope to be more at liberty for the next.

Such sly, concise, elegant social comment. And then, on the next page, everybody's dressed up for the big day. We get a sudden glimpse of the direction the novel might have taken were it straight naturalism:

The humblest was crudely gay. Pawnbrokers had full tills and empty shops, for twenty-four hours.

And then, a paragraph later, on of the church processions passes, including a 'lorry' (float):

and the horses of the lorry were ribboned and their manes and tails tightly plaited; on that grand day they could not be allowed to protect themselves against flies; they were sacrificial animals.

Such modern, unexpected, imaginative sympathy. Bennett's a great writer. Read him.


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