Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I arrived at the British novel Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren Ross,  finally, after too many delays. The story is set, for the most part, on the eve of WWII, but by the time the end of the novel rolls around, WWII is in process.

When I first heard about Of Love and Hunger, I knew this was a novel I had to read. I bought a copy and then later found it praised rather highly by Max at Pechorin’s Journal. I was intrigued by the fact it’s about a vacuum cleaner salesman–hardly a popular choice  for a fiction subject. These days door-to-door salesmen are fading from view. It’s probably a sales method that’s no longer effective; it’s only mildly effective in Of Love and Hunger.

The novel’s protagonist is the young, good-looking Richard Fanshawe. Over the course of the novel, fragments of information about Fanshawe’s life reveal that he’s “been out east.” Once a journalist in India, now he’s back in England, and he’s not adjusting well to his diminished circumstances. The plot focuses on just a slice of Fanshawe’s personal and working life, and as it turns out, he’s unsuccessful at both endeavours. When the novel opens, Fanshawe, a resident of a boarding house in a drab seaside town, has been employed as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman for about a month:

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission–if you could get it. after the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun; all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at he chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’s start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock.

Perpetually behind on the rent to his landlady, and  with his tailor ready to take legal action, Fanshawe waits for a letter and a cheque from his Uncle George. Uncle George is the only ‘prospect’ Fanshawe has, and his landlady, Mrs Fellows looks for the long-awaited letter as eagerly as her tenant:

Any luck, Mr Fanshawe? She asked, with one eye on the letters.

None, I’m afraid. Only bills.

Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.

Fanshawe’s job with the vacuum cleaner company is hopeless. He’s doomed to give free demonstrations to bored and sometimes nasty housewives on the off-chance that he may be able to actually sell one. Logistically we know the chances are slim, and the company tries to resuscitate enthusiasm with pep talks, competitions and prizes. When Fanshawe is finally and inevitably given the sack from the first vacuum cleaner company, he moves over to its rival, Sucko. Through this manoeuvre, it’s clear that Fanshawe is running through a well-worn circuit habituated by other under-employed men of his age and station; as he switches jobs, he keeps running into people he knows–including Straker, a planter from India. Here’s Fanshawe at the company meeting in Brighton:

I looked up. ‘By god. Straker!’ It was. Hadn’t see [n] him since we came over on the boat. He was a planter I’d known out there and when we first landed we went about in town together quite a bit. Pubs. Clubs. Seeing the sights. dear old Pic. booze-up every night, hangover every day.

‘What the hell are you doing here? Thought you’d gone back long ago.’

‘Missed the boat, o’boy,’ Straker said. Literally,  I mean. Got tanked-up the night before, had all my money pinched. Dunno how it happened. Place called Alice’s. Had to give them a cheque at the hotel. Boat’d gone when I got down there. Only woke at 4 p.m. They couldn’t wake me. Thought I was dead. Thought so myself when I woke up.’

‘Bad show,’ I said.

‘Damn bad show. So I thought to hell with it. I’ll stay on here. I’d a spot of cash saved, mind you. Thought I’d stay on and see a bit more life. Reckoned I could easy get a job when the time came. Soon found I was wrong though. So I took this.’

‘How are you doing?’

‘Sold three of the bloody things at first. Then a lull. Lull’s been going on ever since.’ He started to eat a cake with pink icing on it. ‘How about you?’

These hard-luck or bad-luck stories seem to be the resume of every salesman, and the exchanges between employees focus on sales or the rumours of sales. This preoccupation with sales occurs against the distant rumbling of war. Fanshawe notes that:

Big blocks of flats along the sea front, smell of rotting seaweed from the beach. Then bridges and boardings chalked with the fascist sign. Seemed to be a lot of fascists about. Once or twice I saw the hammer and sickle chalked up, but not often.

Of Love and Hunger contains more than its share of memorable, lively, well-drawn characters–far too many to mention here, but the novel’s peculiar characters flesh-out Fanshawe’s drab existence and disallow the notion of dreariness and despair. Fanshawe discovers that honesty gets you nowhere in the vacuum biz, and his guide to corruption is the crafty weasely supervisor, Smiler. Under the guidance of Smiler every sale is a con in one form or another, so perhaps it’s no wonder that veteran salesman, Larry Heliotrope, a man who knows Sucko’s methods all too well  should succeed–at least in the short-term.

