Sillitoe’s first novel of real length (its word count arguably exceeds that of his first three books put together), ‘Key to the Door’ is an epic and assiduously observed family saga. And if the expression “family saga” makes you want to run screaming from the room, stick with me for a few paragraphs. This novel is the family saga as it should be written.
The protagonist is Brian Seaton, elder brother of the hell-raising Arthur from ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. The four sections of the book – titled ‘Prologue’, ‘Nimrod’, ‘The Ropewalk’ and ‘The Jungle’ – deal with his childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and national service in Malaya. Parts one and two are structured in an explicitly linear fashion. Parts three and four juxtapose Brian’s early working life at a factory and his courtship of Pauline, who he marries after she gets pregnant, with his experiences overseas and his dalliance with an exotic Chinese dancer (and sometime hooker).
Brian’s character and outlook are formed by his iron-willed grandfather, Merton, and his erratic father, Harold. Harold Seaton reminds me of the line in Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ about ancestors who “half the time were soppy-stern / and half at one another’s throats”. Both Merton and Harold Seaton have argumentative relationships with their wives, and can often be petulant bullies towards their kids. Thus a certain aspect of Brian: a break-up with Pauline is documented in painfully accurate terms; his enforced marriage (“you’d better tell him and sort something out” as Pauline’s mother pragmatically puts it) is entered into with reluctance.
There are scenes in which Brian is painted as big a bastard as Arthur. Elsewhere, though, Sillitoe realistically depicts his burgeoning intellectualism (though Brian himself, certainly until the very last stages of the novel, would no doubt scoff at the word), his love of the written word and his struggle to express himself beyond the immediate confines of his first two decades’ experience. Nowhere does Sillitoe communicate this better than in a scene where Brian, in the depths of Malaya, sends morse code out into the night:
In his work, his bitterness was forgotten and after the plane landed he amused himself by sending poetry from the Pelican book by his set, each letter going out at fast speed, hot sparks burning the brain of anyone who could read its symbols. Word by word, line by rhythmical line, the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’ found its way from his key, and he felt exhilarated in knowing that such a poem was filling the jungles and oceans of the far east, coming, if anyone heard it, from an unknown and answerable hand … ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ also went singing hundreds of miles out into the darkness, perhaps reaching the soul of the man who wrote it and maybe also touching the source of the golden fire that sent down these words to him in the first place. Dots and dashes went out at a steady workmanlike speed, all poetic rhythms contained, even in the sending of one word. The mast top of the transmitter high above the trees outside propagated the chirping noises of his morse, as if releasing cages of birds into freedom.
Fucking great writing!
In a review for The Daily Herald, Dennis Potter said of ‘Key to the Door’ “this novel is a great achievement. There has been nothing better published this year - nor is there likely to be.” He was absolutely spot on.