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Middleton, Stanley

MIDDLETON, Stanley

Nationality: British. Born: Bulwell, Nottingham, 1 August 1919. Education: High Pavement School, Nottingham; University College of Nottingham (now Nottingham University), 1938-40, 1946-47, B.A. (London) 1940; M.Ed. (Nottingham) 1952. Military Service: Served in the Royal Artillery and the Army Education Corps, 1940-46. Family: Married Margaret Shirley Welch in 1951; two daughters. Career: English Master, 1947-81, and head of the English Department, 1958-81, High Pavement College, Nottingham. Judith E. Wilson Visiting Fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1982-83. Awards: Booker prize, 1974. Honorary M.A., Nottingham University, 1975; M. Univ., Open University, 1995. Address: 42 Caledon Road, Sherwood, Nottingham NG5 2NG, England.

Publications

Novels

A Short Answer. London, Hutchinson, 1958.

Harris's Requiem. London, Hutchinson, 1960.

A Serious Woman. London, Hutchinson, 1961.

The Just Exchange. London, Hutchinson, 1962.

Two's Company. London, Hutchinson, 1963.

Him They Compelled. London, Hutchinson, 1964.

Terms of Reference. London, Hutchinson, 1966.

The Golden Evening. London, Hutchinson, 1968.

Wages of Virtue. London, Hutchinson, 1969.

Apple of the Eye. London, Hutchinson, 1970.

Brazen Prison. London, Hutchinson, 1971.

Cold Gradations. London, Hutchinson, 1972.

A Man Made of Smoke. London, Hutchinson, 1973.

Holiday. London, Hutchinson, 1974.

Distractions. London, Hutchinson, 1975.

Still Waters. London, Hutchinson, 1976.

Ends and Means. London, Hutchinson, 1977.

Two Brothers. London, Hutchinson, 1978.

In a Strange Land. London, Hutchinson, 1979.

The Other Side. London, Hutchinson, 1980.

Blind Understanding. London, Hutchinson, 1982.

Entry into Jerusalem. London, Hutchinson, 1983; New York, New Amsterdam, 1989.

The Daysman. London, Hutchinson, 1984.

Valley of Decision. London, Hutchinson, 1985; New York, New Amsterdam, 1987.

An After-Dinner's Sleep. London, Hutchinson, 1986.

After a Fashion. London, Hutchinson, 1987.

Recovery. London, Hutchinson, 1988.

Vacant Places. London, Hutchinson, 1989; New York, New Amsterdam, 1990.

Changes and Chances. London, Hutchinson, 1990.

Beginning to End. London, Hutchinson, 1991.

A Place to Stand. London, Hutchinson, 1992.

Married Past Redemption. London, Hutchinson, 1993.

Catalysts. London, Hutchinson, 1994.

Toward the Sea. London, Hutchinson, 1995.

Live and Learn. London, Hutchinson, 1996.

Brief Hours. London, Hutchinson, 1997.

Against the Dark. London, Hutchinson, 1998.

Uncollected Short Story

"The Noise," in Critical Quarterly (Manchester), Winter 1987.

Plays

Radio Plays:

The Captain from Nottingham, 1972; Harris's Requiem, 1972; A Little Music at Night, 1972; Cold Gradations, from his own novel, 1973.

*

Manuscript Collection:

Central Library, Nottingham.

Critical Studies:

"Stanley Middleton and the Provincial Novel" by John Lucas, in Nottingham Quarterly, 1978; article by June Sturrock, in British Novelists Since 1960 edited by Jay L. Halio, Detroit Gale, 1983; "The Art of Stanley Middleton" by A.S. Byatt, in Fiction Magazine (London), 1985; "A Roaring Whisper," in Stand (New-castle upon Tyne), Autumn 1988, and "Einstein in the Patent Office," in Encounter (London), July-August 1989, both by Philip Davis; "Master of the Unspectacular" by John Mellors, in London Magazine, August-September 1990; Stanley Middleton at Eighty, edited by David Belbin and John Lucas, Nottingham, Five Leaves Publications, 1999.

Stanley Middleton comments:

(1972) I put down a few obvious points about my novels.

They are set mainly in the English midlands with characters drawn from the professional middle-classes (students, teachers, actors, writers, musicians, lawyers, painters, architects), though one will find laborers and factory workers as well as businessmen of real affluence.

