Harvill Press ($16)
by Robert Zaller
James Hanley (1901-1985) is the greatest sea writer since Conrad, as this volume of early stories attests. Like Conrad, his own sea experience was relatively brief, and, like him, he lived out his life in a foreign land. Hanley was born in Dublin but raised in Liverpool, and for 20 years he made his home in a Welsh village, Llangyllwch, whose rhythms and legends he described in two works of his middle years, Don Quixote Drowned and The Welsh Sonata . Ultimately he became the most insular of writers, for whom place was unimportant except as a setting for character, and character was crabbed, blind, and, above all, isolated. Like Melville, who came home from the sea to write his tale of a man immured, Bartleby the Scrivener, Hanley found the essence of humanity in the prison of the self.
The five stories that comprise The Last Voyage-the last, simply entitled "Narrative," is really a novella that takes up the last half of the book-were first published in 1930 and 1931, and made an immediate impression. John Cowper Powys, in his introduction to the volume in which "Narrative" originally appeared, described Hanley's style as "bald, bleak, stripped, winnowed, and harrowed," and it was only to grow grimmer and sparer with time. Nonetheless, these tales have a tone different from those of his later, landlocked years. For one, they burn with a sense of social injustice; Hanley's subjects are proletarians, whether conscripted for war, as in "Narrative," or dependent on the whims of shipping firms and gang bosses for employment. What he depicts, however, is not class struggle but class domination, a world in which there is no hope save to work to the end of both strength and hope. Reilly, the aging protagonist of "The Last Voyage," runs out of both, and allows himself to be literally consumed by his ship. The superannuated hero of "Greaser Anderson," stubbornly clutching a worthless promise of employment, tries to claim his due, only to be mocked, humiliated,and finally pitched into the street.
The inhumanity of a system that first degrades and then destroys reaches its apogee in war. In "The German Prisoner," Elston, an Englishman, and O'Garra, an Irishman, lost in No Man's Land and crazed with fear, capture a young German whose very vulnerability excites that fear, and some deeper corruption. From abuse, Elston and O'Garra proceed to torture, rape, murder, and mutilation. This does not relieve them, and they are left, in their frenzy of panic and despair, only to kill each other. "The German Prisoner" is a war story, but its underlying theme, once again, is the way in which men, being devoured, devour one another. The German tries to appeal to human-perhaps class-solidarity by addressing his captors as "Camerade," but they fling the word back contemptuously in his face. The tragedy of the Great War, from a socialist perspective, was the pitting of the European working classes against each other in combat; Hanley, with his brutal realism, does not flinch from the most Darwinian consequences of the conflict. It is as if he were determined to face the worst truth possible as the only basis for moral reconciliation, or even pity.
A similar process is at work in "A Passion for Dying," a story which is, among other things, perhaps the most searing indictment of capital punishment in all literature. Carter, the protagonist-victim, has already
been partially devoured by the state, having lost a leg in the war. Condemned for killing the man who tried to rape his wife, he begs his warders to bring her to him. As the hours pass, his obsessive need is resolved into the brute desire to pass life through his loins before it is snuffed out.
There Hope [the warder] saw the man try to express his feeling; to do it, and he seemed a helpless child, through the medium of the key-hole. All feeling concentrated between the thighs. It spread like fire. He pushed and thrust himself against the door, and continued the movements he had made up on the bed.
The immensity of Carter's anguish and the horror of its expression move Hope to an act of Christ-like sacrifice. It is one of the few moments in the book when pity crosses class lines; it is the only one that results in genuine compassion.
“Narrative" is the only story in the collection to be told, at least in its final pages, from an elite point of view. A conscripted merchant man is torpedoed soon after leaving port; the lead lifeboat, captained by the third mate, loses its way in a storm and finds itself far out at sea. The mate-never referred to by name, but only as "the officer"-attempts to shape his eight fellow survivors into a crew, but as they realize the desperation of their plight they succumb to despair. The officer keeps his discipline and nerve, but his decisions, though correct, are unavailing: the massive patience of the sea will win.
The drifting lifeboat of "Narrative" is the prime symbol of Hanley's brooding but ambivalent vision; its mate and crew, victimized first by the random malevolence of war and then by the bleaker indifference of nature, are lost in a chain of fatality that seems to have singled them out without interest and crushed them from sheer whim. The great sea writers-from Melville and Conrad to Sebastian Junger—have all been obsessed by the sense of a malign abitrariness at the heart of things, but in early Hanley this is joined to the sense that the larger structures of modern society, war, and capitalism, are obscurely linked to this as well. Later in his career, Hanley would probe the inner compulsions of the self, but at this stage his blunt, relentless style almost seems to embody the implacable forces it represents. His art owns little adornment, but few have written English prose in this century with greater or sterner power.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter (#12) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998