Saturday, May 19, 2018

Bright Day - an unsung great novel



J.B. Priestley's own favourite novel was 'Bright Day'. Here a jaded scriptwriter, returned to England from Hollywood, in the immediate post Second World War period, has a chance encounter in a Cornish hotel that translates him back to his earlier life in Bruddersford (Bradford) before the First World War.

Here Gregory Dawson, now the scriptwriter, is working in a wool factory, an aspiring writer, he sorts threads and idolises the family of his manager into whose circle he is drawn. But the magic of projection slowly unwinds into his witnessing a family tragedy. As he works on in the Cornish hotel, Gregory is drawn into remembrance of this past and, in parallel, into encounters in the present that will significantly readjust that remembrance inviting a better, indeed liberating, understanding of what it might mean for his future.

The portrayal of that gilded, hopeful Edwardian era is beautifully drawn. You taste its hopefulness just as surely as you know that it was to be broken by the unfolding terrors of war and the failed aftermath to build a world fit for heroes. But equally you are reminded that people are people, whatever the hopes of their age, we work through time carrying all the lumber of our personal possibilities and failings. It draws powerfully a common Priestley theme that every step we make is a choice towards possibility, individuation, gift or away into a shallower, shrunken, disappointed image of who we could be.  Likewise it carries that other key Priestley theme that the past is never done with, it can be returned to. Memory can step back into it, return it to life, and a path not travelled, a choice not taken be relived in a way that carries import for the present. As long as we live, our character is not fixed (and that life is always intersecting with an eternally present that brings all of that life potentially into view).

What is remarkable about Bright Day is that both Priestley's vivid social realism, his fundamentally Jungian psychology (Jung thought him the best of lay interpreters) and his metaphysical depth - a man, as he said, haunted by time and by eternity - flow effortlessly into a 'realistic' story. A story of youthful ambition, folly and love making its way into a valley of outer success and inner dislocation and out the other side to the prospect of a maturing validation.

It beautifully captures too the ages it traverses - Edwardian England, the vicissitudes and seductions of Hollywood and the austerity of post-war England and its social hopefulness being reborn (more successfully than after the First World War and in which Priestley as a public intellectual played a not insubstantial role).

The wonder is that such a good novel moves in and out of print and that Priestley's own reputation is so unsure. 'An Inspector Calls', his most famous play, sits on the GSCE syllabus, studied widely by children at school (and given a recent and excellent outing on the BBC) whilst many of his works languish waiting republication of which Bright Day is one. It is true that his work is more uneven than many of his contemporaries, that its multiple dimensions do not always mesh as effectively as here; and, his texts sometimes feel more 'of their time' than other texts equally of the same time (such as, for example, Graham Greene) but the best stand comparison not only with his direct compatriots but with literature as such.  Let us hope that his admirers, of which I am undoubtedly one, keep plugging away until he settles securely into the canon of the should be read.

P.S. The painting, except that it is of a 'bright day' has nothing directly to do with Priestley. It is a painting by Hermann Hesse. It does occur to me, however, that one observation of Anthony Payne in his recent excellent book on Priestley and Time http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2018/03/adventures-in-time-magical-adventures.html has great merit namely a secure literary reputation might have come more easily for Priestley if he was positioned against continental literature more secure in the magical/metaphysical than traditionally English literature finds itself - perhaps like Huxley, he should have gone to live in California! But like his contemporary the Scottish author, Neil M Gunn, whose early social realism took a mystical turn - to the bewilderment of many of his readers, Priestley was too identifiably of his place to make that possible. It is we, the readers, who need to be more 'catholic'!

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