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.