Saw this novel somewhere on the interwebs, and it sounded just like something that I wanted to read at this point in the year when I am usually pining for autumn, cooler temps and a bit of rain. “Of Love and Hunger” has it all and it was great: cold, rainy, seaside, UK, 1940’s, realist, dingy bedsits, disaffected young men type of novel. (A bit early to be considered an “Angry Young Man” novel, but you can definitely see the beginnings here.) All of this sounds hideous, but it was a great read at the right time.
Richard Francis Fanshawe has been returned to England from his stint in India as a journalist for quite some time, but he is having a tough time finding work that fits him. (He’s not what I would call “the greatest employee in the world” though.) He finds himself working as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner sales person in a rather run-down seaside town, living in a grimy boarding house, drinking and gambling after work and constantly being hounded by creditors and his ongoing debts.
Fanshawe makes friends with another cleaner sales person who ends up being fired and who takes a job as a worker on a three-month cruise line at sea. The friend asks Fanshawe, quite innocently, to “keep an eye” on his fairly new and young wife whilst he’s at sea, and the story goes from there.
Of courses, shenanigans ensue…
What I really enjoyed about this novel was how it was written. It’s in first-person from the POV of Fanshawe, and the reader only knows and sees what Fanshawe knows and sees. The reader is also treated to the accent of this character and his way of speech – North (Norf) London and full of idioms and other dialect characteristics.
By the end of the read, I could really “hear” how Fanshawe talked, and found that this was a really well-drawn fleshed-out character for me. It rains a lot, he wears shabby macs (raincoats), he has to walk the pavement carrying a heavy box to demonstrate his wares, is behind with his rent, and is generally unhappy with his situation. Although he hates the whole set-up, there seems to be little determination to change his circumstances. He’d rather just float through life at this point (and complain about it to others in a similar situation). It’s a sense of lassitude with a heavy touch of fatalism. The war is coming, conscription is on the horizon and moving this way fast, so why try to change things even if he could?
Set in 1939, England was on the brink of war with Germany (war was declared in September of that year), conscription was just about to be introduced, and child evacuations and blackouts had started to take place. At the same time, politically speaking, there were ripples of Communism, Stalinism, and the implementation of the Great Terror in Russia where Stalin systematically killed “enemies of the people”. England was on edge, Hitler was moving west fast, the future was uncertain, unemployment was increasing, prices were rising, and this feeling of unease is really well described in the undertones of this book.
Julian MacLaren-Ross was a man who enjoyed drinking, social discourse, and not working, and who would rather hang out with others who also had a similar philosophy at the pubs in Fitzrovia, so it was rather a debauched group of friends that he had. He seems to have been a rule-breaker and rebel-without-much-cause, and after conscription, he was kicked out of the British army after deserting and going AWOL with a female friend. (It doesn’t sound like military life was a life he would enjoy much…)
In fact, even his biographer has referred to him as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent,” due to his preference for lounging around and drinking than doing something productive. He published some books and articles, but his reputation as a professional layabout would precede his literary output for years. (I imagine that there was a DSM diagnosis in there somewhere. He just happened to live at a time when that wasn’t widely in use or as generally accepted as it is now.)
So – overall this was a really good read, and thanks to whoever it was who brought it to my attention. I’d never had found it otherwise.