Afterword to the German edition

of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s novel, Of Love and Hunger

All too often the literary achievements of Julian Maclaren-Ross have been obscured both by his sartorial flamboyance and the bohemian excesses of his life. In the wake of his itinerant, shabby-genteel childhood, spanning the years between 1912 and 1933, most of which were spent on the south coast of England and the French Riviera, he lived a similarly rootless adult life, interspersed by spells of homelessness, poverty, alcoholism, paranoia and drug-addiction.

During the tail-end of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, Maclaren-Ross could be found night after night at the smoky bar of the Wheatsheaf pub, just on the edge of the central London district known in those days as North Soho. His coat draped round his dandyishly besuited shoulders, his eyes hidden behind dark, aviator-style sunglasses, his cane propped beside him, the energetically heterosexual Maclaren-Ross cultivated an appearance resembling a cross between Oscar Wilde and a villain in a Hollywood gangster movie.

His appearance and way of life have lent him an aura of hard-living chic, akin to Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski. It’s a reputation that distracts from the ferocious energy and single-minded intensity with which he applied himself to a surprisingly broad range of literary genres. Far from being the tragic under-achiever of legend, he has bequeathed us a substantial body of short stories, novels, radio plays, memoirs, parodies and screenplays, not to mention film and literary criticism. Though I wouldn’t argue that his talents were especially suited to writing screenplays or radio drama, he certainly excelled in the other genres.

I’ve been a fan of his work since the early 1980s. Shortly before the publication of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, my 2003 biography of him, I managed to coax Of Love and Hunger back into print. Its enthusiastic reception, along with the subsequent invitation to edit four equally well-received collections of his writing, has given me a source of enduring delight.

Anyone familiar with Maclaren-Ross’s work will, I’m sure, agree that Of Love and Hunger is the finest of his novels by aome distance. Like so much of his writing, the book is rooted in his rackety life. Its authentic depiction of the grubby world of door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesmen in a small English seaside town derives from the early months of 1938 when he had just such a job. At that time he was living in Bognor Regis, only twenty-nine miles down the coast from Brighton. In Bognor he had forged a close friendship with an eccentric fellow writer named C.K. Jaeger, who initially worked with him as a salesman. Jaeger – known to friends as “Mac” – was married to a glamorous former actress named Lydia. The three of them had become inseparable, even at one stage sharing a decrepit bungalow, their days as co-tenants memorialised in a short story called “The Swag, the Spy and the Soldier”.

Maclaren-Ross’s relationship with Mac and Lydia Jaeger obviously provided the starting point for Of Love and Hunger, which he ended up dedicating to them. Given the multiple convergences between fiction and reality, between Maclaren-Ross and the narrator, between the Jaegers and the Ropers, there’s a temptation to see the novel as being entirely autobiographical. True, the anonymous seaside town is an undisguised portrait of Bognor Regis. And the narrator, Richard Fanshawe, bears a strong resemblance to the young Maclaren-Ross. Yet, for all the similarities between fact and fiction, Sukie Roper and her husband are not portraits of Lydia Jaeger and her genial husband. Nor does the adulterous romance between Fanshawe and Sukie appear to have been drawn from life.

Only a few days into their ill-fated careers as salesmen, both Maclaren-Ross and Mac Jaeger recognised that their experiences offered rich material for a novel. When I interviewed the octogenarian Jaeger, he recalled how the two of them had bickered over which of them was going to make first use of it. Within a short time of being sacked, Maclaren-Ross was writing about their experiences. His efforts were, however, soon stymied by the advent of the Second World War, which prompted his conscription into the army. There, he metamorphosed into the drably attired Private Ross, J., lowliest of low-ranking trainee infantrymen. A knee problem dating from childhood led to his assignment to a grim sequence of English army depots, where he served as a clerk, his duties leaving him with insufficient time or peace of mind to concentrate on a novel. Instead, he used his spare-time for writing the short stories that earned him a place as one of Britain’s rising literary stars.

By 1942 he had returned to the idea of basing a novel on his time as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He envisaged calling the book The Salesman Only Rings Once, a title that contained a facetious homage to the hardboiled American novelist, James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As recently as 2012, I was approached by a painter-and-decorator who had, several years earlier, rescued the opening few thousand words of an early draft of The Salesman Only Rings Once. He’d plucked it from a stack of paperwork awaiting collection by the dustmen. I still feel queasy at the thought of the other manuscripts that were probably either incinerated or consigned to the local rubbish dump.

The rescued manuscript had been written in a small hardback notebook, its lined pages embellished by the author’s unmistakable, obsessively neat handwriting. Along with other surviving fragments, this version of what evolved into Of Love and Hunger is, unlike the final published version, narrated in the third-person. By opting to tell his story that way, Maclaren-Ross deprived it of so many of the things which help to make it a great book. These include its succinct poetry and distinctive tone of voice, a tone paradoxically allowing emotion to seep through the cracks in the wall of emotional restraint.

