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Jaw-Dropping Dullness from Booker Winner: Saville

Saville by David Storey

Saville by David Storey

I reached the end of David Storey’s Booker Prize winning novel Saville with an enormous sense of relief.

No longer would my evenings be marred by having to plod through this jaw-droppingly tedious tale.

I don’t understand why I didn’t give up on it well before the end since there are only so many pages of over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation  I can take.

This had all three in abundance over the course of its 500 plus pages. It also had a  protagonist about whom I cared not one jot. The best part came in the opening few scenes where a miner and his new wife arrive in some northern colliery town and spend the day cleaning their meagre little home.

After that it was downhill all the way.

Working Class Struggle

Saville is a tale of a boy from a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s.   Colin Saville manages to win a scholarship for grammar school; plays sport, has a few run ins with the teacher and meets a few girls. Instead of university he opts for the faster track of teacher training so he can begin earning some money to keep his parents and two brothers just above the poverty line. But he feels constrained by his home and his upbringing; taking his frustrations out on his siblings.

By the time he decides what to do with his life, we’re at the end of the book and by then – frankly – I simply didn’t care.

Desperately Hoping Something Will Happen

Colin Saville just isn’t portrayed in a way that makes me want to take any interest. There’s never any sense of the inner turmoil he supposedly feels in reaction to some of the events that happen to him. Even when his fiancé ditches him for a more wealthy friend, he seems to react as if  someone has just told him the number 6 bus left 30 minutes ago. Having the story relayed through an omniscient narrator doesn’t help.

But I also just kept waiting for something – anything– to happen that would lift the story from the realms of the mediocre.

I was still waiting when I reached the end.

According to one retrospective critical review, Storey’s work mixes realism with psychological extremism. I must have been asleep during those chapters because those elements completely escaped my attention.

If ever there was a book that needed a bit fat blue editor’s pencil to walk all over it, this one was it…..even a scene that according to James Campbell in the Guardian is one of the most memorable (when his friend Stafford visits his home and is treated to a tea of bread, butter and tinned fruit) felt over-written.

This has to be the most deadly dull of all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read. How Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, I’m at a loss to understand.

Alternative views of Saville

I was curious what some literary experts and reviewers thought of this book.

The reaction at the time of publication was surprisingly enthusiastic.

Jeremy Brooks at the Sunday Times said that reading Saville “is like drinking pure spring water from cupped hands”.

It has no false notes, no heaviness of emphasis, no editorial manipulations of plot to prove a point. One becomes so totally involved in the lives of these people that their every word and action becomes charged with meaning…. Reminiscent of a nineteenth-century classic.’ –

His counterpart at The Times newspaper also gave it a rave review, calling it “mesmerically readable, Saville is a revelation.”  The Sunday Telegraph declared Saville to be “A feast of a book.”

I started to wonder whether this is a novel that resonated in the 1970s but no longer spoke to a twenty-first century reader but so few reviews have been written about Saville in recent years that I can’t answer that question.

All I found was that in 2008 Sam Jordison at The Guardian ( a reviewer I admire) thought Saville was a “class act”. He was so completely immersed in the book that he felt he was parting from a friend when he reached the end.

When David Storey died in 2017 many of the obituaries described him as a great post- war novelist whose raw, realist plays and novels dealt with the north-south divide and family conflict.

I seem to be a lone voice…..

This review appeared originally in 2012. This is an update – the content is substantially the same but I have added sub headings to make it easier to read.

Is there a secret to writing prize-winning novels?

There’s an infographic currently circulating in the Blogosphere in which the themes that were prevalent in the 2011 Man Booker long list are analysed.

Someone at Delayed Gratification – a ‘slow journalism magazine’ (whatever that is) felt compelled to graphically chart the themes in order to show ‘what makes a prize winning novel.’ The result is attractive, even if the swirling coloured connecting lines do bear more than a passing resemblance to the London Underground map.

But what exactly is the point of this endeavour? Ok, so now we know that death was the predominant theme and far exceeded narratives featuring love or betrayal. That’s hardly an earth-shattering insight. Death has always featured significantly in literature. Just think about the body count at the end of many of Shakespeare’s plays where even the romances like Romeo and Juliet end with a few corpses strewn around the stage. Death is also at the heart of many of our classics (Germinal, Tess of the D’urbervilles; Anna Karenina being just a few examples).

What irritates me  is the premise that it’s ok to  analyse literature in this way. It reminded me of a scene in the film The Dead Poets’ Society  in which Robin Williams plays the new English teacher at a prestigious American boarding school. He mocks the way the boys have been taught to evaluate literature – almost to the point of plotting the score for each poem or piece of prose on a graph.  Score 12 for language but only 4 for characterisation and you’ll never be considered a ‘great author’.

That was fiction but  I discovered today that  at Stanford University some its English literature graduate students are engaged in something called ‘literature mining’. They are currently “mining 19th Century British and American novels” to  track how literary styles in novels changed  through the course of the 19th Century.  Instead of just relying on their knowledge of literature gained from just reading the texts, to understand how the styles changed, they are counting the frequency of words that share a particular theme and mapping how the frequency changes over time.  And after all that one of their conclusions was that there was:

“a more fundamental shift in the style of narration from abstraction to concreteness, from telling to showing. No longer talking about abstract values but embodying them in actions.”

So, three or four years studying literature at one of the leading academic institutions in the world’s most powerful nation couldn’t have told them that without the need for software analysis tools and statistical approaches??

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