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 In the 1930s, his novella Boy had been judged offensive to public morals and the edition was "withdrawn because of police action" for the extraordinary charge of "libelling the sea".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.

News
Disruption at Waterloo after a person was hit by a train
newsCancellations and disrupted service after person hit by train
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The almost deserted Liverpool Echo Arena on Monday
tvCan X Factor last in the face of plummeting numbers auditioning
News
Kirsty Bertarelli is launching a singing career with an album of songs detailing her observations of “real life”
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

    £13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

    £16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence