THE MAN of the MONTH
THOSE who loved The Good Companions for its genial humor and its assurance that all is really right with a rather dusty and bedraggled world will probably be a little put out when they discover that Mr. Priestley is not a determined optimist. In Angel Pavement he has written another long and leisurely novel of everyday Englishmen; but this time he has reversed his pattern, and instead of bringing them through adversity into success he has lifted them out of their wistful mediocrity into a moment’s glamour, only to let them down again with a crash.
Angel Pavement is a by-street of shabby London offices, where the business of Twigg and Dersingham, wholesalers in veneers and inlays, goes its fitful way. Dersingham is the easy-going, uninspired public-school graduate, amiable and uncertain, running the business indifferently because the war left him nothing else to do. His right-hand man is Smeeth, with the rank of chief bookkeeper, who has plodded comfortably through life enjoying his home, his food, and a little music, and asking nothing more of life than to be allowed to go on undisturbed. Their office staff consists of one flabby youth, Turgis; a stenographer named Miss Mutfield, who, ‘like most members of the English middle classes, was incurably romantic at heart’; and an office boy of imagination. Golspie, the mysterious stranger, bursts into their routine like a robust genie and puts the firm on its feet again. Dersingham finds his business spirit kindled. Smeeth earns a rise and knows the brief delight of confidence in his security and more money for his wife and children to spend. Turgis, stirred with love for Golspie’s daughter, revives from his torpor and his movie-ized daydreams. Miss Matfield’s drab existence in a girl’s club takes on the color of romance when she begins meeting Golspie out of office hours. . . . Then the spell is broken, and the desperate gray gloom of post-war London, which has been pressing around them, closes in.
From this inner core of Angel Pavement the story reaches out along the tube and tram and bus lines into the families from which these workers come, touching through them and their friends a multitude of similar lives and ways. It brings into focus vast sections of London, lingers in its inviting corners, glances regretfully at its less delightful thoroughfares. Where The Good Companions was timeless, Angel Pavement is strictly contemporary. Turgis and the Smeeth children introduce the younger generation feeding on Hollywood movies, aping their manners, and setting its pace to an unaccustomed tempo. Through the business relations of Twigg and Dersingham runs a comment on the American business influence, high-pressure methods, and dubious procedure. In subtler ways, in the daily lives of all, these modern forces of change are disturbingly at work. Mr. Priestley is not friendly to America and what it symbolizes. If he were a moralist, one might take his whole book to mean that England should have mistrusted foreign influences and rested content with its solid if unexciting virtues. But he does not protest or counsel. And he is not so obvious as to make his villain an American, nor does he spare London’s own shortcomings.
The author’s good humor has plenty of incidental play. Minor characters by the dozen allow him ironically and yet affectionately to dwell on the pettiness and pride of everyday lives, their hopes which can’t be realized and dreams not worth dreaming. Many episodes ripple with gayety, and Mr. Priestley is a master of the phrase which sets off a person or a scene in all its pathetic absurdity. He is generous and fair-handed with his characters. There is no venom for the villains, and you are left uncertain about them until nearly the end. The good people do contemptible things out of weakness, and you hate them for their blunders while you feel for them as groping humans. But he does not love this London as he did the provinces, and he cannot entirely give his heart to its mediocre and thwarted people, tenderly as he may handle them.
Angel Pavement, in its final effeet, is sinister and troubling. It lacks the force of tragedy, but perhaps is more depressing for that reason. A book written out of disillusionment and pity can scarcely be as pleasing as one written out of love, or as moving as one written out of hate. Unless you are too willingly fooled, you cannot say at the end, as one does even in life, that somehow justice will be done and all will turn out for the best.
MARSHALL A. BEST