Book: A genius lost at sea

James Hanley's fame bobs up and down like a cork on the waves that he sailed.
So here we go again. Like the young lady in the ballad who lost her honest name (and then lost it again, and then again), James Hanley's reputation has risen and fallen with dizzy frequency over the past few decades. Now Harvill has published Hanley's The Last Voyage and other stories (pounds 9.99). Why one of the major 20th-century writers should have suffered such a fickle fate is a question to which, no doubt, modern readers will have to answer to the sound of the Author's final trumpets. But in the meantime, consider this.

In June 1971, in the days when bylines were not regarded as gentlemanly (or ladylike), the Times Literary Supplement published a vindication of Hanley under the revivalist title: "A Writer in Neglect: the Case for James Hanley". Believed to be the work of Paul Scott, the article hailed Hanley as a forgotten master of the novel and wagged a literary finger at the slothful readership of that time.

According to Hanley's son, the artist Liam Hanley, the master was not pleased. In earlier days, Scott had apparently called Hanley "England's most scorned and scornful genius". Scornfully, the genius dismissed the tag.

Hanley was born in Liverpool of Irish parents and, while still a boy, committed what was to be his first and perhaps only cliche, running away to sea. During the First World War, he jumped ship in New Brunswick, lied about his age and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After the war, he returned to sea for a few more years; then, in 1924, he took a job as a railway porter and began writing in his spare time. His novel, Drift, was well received, the first of over 40 books which spanned an astonishing career that lasted until his death in 1985, at the age of 84.

Even in death, however, he was unable to shake the vindicatory tag: "Neglected Genius of the Novel" was the heading of his long obituary in The Times. How many times does a writer have to be forgotten in order to be remembered, and read again?

Though his books had not made him money - far from it - Hanley knew he had his followers, though not all of them devoted. In the 1930s, his novella Boy had been judged offensive to public morals and the edition was "withdrawn because of police action" for the extraordinary charge of "libelling the sea".

Unruffled by the scandal, in the Forties and Fifties his books were published with alacrity. His stories would appear barely a couple of days after he had written them, in the Evening Standard or the Spectator.

His work was praised by Faulkner, who said that Hanley used "language like a good clean cyclone"; by E M Forster, who spoke of his "distinction and originality"; by John Cowper Powys (whom Hanley in turn had proposed for the Nobel Prize), by Graham Greene, Eric Partridge, Elizabeth Bowen, V S Pritchett, C P Snow; later, by Anthony Burgess and Paul Theroux. There are writers who would sell their children for such testimonials. (Horace Walpole didn't like him but that, I suppose, is a compliment.)

In the Sixties, Hanley began writing plays which, though not successful, led him to television and radio. In the next few years, over 70 of his radio plays were broadcast.

But by then few of his books were widely read. "The trouble is, your father's become respectable," a mournful bookseller once told Liam. Several times, various publishers - Andre Deutsch, Faber, Penguin - attempted to put Hanley back into circulation. In each case, the critical reception was enthusiastic but the readership lagged behind. Now the latest restoration has begun with Harvill's quintet of Hanley's best stories. It's a clever choice.

Hanley has been called a writer of the working class and a writer of the sea: two subjects surely dear to the heart of a people obsessed with caste and insularity. But, as the stories in The Last Voyage prove, the tagging of either theme is not enough to define Hanley's craft. Alan Ross, in a perceptive introduction to this collection, suggests that "The sea, as well as forming [Hanley's] characters, forms his own style," and that "The shape of his books is usually a voyage."

Both observations are true and yet they somehow seem to limit Hanley's achievement. He did write about the sea and its toilers, their hardships and the deadening struggles of their social condition, but he also followed the quests of men and women inland. Thus Against the Stream is the story of a six-year-old orphan sent to live with his eccentric grandfather; in his last novel, Say Nothing, three people live together, trying to tell their stories in spite of their utter inability to communicate with one another; then there is his spellbinding Irish saga of the dreadful Fury family.

Perhaps the very fact that his stories were so riveting made the reader forget how wise they are. In a sense, Hanley could have been writing about almost anything or anybody else, because he was writing (forgive the unfashionable term) about the human soul. The following passage, from the story "A Passion Before Death", makes Hanley's territory explicit: "He had realised in a flash, had discovered some knowledge of the human soul. As though he had dug deep down into the human abyss and had returned with fauna and flora, strange and terrifying."

Strange and terrifying indeed, and not just because of the stories Hanley chose to tell. He wrote, as Gosse said of Kipling, "with the whole of the English language". His dialogues have symphonic grandeur, his descriptions build up with relentless precision, the everyday words he uses are suddenly pulled blinking into the light to work out their meanings all over again.

Hanley has something of Beethoven in his thundering rhythms - though his musical preferences ran to Hugo Wolf, Bruckner, Mussorgsky and, not surprisingly, Schubert. Listen to Bruckner in this depiction of three men on a raft, like "humped beasts" in the dark, in the title story: "Such rocking and pitching and rolling they had never experienced. Such wilderness and plains of waste they had never encountered with such close intimacy. The naked sky was something monstrous, the world of water harboured a contempt for the warm pulsating life, all powerful and all urgent. The gesture of abundant life that cruised so near to death."

"I'm looking for something with a little knife in it," Hanley once answered, to a reader who had dared to ask him what would he be writing next. He was being either modest or disingenuous. "A little knife" is barely enough to describe these heartbreaking, soul-searching tales, wise and compassionate, and undoubtedly written for all unforgiving time.