But what of love? Love appears in the tale as its title promises. Fellow salesman Roper goes to seas leaving his unpredictable wife Sukie in Fanshawe’s care. Bad idea. Sukie is a complex character who awakens Fanshawe’s literary aspirations even as she acts provocatively, teasingly, and sometimes rather cruelly. The first time Fanshawe sees Sukie, he has a fair idea that’s she’s tempestuous and difficult:

I thought again what a dangerous person she’d be in a real temper.

But of course that warning sign doesn’t stop Fanshawe.

If Fanshawe happened to be a character in a Russian novel, Of Love and Hunger would be bleak indeed, but this is a British novel, and so the tale is told with a large dollop of irony, distancing and humour. Fanshawe doesn’t take his situation too seriously; he can always avoid the landlady, borrow a few quid or perhaps even hit the jackpot on the one-armed bandit installed at the boarding house. Like many of the other men in the novel, Fanshawe regards the possibility of WWII as good news. With the shrinking of the British Empire, opportunities are limited, and to men like Fanshawe, WWII is a career move waiting to happen.

My copy is from Penguin Classics and includes an intro by D.J. Taylor. He stresses that the novel is not about “abject poverty” but “the kind of life that was lived sixty years ago in seedy boarding houses by people who never quite possessed the drive or the money necessary to hold down a decent job or a proper relationship.”  Taylor makes connections between Maclaren-Ross, Powell, and Hamilton. I’ve yet to read Powell, but I can definitely see Hamilton’s Gorse fitting comfortably in Maclaren-Ross’s marvellous Of Love and Hunger.

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23 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maclaren-Ross Julian

23 responses to “Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

  1. I’m not sure this kind of life belongs to the past. I think there are — unfortunately — many people living on the edge of poverty and whose life suddenly collapses because of a tiny event. Something that others would have barely noticed destroys the fragile balance of their everyday life.

    According to your quotes, the language is difficult for me, that’s something I should read in translation.

    • Book Around the Corner: The thing about Fanshawe is that he’s used to a better life. An average working class man from that era wouldn’t run up a bill at his tailor, for example, and the tailor, for his part wouldn’t allow it. Fanshawe is designed, or born & educated, for something a step above the sales job and that’s true for most of the men at Sucko. They find themselves working at this horrible job for a range of reasons. The planter for example, got drunk and was robbed of his cash. Most of these men would/should be working out in the far corners of the British Empire where they could live like kings even if they were minor officials (or journalists, like Fanshawe).

      When I wrote out the quotes, I realised that you would have a difficult time with some of the slang.

      • Of course you’re right. What you describe rings a bell but I can’t catch the memory. Maybe it’ll come back later.

        Good assessment of my English capacities : slang is difficult. That’s something you only get to learn when you live in the country. And as I’ve always lived in France… Progress expected with the kindle, it’s less tiring to check words in the dictionary.

  2. Oh dear, another writer I haven’t heard of. But, with its “large dollop of irony, distancing and humour” it sounds right up my alley, moreso probably, than those bleak Russians! The vacuum-cleaner salesman in a drab seaside town sounds so English … and I like how the voice sounds in the excerpts you’ve given.

  3. leroyhunter

    Great stuff Guy. This has been on the wishlist for ages – I must pick it up in the new year.

    I believe Maclaren-Ross’s life was (in latter years anyway) well on the wrong side of “seedy” and in fact quite tragic – much like Hamilton. What is it with writers and booze?

    • My copy sat on the shelf for ages. My loss.

      Someone should conduct one of those studies comparing alcoholism in professional writer against the rest of the population. Years ago I read an article about writers and depression. The author of the article argued that it was the norm, but then he threw F.S Fitzgerald into the equation.

  4. I’m a big fan of Maclaren-Ross after finding a copy of his Memoirs of the Forties in a charity shop and then realising he was the inspiration behind X Trapnel in Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. It would be a pity if he became better known for that though than for his own work, which is exceptional.

    And now I think I’ll have a double scotch and get back to work…

    • Hold the ice….

      I have a copy of the memoirs which I picked at an indecently low price. I’m going to have to get around to the Powell series. Max at Pechorin’s Journal read the lot.