The action usually occupies a short period of some months only (Wages of Virtue is an exception), and the plot deals with people in a state of crisis or perplexity caused by illness and death, or a breakdown of personal relationships, or the difficulties of creating a work of art (which may be music, Harris's Requiem, or poetry, Him They Compelled, or a novel in Brazen Prison ). At this time of dilemmas, friends or relatives intervene, and thus learn their own inadequacies and, sometimes, strengths. No perfect characters or solutions exist; all is difficult, compromising, but a bonus of success or joy is occasionally found.

My idea is not only to tell an interesting story but to demonstrate the complexity of human character and motive. One must not only describe what has happened to people, or what they are like; one must make the characters live out what they are said to be, and this must include deviations from normality and actions "out of character." I find this most difficult, but when I am charged, sometimes, with "mere reportage," I can see no sense at all in the accusation. My novels are imaginative attempts to write down illuminating actions and talk from the lives of fictional people, and not transcriptions of tape recordings of real conversations or blow-by-blow commentaries on events which have really taken place. I am sometimes praised for the "realism" of my dialogue, and this makes me wonder if these critics, who may of course be using a "shorthand" dictated by the small space at their disposal, know how different my sort of dialogue is from that of real life.

This preoccupation leads to a choice of different levels of writing. A novel cannot always be intense; both by the shape of my work and my use of language I try constantly to interfere with the reader, to rest him as well as violently assault him. Therefore it is galling when I find critics who apparently subscribe to the notion that contemporary novels are either "well-written" (i.e. in "mandarin") or dashed down without care. Mine are usually dumped by such people in the second category. Shifts on my part from the point of view of one character to that of another also seem to pass unnoticed. I enjoy putting obstacles in my own way to find out if I can surmount them.

I am often asked if my novels are didactic. I wouldn't object to that word since the greatest work of art I knowBach's St. Matthew Passion could be so described. But unless a novel is complex, memorable, capable of holding a reader and moving him deeply, I've not much time for it.

I can't think these notes very helpful. General exegesis as opposed to critical discussion of precise points in specific books has little attraction for me as a writer. A novel should be its own defense; if it does not speak for itself to a well-equipped reader, call out echoes in him, it's not properly written.

* * *

Middle-class, middle-aged, midland dwellers provide most of the material for Stanley Middleton's novels from 1960 to the 1990s. His remarkable achievement in producing such lively work from such an unpromising source lies in his ability to make most of his characters both unlikeable and interesting at the same time. His women for the most part are tormented frigid tormentors, while his affluent men are generally mediocrities in their professions and indecisive shamblers in their personal lives, if they are not driven by an ugly and ruthless streak of ambition or obsessed by the demands of art.

He makes his readers understand that people at the end of their tether do not become heroic and loveable through their suffering, and that emotional snarl-ups render the participants selfish, irritable, and dull. The skill of Middleton's handling of dialogue is that although the first two qualities are caught, the third is avoided. The reader is held by the way the seemingly pointless remarks of the speakers can grate against each other. This is especially true when there is any attempt to bridge gaps of generation, social class, or economic status. In Terms of Reference the two late-middle-aged couples are perplexed and powerless when confronted by the failure of the marriage between the son of the very wealthy pair and the daughter of the academics. Yet although they can do nothing to hold their wayward children together, and are by no means certain that it would be a good thing to do so, all four are too fascinated by the situation to leave it alone.

Edward Tenby, the architect hero of Apple of the Eye, is not only the sole moderately creative and productive character in the novel, he is also the only man. He becomes involved with three neurotic women, each young enough to be his daughter. One of them has enough money to indulge her sickness to its limit, while the other two are poor enough to be flattered and astounded at making any contact so high in the social scale. In Brazen Prison Charles Stead, the ex-grammar school novelist, has to cope with the social nuances of relating to his wealthy socialite wife and the company she keeps, while at the same time involving himself with the husband and family of the local girl he had picked up in the dance hall as a youth.

Many novelists use the device of seeing their created world through the eyes of a fellow writer, and it is one that Middleton is fond of. As well as Charles Stead, there is the bestselling novelist Eric Chamberlain in Ends and Means. His obsession with success makes him almost insensitive to the fatal distress of his son and mistress, who both kill themselves. His detachment is matched by that of Frank, the modest, doomed, and isolated poet in Two Brothers.

