MAN BOOKER PRIZE
Booker club: Saville by David Storey
Sam JordisonTue 18 Nov 2018
The long hiatus in my trawl through past Booker winners has not been caused by boredom. True, the last winner I read, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat And Dust, was dry and cold, but the project itself interests me as much as ever. Indeed, the book at which I broke off – David Storey's Saville – is particularly fascinating. It's certainly blown apart one of my own long-held cultural assumptions.
Until I read Saville I had always thought that Monty Python's working-class playwright sketch had finished off all modern attempts to write books like Sons And Lovers. Nobody who has laughed at Tungsten Carbide Drills, "writers' cramp" and Terry Jones' matronly hand-wringing could again take seriously a book about a son who'd rather attain the lofty heights of poetry than work down a mine. And yet here is the 1976 Booker winner set among a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s, complete with small kitchen, moaning mother and an oldest son who snubs "yon pit" to become a writer in "that London".
It was written in 1975, a good half-decade after Python – but if Storey was aware his themes could seem absurd, he valiantly ignored the problem. This is a book entirely untroubled by irony. A book that in all earnestness presents reams of dialogue like the following:
'"What are the teachers like," his father said.
"They call them masters."
"Masters. Masters. What are the masters like?"
"They're very strict."…
"I can see they believe in work," his father said.
"That's the motto: work is pleasure." He pointed to the blazer. His father laughed.
"Sithee, not where I work then," he said. "The one who wrote that has never been down yon."'
It's po-faced. It's daft. It retreads territory that was over-familiar in English fiction by 1975. Indeed, this wasn't even new ground for the author. The themes of small town pit-based frustration replicate those in his most famous work This Sporting Life. What's more, Saville's eponymous hero is also good at rugby league and entwined in marital infidelity. Small surprise that the headline of the Guardian review when the book came out read simply: "Same Old Storey".
So, it's all the more impressive that this novel remains captivating for most of its 500+ pages. Storey may take himself too seriously, but that's not enough reason to disregard his talent. His scenes may be hackneyed but they are no less vivid for that. Or less real. The layer of fiction here, whether through skill or accident, seems thin. Storey makes us feel like we are being granted a privileged and even painfully intimate insight into his own upbringing(painful especially given the obsession Saville seems to have for his mother).
The emotions the story evokes seem correspondingly true. There's no doubting how strongly felt are Saville's love and hate for the mean and puritanical - yet close-knit and frequently alcoholic – community in which he grows up. There are intriguing complex shadings surrounding its contradictions and the fact that no place could be less tolerant of the desires of Saville or other natural outsiders trapped within the village boundary – but nowhere could they be better understood or valued either. It's an affecting study. Even the father becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His speech may be weighed down by unconvincing Yorkshire-isms, but Storey is still able to show us his heart. In short, he writes wonderfully far more often than he writes badly.
Ultimately, Storey's insistence on the importance of his selfish hero's internal struggles to the exclusion of all humour and irony is irritating. The final chapters detailing his inevitable break for "that" London also drag. Still, so immersed was I in the world and characters that Storey conjured that when I closed the book, I felt like I was parting company from a friend. An egotistical and bitter friend with a dull fixation on class and surprising ignorance of television satire, admittedly – but one I admired nonetheless.
It's been suggested that Saville won the Booker because of a left-wing desire to give it to something written from the workers' perspective. Having read the book, I'm willing to believe it won the prize simply because it's a class act.