Just prior to the release of his debut short story collection, The Stuff To Give The Troops, Maclaren-Ross’s publisher turned down what the author referred to as his “vacuum-cleaner novel”. It then seems to have been abandoned until the spring of 1946 – almost four years after the book’s initial rejection. Between then and the earlier release of The Stuff To Give The Troops, Maclaren-Ross had switched publishers and signed a deal with Allan Wingate, a small company that had recently been founded by the 26-year-old Hungarian émigré, André Deutsch, who would launch the careers of many prominent writers.

Under the strain of Maclaren-Ross’s demanding and fractious personality, no doubt exacerbated by his heavy alcohol and amphetamine intake, his relationships with publishers seldom lasted long. Sure enough, he was soon itching to escape from his contract with Deutsch, a contract that required him to deliver a full-length novel. In order to fulfil the terms of his agreement, he went back to The Salesman Only Rings Once and drew up a revised outline of the book. He then submitted it to Deutsch, who had sufficient faith in it to pay him a decent advance.

On the strength of his reputation as an immensely talented writer – a reputation nourished by the unstinting endorsement of famous writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene – Maclaren-Ross would obtain frequent advances from publishers. Through the ensuing years, he would also acquire a reputation as an author who often failed to deliver books that had been commissioned. His behaviour, which might appear little short of fraudulent, was born out of a perverse and ultimately disastrous habit of living way beyond his means, of frittering away his earnings by taking up residence in expensive central London hotels and by holding marathon drinking sessions at the bars of West End pubs and drinking clubs. He was someone for whom, as one long-suffering friend put it, cash “melted away like snow in the hot hands of a child.” Without that money, he couldn’t set aside the time required to complete many of the books that publishers had paid him to write, financial respite only yielded by the swift rewards and short-term commitments of book reviewing.

André Deutsch was fortunate in comparison to a number of Maclaren-Ross’s other publishers or would-be publishers. Less than six months after pocketing an advance, Maclaren-Ross strode into offices of Allan Wingate Ltd and handed over the completed manuscript. Better still, Deutsch felt that the book amply fulfilled the literary promise already displayed by the author.

In reworking The Salesman Only Rings Once, now bearing a title imbued with gravitas and poignancy, he’d reverted to the first-person narrative deployed in many of his most successful short stories, among them “A Bit of a Smash in Madras”, the publication of which had set his career in vigorous motion. From the hardboiled American fiction of James M. Cain, he borrowed the idea of writing in a slangy, conversational and wryly humorous style, also indebted to the laconic pacing and choppy rhythms of Ernest Hemingway’s prose. Despite these stylistic debts, Of Love and Hunger feels wholly English and wholly individual. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Maclaren-Ross sometimes splices together frugal parcels of description: “…[T]he platform was empty. Smith’s Bookstall, Nestlé’s Chocolate, Churchman’s Cigarettes, Stephen’s Ink, a porter asleep on his trolley, one taxi on the rank in the road.” As well as bringing to mind the way that images are juxtaposed in a movie montage, such sentences evoke the clipped and reticent manner in which so many Englishmen used to speak.

Widespread and well-deserved critical acclaim greeted Of Love and Hunger’s publication in October 1947. Anthony Powell, writing in The Strand Magazine, featured it in his Books of the Year, an elite group that embraced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. Coincidentally, Hamilton’s influence was discerned by at least one reviewer. In the posthumously published Memoirs of the Forties, Maclaren-Ross would admit to being under the sway of Hamilton, whose work provided a focal point for a long essay that he wrote for The London Magazine. Yet Hamilton’s example isn’t evident in Of Love and Hunger’s lean prose, which feels bracingly modern in contrast to Hangover Square’s leisurely, Charles Dickens-inflected sentences. Where the influence of the older novelist can be seen is in the lip-licking relish for seediness – a relish that they both shared with Graham Greene, one of Maclaren-Ross’s literary idols. Of Love and Hunger’s settings also provide a link to Hamilton, most conspicuously in the form of the dismal boarding house, whose landlady is a literary cousin of the landladies in The Slaves of Solitude and George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Sales of Maclaren-Ross’s novel were healthy, though its commercial impact was restricted by the limited supplies of still rationed paper available to its publisher. Instead of heralding a commercially successful career as a novelist, Of Love and Hunger represents the isolated high point of his contribution to that genre. Over the remaining fifteen years of his life, he’d go on to write brilliant memoirs and literary journalism, but he would never produce a novel to rival its melancholy charm.

For many years after his premature death from heart failure in 1964, Maclaren-Ross was better-known for his personality and bohemian antics than for his literary output. The beguiling myth of squandered talent has been fostered by his strange parallel career as a model for characters in other people’s novels. Of these exuberant alter egos, by far the most famous was the character of Francis Xavier Trapnel, the doomed and dissolute writer in Anthony Powell’s celebrated twelve-volume novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. In common with Trapnel, Maclaren-Ross was clearly conscious of what Powell describes as “his personal myth” – a myth that came to overshadow the altogether less appealing reality of Maclaren-Ross as a productive writer who left behind an impressive legacy. Central to his achievement is Of Love and Hunger, a novel that’s on the same exalted level as the best fiction produced by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and other leading lights of mid-twentieth-century British literature. 

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