Middleton is at his best, however, when he uses music or the visual arts to convey the excitement and compulsion of creation, and to give an added dimension to the construction of a novel. There are marvelous passages of musical analysis in In a Strange Land, which is an unusual Middleton novel in that the protagonist, James Murren, organist and composer, leaves the midlands to further his career in London. In Valley of Decision, which concerns a young music teacher married to an ambitious singer, the stages of the novel almost correspond to musical movements which are heightened by the analysis of the performances of an amateur quartet with whom the husband is invited to play.

Entry into Jerusalem explores the way a man can be driven to create a visual image. Like Middleton's novelists and musicians, John Worth, the thirty-year-old painter of this novel, successfully harnesses his imagination by living a life somewhat detached from his fellows, however many disasters take place around him. His work is barely touched when his former teaching colleague has a breakdown and kills himself.

Suicides of minor characters are frequent in Middleton's later novels, throwing the main events into a sharper focus. Death is ever-present, lurking in the background of everyday life, or accepted as a concomitant of age as it is in Blind Understanding. That novel follows the ruminations of a retired small-town solicitor as he lives out a day between attending a funeral in the morning and hearing of the heart attack suffered by a member of his wife's bridge party in the evening. In these later novels, Middleton makes little use of his experience as a school teacher, the main exception being his sensitive exploration in The Daysman of the character of John Richardson, headmaster of a comprehensive school in a middle-class area and general friend and counselor to pupils and staff alike. He is a man who lets ambition and the lure of the media gradually rot his integrity and understanding. In this he is contrasted with his practical, capable wife, and the working out of their marriage is the main point of that novel. Indeed Middleton's preoccupation with the shifting adjustment of marriages enables him to make full use of his remarkable gift for describing the minute nuances of human interaction from the merest twitchings of "body language" to full-scale emotional and physical outbursts.

The most recent novels, however, tackle a different problem: the adjustment to reality that has to be made by anyone living on their own. This is often, but not always, linked to the circumstance of aging. So, in An After-Dinner's Sleep, the widower Alaistair Murray, a recently retired Director of Education, struggled with his need to fill his days in a meaningful way, and with an intermittent relationship with a woman friend from a long distant past.

Job Turner in Recovery is also widowed, but although he is coming towards the end of his career as a headmaster, he has yet to face the empty days of retirement. Both men are influenced by their grown children, and these connections make a natural web of time into which their married years are absorbed.

Joe Harrington in After a Fashion and Henry Fairfax in Vacant Places come into a different category. They are both young and successful enough to envisage promotion in their different careers; Harrington is an academic, Fairfax a business executive. They both live alone because their marriages have failed. Yet they both still have a relationship with their ex-wives, and the reader is left feeling that they are both the sort of men who will eventually remarry.

The theme of old age comes up as a subplot in both these novels. In After a Fashion, Joe Harrington is confronted with the declining powers of the professor of English in the university where he lectures, as well as the more extreme senility of one of his former schoolmasters and a neighbor's father, whose reminiscences he has reluctantly agreed to read. These three characters form a constant, if shadowy, chorus to the main action. In Vacant Places, the reminder of old age comes in the form of a garrulous Welshman, met in a pub. It is a brief but haunting portrait.

In Changes and Chances the novel pivots on a really disagreeable character, and that is a rare feature in Middleton's work. Adrian Hillier is a rich dilettante in his forties, who likes to dabble in the arts. His halfhearted attempt at marriage was doomed to failure, and the course of the novel finds him enlivening his pampered and solitary existence with bouts of sensual but loveless womanizing, embarked on from the maternal and sexual comforts provided by his housekeeper, Elsie. In this novel old age is presented in its most positive aspects in the person of the poet, Stephen Youlgrave; and the chorus is provided by an astutely observant child, Peter Fowler, who takes a Saturday job helping with the chores in Adrian's household.

In all these novels, the disciplines of music and poetry provide solace for the challenges of loneliness and the passage of time; and give meaning to the apparently trivial events through which Middleton displays and shapes his characters.

Shirley Toulson

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