Boy, by James Hanley

I like to keep myself in the dark about books before reading them: in this case all I knew was that it had been published first in 1931, and then later banned – I had no idea why. So this was, in part, how I came to read the novel, wondering all the while what it was that had so upset that 1930s morality (though only, as it happened, after the work had been readily available for four years). – Well, as I read along, there were certainly candidates: the physical abuse of children, the sexual abuse of children, and so on and so forth – none of which was particularly graphic; in fact, was all the more disturbing perhaps, as a raw portrait of that society, for the casualness with which it’s introduced into the narrative. The only part where you could say there was anything of what one might call a graphic nature is in the prostitution scenes towards the end. Still, it’s interesting enough the book was allowed to be published in the first place. – (That Faulkner praised the novel, for instance, comes as no surprise: – it’s one of the interesting things about the English attitude to Faulkner back then that it wasn’t so much the experimentation they protested about; it was his salacious choice of subject matter.)

Well, it turned out (and sorry, if you’re inclined like me, for the spoiler) that the book was banned for obscenity: a man and his wife had borrowed a copy out of their local library, been offended by it, and taken it along to the police; whereupon his publisher had been taken to court, lost, and the books seemingly publicly burned (or something similar) – apparently the novelist Hugh Walpole (no – I’ve never read any either) ripped up a copy in a bookstore, he took such a great aversion to what he found within.

Hanley has, I suppose, slipped from sight: – you won’t find him on your average list of English novelists; which is a pity, because – as one who hasn’t much time for the English in the 20th century – Hanley stands up pretty well. Anthony Burgess (tireless discoverer of the forgotten) calls him a “neglected genius”, along, in his introduction, with William Sansom and Rex Warner (whom we shall also come to in this little series).

This novel itself started off in the world of the oppressed worker (one of my gravest worries in this whole project is a dominance of the political novel, my only saving grace on the English-language side being that I’ve largely gone for the avant-garde), but it didn’t slip away into diatribe as I’d been expecting; – in fact, one of the refreshing things about it was its way, every now and again, to go off at unexpected tangents, hurling the plot into a completely new direction. What starts off seeming a portrait of the industrial conditions of the times, turns more into a study of masculinity and adolescence – and of the hypocrisy of the adults who continually treat him as the “boy”, advising him to do as they don’t. It was the last half of the novel I probably enjoyed the most, as it builds up to its ghoulish climax (it was veering, I thought, towards the Zola-esque); but looking back, I was impressed by it in its entirety.

One bizarre thing I feel I should say though: the boy goes out to work in the docks and his first day there, complete with humiliating initiation, is described in minute detail; – anyhow, he doesn’t enjoy it, and my impression reading it (which I later confirmed, going back over that passage) was that he chucked in the job after the first day and ran away to sea; – but later on in the narrative, several times Hanley states that he continued at the job for a time, and that he did other jobs in the docks as well. – Now, I don’t mean this as a criticism, but all the same it’s a pretty big inconsistency in the story, and did manage to alienate this reader at times a little from the tale (left him wondering, indeed, whether it was the negligence of the author, of the editor, or whether some chapters hadn’t been expurgated in their entirety).

One thing I thought I’d do with the books in this project, as a sort of added extra, was – after viewing them – to have a look at the original TLS reviews. – Sure enough, it’s here we can find the values of the time which would lead it to be banned (as I say, they said much the same about Faulkner): “One may well wonder whether such a story, so barely and brutally presented, can have any literary justification,” it says, and goes on a lot in the same damning tone, suggesting that in the later scenes he enters into “quite unnecessary detail”. It admits the book is powerful, but condemns it at the same time for lacking any sense of hope, and concludes that it is unlikely “to be widely appreciated”.

(HD’s Her is on hiatus until such time as I summon the willpower to finish it – or finish with it.)

Next Up:
English Edition: Michael Arlen’s Hell! Said the Duchess
International Edition: Pa Chin’s Family


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