- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BLOKES: THE BAD BOYS OF

BRITISH LITERATURE

By David Castronovo

Continuum, $25.95, 197 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

This stimulating study of the postwar generation of British writers who shook up their nation’s literature so dramatically manages despite its brevity to be not only comprehensive but far-ranging. Its author, David Castronovo, a professor at Pace University in New York, is not only superbly well-informed on his subject but has a flair for analyzing it in a uniquely revealing fashion. He is adept at putting these authors in context — politically, culturally and philosophically — and the unusual thing about this process is that it results in a whole new way of seeing who these writers really were and how and why they evolved at this point in time.

Most critics have categorized John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and the other writers who came to prominence in the 1950s as angry young men. Many saw these rebels as invigorating a stodgy and stagnant cultural climate, but the literary establishment fought back, with playwrights such as Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan fulminating and countering with more of their stuff and the aged Somerset Maugham icily dismissing the young upstarts as scum.

Mr. Osborne, Mr. Amis and Mr. Larkin all lived on into the Thatcher era as notable Tories: Revolutionary as they were, it was largely a desire to move front and center that motivated them. To do so, it was necessary to upset the established order.

But unlike the dull Eisenhower decade on this side of the Atlantic, English society itself was roiling with ferment and turbulence. As Dean Acheson famously said, Britain had lost its empire but had not found a new role, something underlined by the Suez Canal debacle in 1956.

Mr. Castronovo understands the importance of Suez and of this process as a whole, but he looks further back to discover roots of this postwar literary phenomenon in the prewar anti-heroes of Graham Greene’s novels and even as far back as Shakespeare’s Falstaff and some of Chaucer’s pilgrims.

Once common on both sides of the pond, “bloke” is now largely a British term, defined by Mr. Castronovo at the book’s beginning with characteristic flair and insight:

“The bloke is a male who believes in his own spirit and is willing to do almost anything to see that its spark doesn’t die. Difficult, contrarian, insulting, most often a drinker and a teller-off of his contemporaries, he is a type who insists on himself and will follow no conventional path in his pursuit of more life, more pleasure, and more honesty.”

As he goes on to say, it is the very reverse of the old idea of the English gentleman so beloved in fact and fiction. And what better, more informative, more genuinely enlightening unifying category could we have to understand Mr. Osborne and his Jimmy Porter in “Look Back In Anger” or Mr. Amis and his “Lucky Jim”? Or the bitter edge to Mr. Larkin’s coruscating poetry or the shocking harshness of the man revealed in the posthumous publication of his letters?

It is the particular genius of a critic like Mr. Castronovo that he can even convince the skeptical reader in a brilliant chapter that the campy, showy Kenneth Tynan with his obsession for the sado-masochistic in life and art is a genuine bloke!

“Blokes” is not only enormously useful in understanding the revolution that overcame British literature in the 1950s, substituting the kitchen sink for the drawing room on stage and putting the bleak provincial scene to the fore in novel and short story.

It also reminds the reader of countless lesser-known talents such as John Wain, Keith Waterhouse (“Billy Liar”), Alan Sillitoe (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”), John Braine (“Room at the Top”), and Stan Barstow (“A Kind of Loving”), all of whose work is worth reading or rereading if encountered long ago or forgotten.

Many of the titles may also ring a bell with moviegoers — they were made into memorable eponymous films that evoke that grim, grey world so startlingly different from the swinging London of the 1960s that was soon to transform British society and art yet again, and from today’s rich, sleek, prosperous cool Britannia.

That’s one of the many splendid aspects of “Blokes”: It has tentacles that grab us and propel us to go on voyages of discovery and rediscovery, and not only of the period pieces of that era. It links the blokish phenomenon of the ‘50s with the “lad’s literature” of today, exemplified by Nick Hornby and Martin Amis (son of Kingsley). Mr. Castronovo’s discussion of this contemporary phenomenon shows his deep understanding of both yesterday and today, their differences and similarities:

“Nick Hornby and Martin Amis have tracked the mistakes and excesses of blokes, exposed them more than celebrated them, written cautionary tales about out-of-control men. And yet they both stand up for playfulness and hedonism — the irrepressible desire for sex, freedom and autonomy, a good time and a chance to break out of new varieties of awfulness. They defend the cause, it should be said, with less vehemence and complaining than their predecessors…. In any event, what remains as a constant is keeping up the fight, finding a fight in new times.”

Mr. Castronovo quotes Mr. Hornby’s “battle ‘against a sort of strain of English miserabilism,’ ” and perhaps in the end, that’s the great legacy of those blokes a half-century back. By acknowledging, revealing and exploring all that bleakness and misery that cast such a pall over so many of the English in those days, they helped clear it away and usher their society into, if one may borrow a Churchillian phrase, “broad, sunny uplands.” That’s no small achievement.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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