‘It isn’t easy to talk about storytelling … Explanations only mystify. Sophisticated people may be able to explain their way out of mystification, and good luck to them, but a storyteller may well succeed in explaining his way into it which, believe me, ladies and gentlemen, is bad luck for him.’ It goes without saying (which is as well, since one might not actually want to say it) that reviewers are sophisticated people. All the same, they may have trouble in explaining their way through Alan Sillitoe’s latest novel – if not because they find it mystifying, then because they find it (as it is) more complex than fiction is generally expected to be these days. It asks for the kind of academic explication which its hero would reject contemptuously. Willynilly, that is what it is going to get. For at the heart of the book – it must be said that this organ is surrounded by a thick padding of flesh – is an account, albeit quite unacademic, of the causes and effects of the profession of fiction, the problems that give rise to storytelling, and the problems that storytelling gives rise to.
The problems that produce a teller of tales, a ‘creative artist’, range from the famous ones concerning the meaning of existence and the search for the true self to the less advertised but equally common one of how to survive the whips and scorns of time. Ernest Cotgrave, a Nottingham lad, begins his career à la Scheherazade, by taming the school bully – ‘Mek … summat … ’appen’ – with highly-coloured tales about an imaginary Uncle George. Until, that is, he grows big enough to take the bully on with fists instead of words, and then (another lesson in life) he is himself branded as a rotten bully.
Ernest, a more earnest Billy Liar, has a voice inside him that insists on telling stories; and there is always an audience of some sort for stories, moved either by ‘thirst for truth’ or by ‘delight in deceit’. He rises from the school playground to performing in pubs and clubs, where he is billed as ‘Live Entertainment’. To remain alive, however, is something of a feat, for soft answers don’t always turn away wrath, and Sillitoe’s Nottingham is violent beyond the norm in both word and deed. Enraged or bored audiences may crush him underfoot, or at least black his eye and boot him out. ‘Dealing with the taunts of your audience was an extension of storytelling.’ On one occasion, only a mike-inflated fart saves him. On another, his wife, infuriated because he is telling the story of their marriage, hurls a pint jar at him, splitting his head open: the act is so successful that the landlord asks for a repeat the following week. Even more gruelling – though it provides the cue for an onslaught on the socialism that threatens to put the working class behind stronger bars than any they have yet known – is an appearance at a students’ hall. ‘Bollocks!’ calls a girl ‘in a posh voice’. He advises them to read the Bible. ‘Capitalist lackey!’ somebody shouts. Lord, what did they say when their Catullus walked that way.
Ernest muses that there are those who think that storytelling is effortless, and those who believe it entails dreadful wear and tear, lacerating self-exposure and self-vampirism. An old storyteller calling himself George Psalmanazar reminds him of a third view of the profession – that the storyteller feeds on the blood of others. Ernest would ‘barter mother, father, wife, children’ for ‘the mere telling of a tale whose happenings disappeared into uselessness as soon as they left his lips’. By way of rubbing in what has to be called the allegorical import of the novel, Ernest then walks home by way of Waverley Street, Shakespeare Street and Milton Street. Sillitoe throws in a thumbnail sketch of the historical George Psalmanazar, the notable 18th-century liar who composed a fake history of Formosa and a fake grammar of its language (which he was thereupon hired to teach to future missionaries), and then – after a serious illness which he diagnosed as the Great Formosan Doxy-pox – repented his ways and turned to honest hackwork on Grub Street. According to other reports Psalmanazar’s repentance was brought about by reading William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but Sillitoe doesn’t mention this, nor – though it would surely be germane – that in his latter years Psalmanazar applied himself to a real language, Hebrew, helped to write a history of printing, and became a respected friend of Samuel Johnson.
A serious call … God might speak through him, Ernest surmises, if it weren’t for his own personal belly-god, that shabby demon, pumping out ‘so much rammel and trash’. As it is, God lurks around, even if manifesting Himself chiefly through Ernest’s favourite quotation, from Job: ‘the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat.’ (Indeed, the author’s best sayings are often of a Biblical turn: ‘Pint jars are soonest emptied.’) Ernest now takes a job as entertainer on the Mediterranean cruise liner George Psalmanazar, ‘an antidote to the daily doses of antiquity handed out to the passengers’. He is also on the run, for by this time a further aspect of the artist’s life has been revealed: Ernest is being hunted (or thinks he is) by Maoists, fascists, divorce detectives, divers madmen, a murderous husband, Maenads, bard-butchering Druids, and God, who wields him as he wields the characters of his tales. Worst of all, he is hunted, or possessed, by his characters, cannibalisations of real people, a bit from here and a bit from there. The plot grows more complicated, more hectic, than allegory – a potent yet spare and fragile mode – can support, and a somewhat confusing climax is reached when, relating a story about a sadistic killer loose on a cruise liner (some antidote to the antiquities!), Ernest spins himself into the yarn. Tell a story, and you invite it to come true. Or, ‘he who lives by the word dies by the word.’
Perhaps this reading of the book as a roughneck enactment of the splendours and (rather more thoroughly) the miseries of the creative life is an example of reviewers’ sophistication? Well, if the flavour of the stew is open to dispute, there are certainly lots of meaty gobbets in it. Those who are left cold by the fable I have adumbrated can read The Storyteller for the stories told therein by Ernest Cotgrave. It makes a lively anthology. Aptly enough, our last glimpse of Ernest, after ECT, shows him writing his stories down on paper. Living by the printed word is at least a little less dangerous than living by the spoken one. And Ernest will go on telling his tales, willynilly, from the cot right up to the grave.