  5. I didn’t know that he was the model for X Trapnel — that, plus your very intriguing review, convinces me that I should check out Maclaren-Ross. Anybody who could put Sucko into a book has to have a sense of humor.

  6. It so happens that I’m a sequence-sort of person…

  7. The original title for my blog was going to be Of Love and Hunger, but it was already taken so I went with Pechorin’s Journal (I’ve since got that title on wordpress for future use, but haven’t quite settled on how to use it yet).

    I love this book. It has that quality of faded English life, of twitching curtains and genteel poverty, which was fading as I was a child and which I hope is now largely extinct. It’s also very well written.

    Having read all the Powell’s I do recommend them. He’s a bit of a snob and some bounce off that, but he can write and he creates a world. I found them very rewarding. I can name even many of the minor characters off the top of my head and recollect them vividly.

    X Trapnel is indeed Julian Maclaren-Ross Kevin. I heard that just as I was reading the relevant volumes and it somehow made his story even sadder.

    Anyway, a great writeup of one of my favourite books. A shame Maclaren-Ross didn’t write more. I should look out those memoirs of the ’40s that Charles mentions.

  8. This sounds great. I loved the excerpts. Made me think of a few older British movies I watched recently, “good show” gives its age away. Makes me think of Bridge on the River Kwai where the difference of the British and Americans is condensed in this expression. Something in your description reminded me of Fallada. The setting is completely different but stil someting sounds alike, poverty, invisible lives, something along those lines. I have to put this on a wish list and will also have to read Hamilton soon, got some of his novels here.
    How about Last Orders, a much newer novel, are there any parallels? Another example of depiction of working class life.

  9. I haven’t read Last Orders (saw the film). I have a copy here but haven’t read it yet. Heard it was excellent. The thing about Of Love and Hunger is that all these young men, educated beyond the sales jobs, are floating around looking for some kind of reasonable employment. But there’s nothing decent, yet at the same time in the background WWII looms. The underemployed male characters see an impending war as a good thing, an opportunity to get ahead. In some pre war books (I or II), that sense is there but there’s also a sense on impending doom along with impending war (thinking of The Shooting Party here). It’s different with Of Love and Hunger’s rather positive conclusion. There’s the sense that war actually relieves some of the social constraints.

  10. Your last remark is interesting and scary. I occasionally hear people say similar things nowadays.
    I guess what reminded me of Last Orders is the extensive use of spoken languae. Typically British spoken language. It is one of those books that even some Americans have problems with.
    I will be curious to read your review should you get to it.
    I need to read Hamilton.

  11. Darlyn

    Great review. I liked how you differentiated Russian and British literature. I completely agree that Russian novels are often bleak while there’s always a bit of dry humor sprinkled into the most depressing of British novels.

    • If you ever get a chance (or are interested in) Gogol’s Dead Souls, it’s really very funny, but I couldn’t help but think that if Of Love Of Hunger were a Russian novel, there would be starvation and suicide. I’ve just been watching a Russian TV version of Crime and Punishment and it’s bleak.

  12. leroyhunter

    Really enjoyed this one. Good show.

    In parts it struck me that it must have been pretty risque for the 40s. The set-up is pure Hamilton – digs, boozers, everything “on tick” etc – but this is a couple of notches less desperate the Hamilton it seems to me. It doesn’t have Hamilton’s edge, as you say there’s more an element of things being a bit of a lark (although Fanshawe has some pretty bitter words for Uncle George). And of course the war washes away all sins and debts.

    In his intro Taylor also mentions Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying which I’ve moved up the TBR pile.

    The roll-call of characters and oddballs is impressive. Normally a “stunt name” like Larry Heliotrope would switch me right off but it’s perfectly done here. Smiler is a wonderful chancer as well. And Sukie…well, I wonder if everyone has someone as baffling and trying as Sukie in their background.

    • I liked the way he scratched away at the idea of the respectability of the boarding house.

      I really need to get back to Hamilton, and yes, I agree that he is more hard-edged. Of Love and Hunger ends on a positive note as we see that WWII opens up opportunities for these men. Not so Hamilton.

      I’ve only seen Waugh’s Sword of Honour and haven’t read the trilogy, but I made connections between that tale and Maclaren-Ross. There’s the same sort of oddball characters who keep popping up throughout the story.

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