Complexity & Trauma

Little White Bull - British fiction in the 50s and 60s, John Muckle, (Shearsman)

This is the most interesting work of literary criticism that I've read for a long time, if indeed that's what it is, for John Muckle's commentaries on British fiction of the 50s and 60s have an unnerving capacity to relate 'fiction' to 'lived experience' in a manner which feels thoroughly original and engaging. This is a book which is part sociology, part 'self-involvement' and part a series of provocative challenges to what we think we know of the writings of that period and how this relates to the society of the day and its effect on the present time. This may all sound a little 'high-blown' but for anyone who can remember the writing, films and indeed, television of the 60s this book is a must-read, providing a strange sort of skewed nostalgia as well as fresh insights into the relations between different fictions and their points of origin, which essentially is the aftermath of WW2 and all the complexity and trauma that brief encapsulation suggests.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is the way that Muckle manages to cause different genre fictions to 'rub up against each other' and also his inclusion of such diverse and unexpected material which you don't see coming. His chapter on Leslie Thomas and The Virgin Soldiers, for example (like many, I suspect, I've seen the film but not read the novel on which it was based) is intriguing, both for the manner in which he explores the 'experimental' aspect of Thomas' work (James Joyce is cited by comparison) and also the way in which he reads a whole political critique into this novel about reluctant soldiers, a history of imperialism, woven with individual experience and written in a style which is often exploratory and necessarily experimental. Thus 'pulp fiction' can be as challenging and important as writing perceived as being Literary (big L) and Muckle's mixing of high art and popular culture, or rather his refusal to defer to the usual definitions, is an intriguing aspect of his work. Muckle is a writer who can embrace the avant-garde poetry scene while keeping his feet very much on the ground and at the same time being constantly on the alert for the bullshit factor.

Muckle's exploration of the world of science fiction and fantasy writing via the fictions of Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter and Brian Aldiss throws up some intriguing suggestions and also makes available an array of writing which many of us had not been seriously aware of. I've read very little of Aldiss' work, for example and this is clearly something I should remedy. Muckle's writing on Ballard tunes in with my own in the sense that I utterly admire his writing and his unique contribution to post-war fiction but also see him as something of a conservative, in a general political sense, a dystopian writer whose attraction to its glamour is also very much nervous of 'the mob'. This is putting it a bit brusquely and although Muckle's underlying focus is clearly a political one, his judgements on a writer's work are usually intended in the spirit of exploration and understanding, it seems to me, viewed from a working-class perspective, but well able to be self-critical and probing even when making a political point. Ballard's experience of growing up in Shanghai during WW2 clearly coloured his worldview, both in terms of the horrors men are capable of committing and of the consumerist glamour of a city which was juxtaposed with harsh poverty and a close proximity to death. I don't entirely share Muckle's somewhat negative view of Angela Carter's work though and see her magpie imagination as a strength rather than something of a flaw. I'd concede that there is a lot of pastiche in her writing but I don't view this as a problem.

Muckle seems to have read and watched everything from the period and is wonderful at evoking both his early response to a particular work, which is then analysed and thought about from a more recent perspective. His chapter on Barry Hines and
Kes (A Kestrel for a Knave), for example is exemplary. His introduction seems to be - as it was for me - Ken Loach's terrific film of the book, which led me to the fiction and I can still feel my reactions and thoughts about both film and the novel(s) which I subsequently came to read. His comments about working-class writing in this chapter had me on the edge of my seat, so complex yet so probing and open-ended, even where he is clearly working always within a broad political framework. I admit that I've never really thought about D.H. Lawrence as a model for Hines' work (odd, given the geographical location and the subject matter of Lawrence's early writing) but Muckle's consistent probing of the relationship between literary form and 'lived experience' is clearly influenced by Marxist theorists (Terry Eagleton is cited at some point) while also explained in a more user-friendly fashion than the writing of Criticism and Ideology, for example, yet still challenging and thought-provoking for anyone interested in the writing and sociology of this period.

There's a chapter on John Berger and B.S. Johnson which makes me want to acquaint myself with the latter's writing and also read more than I have of Berger's fiction, as he's a writer I know primarily through his commentaries on art and politics. Muckle's engagement with the commitment of both writers here, their differing personalities yet common political ground is intense and fruitful, angst-ridden yet making clear points about often difficult problems of both the nature of fiction and the difficulties involved in attempting to live in good faith within an ethical framework in a world which so often denies such humanist values. Berger's agonising over modernist techniques and a more traditional 'realist' approach comes together perhaps in his documentary mode of writing which often includes visual reference, whether photographs or paintings.

The opening chapter deals with the work (primarily the fiction) of Raymond Williams, not a writer who, outside certain academic and political circles now probably lost to us, is often talked about as a 'creative writer', yet he did write a number of novels - my favourite is still
The Volunteers, a left-wing political thriller if ever there was one - and they are well worth reading, leaving aside perhaps the somewhat Tolkienesque historical projections of the later works. Muckle brings out the strengths and weaknesses of Williams' writing and develops an argument about the relationship between 'fiction' and 'critical writing' and whether the forms can be merged, an idea that pops up elsewhere in this stimulating study. He also suggests the journey between Williams' early work - the Culture and Society project, if you like - and his later, 'harder' adherence to a more Marxist view of things. It's a central point, this, both in society in general and in Muckle's book, because it seems to me that the argument made for a modest social reform through parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means, through careful argument and persuasion, lost its hope and drive when confronted with the harshness of the Thatcher and Regan administrations. A 'retreat' into something more extreme yet possibly more fanciful (?!) was an understandable response from someone who had been through WW2 and whose early hopes of a socialist breakthrough were high. The calamity of the aftermath of the 1984 Miner's Strike still has negative resonance all these years on.

Chapters including commentaries on Samuel Sevlon (
The Lonely Londoners) and V.S. Naipaul's work, particularly The Mimic Men, provide fascinating insights into the immigrant experience, through close observation of living in London and also deal interestingly with the British class system from the outside and the inside, so to speak. Further evidence is provided via the chapter on Doris Lessing, where again, London is the focus, as is a documentary/fictional approach provided by the outsider (Lessing's South African background, as well as her early communist affiliations) when relating to the lives of a variety of mainly working-class residents struggling to keep afloat. Here, as elsewhere, Muckle's overview is probing, usually sympathetic and politically focussed yet a deep mistrust of simplifying or stereotyping make this book continually stimulating. It's the vast array of conflicting and enriching 'voices' that makes this such an exceptional study, both as sociology and in terms of the aims and varied textures of fiction itself.

Elsewhere, commentaries on the work of Colin Wilson, Paul Ableman (not a name I'd previously come across but one whose work I need to access) Alexander Trocchi and Jack Trevor Story, add to an overall picture which is rich, contradictory, full of fascinating insight and combines the approach of a 'creative writer' with that of a highly intelligent sociologist. The final chapter, 'Down the Hatch', brings us up-to-date, with reference to contemporary writers clearly influenced by those of this earlier period: Will Self and Jonathan Coe are among those cited.

John Muckle's claim to fame as a critic/zeitgeist explorer - he is also a novelist and a very interesting poet, as his excellent long poem on Walter Benjamin,
Firewriting, attests - rests with two books: his role as general editor in the seminal poetry anthology The New British Poetry (1988), and now, this excellent study of post-war British fiction. He's a serious writer who is not afraid to buck the trends and also to question his own (our own?) 'prejudices' and perceptions of a particular set of genres in a manner which is endlessly stimulating and satisfyingly provocative. This is simply a wonderful book which you should read.

Steve Spence 2015