Sunday, June 16, 2013

Arnold Bennett. A Man from the North (1912)

     Arnold Bennett. A Man from the North (1912) I’ve not read any Bennett before this, so I don’t know how characteristic this is. It tells, in a rather discursive style, the story of Richard Larch, a young man who arrives in London with dreams of literary and cultural success. He has the imagination, but lacks the application and obsessiveness needed for literary success.
     Essentially, he drifts, spending his money on mild amusements such as the theatre and good restaurants. But he does his work diligently and well, although with no apparent enthusiasm, and gets his reward. He is promoted to what amounts to the third-in-command at the law firm for which he works, a reward that moves him to accept his place in society: a solicitor’s clerk with good prospects. He courts an old acquaintance, Laura, the red-headed cashier at a vegetarian restaurant that he initially patronised to save money. The book ends with his imminent marriage to this good woman, one of his own class, whom he sees as providing pleasant physical company, a suitable number of children in due course, and the domestic comforts and support he needs for his work.
     Along the way to this settling for mediocrity, he almost makes a permanent liaison with Adeline, a woman of livelier disposition, whom he meets through her uncle, another dreamer with too much imagination and not enough persistence. But he then still expected the spark of desultory romance to flare into passion. Absent that bright flame, he lets her go. He attempts a novel, which he recognises as trash, a recognition that puts an end to his career as a writer. Yet even as he prepares for marriage to a good and decent woman, he imagines that his son will inherit his literary talents, and dreams of encouraging and nurturing the talents of an as yet unborn child.
     Apart from an amiable disposition, diligence at work, and a willingness to help others, Larch has no major virtues. One gets the impression that he is as incapable of great viciousness as he is of great art. Fundamentally lazy, terrified of failure, yet too often recognising its signs in himself, he is a man whose success consists of adapting himself to his circumstances. He experiences some happiness, and provides some for others, and may, in the end, become a contented man, but one with a faintly melancholy memory of the great ambitions of his youth. In other words, a very ordinary man. It’s Bennett’s talent to make us care about him. **½ (2006)

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