Two-thirds of a trilogy by Sam Selvon

selvon11The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

We first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform of Waterloo Station, waiting for “a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat train”.  While there, a “Jamaican” friend named Tolroy comes up, also waiting for the boat train.  Tolroy is waiting for his mother — who, when the boat train arrives, turns out to be accompanied by an aunt, two other relatives and their two children.  Tolroy has a job that pays five pounds a week — so it would be wrong not to share the fortune.

selvon3And so we are introduced to The Lonely Londoners, a novel first published in 1956 that is every bit as relevant today.  In a few pages, in “creole” dialect, we will be introduced to Harry “Sir Galahad” Oliver (that’s whom Moses is meeting), Big City, Five Past Twelve, Harris and a host of others.  Welcome to the London of the mid-1950s.  All written by the man who would become known as the “father of black writing” in Britain.

I was unaware of Sam Selvon and his novels until an on-line exchange some weeks ago with Max at Pechorin’s Journal.  We had been talking about Damon Runyon and his current relevance and Max mentioned Selvon as a comparison.

Literally only minutes later, after some internet searching, I had discovered that the “father of black writing” in Britain had migrated to Calgary, Canada (where I live) in 1978 and lived there until his death while visiting his native Trinidad in 1994.  I felt ashamed — for 16 years, I had lived in the same city as an internationally recognized author and known nothing at all about him.  As you will find out, that is part of the sad story.

The Lonely Londoners is a truly wonderful book and I am not even going to try to summarize it.  I will point visitors here to two excellent reviews that I cannot hope to improve on — Max here and Stewart at booklit.  Please visit either or both, but I would like to add my own impressions (as opposed to a good review) of this book.

The first thing that impressed me about Selvon’s book is the way that he conveys a notion of the “underclass” and the life that it lives.  Every metropolitan city has an underclass — in Athens and Rome, they were slaves, but the same is true today of Hispanics in Los Angeles, Haitians in Montreal, Tamils in Toronto and Vietnamese in Calgary.  The Lonely Londoners takes us back more than half a century but it captures the fallout of what this underclass experiences — they wash the dishes, pick up the trash and direct the traffic in jobs that no one else wants.  They also have dislocated their lives, based on optimism and hope, and things aren’t turning out quite as they hoped.

My second impression has to do with the “lonely” part of this novel’s title.  In the conventional sense of “lonely”, it doesn’t apply at all — the book is full of the way they relate to each other.  True, that comes down to cadging a place to sleep (because no one will rent them a room), borrowing money from anyone who has it (a job is a definite sign of status) or just bumming a meal.  Whatever, there is a sense of community with these Jamaicans (at the time, everyone with an off-hue skin in London was a “Jamaican”) — the loneliness of the title is a collective identity, not an individual one.

And finally, and most importantly, this is a book that despite its pathos and sadness (go back to those reviews that I referenced earlier) conveys a sense of humor, hope and, ultimately, optimism.  In the Penguin edition that I read, the first 92 pages set and build the story — and have a lot of that humor — but the best part starts only then.  For 10 full pages, without so much as a comma, Selvon departs from the dialect and indulges in an impressionistic soliloquy about London that is truly amazing.

I will confess to being an advocate of the declarative sentence and impressionistic writing is not my forte but these 10 pages held me for every word — it captures a picture of the city that is most impressive.  And Selvon moves into another gear after that.  While the final pages of the book have much conventional action, the sub-text is a contemplation of  community and the notion of “home” unlike anything I can remember reading for a long time.   The Lonely Londoners was a very good read up to these pages — with them, it became a great book.

Moses Ascending did not appear until 19 years later and, for persons of color, much had changed.  True, there had been legislation supposedly protecting rights, but it had been followed by the politics of Enoch Powell predicting that blacks “will have the whip hand over the white man.”  Race riots had taken place and skinheads were a phenomenon.  For people of color, such as Moses and Selvon (I should note here that Selvon is not “black” in the sense of contemporary terminology — like V.S Naipul, he is an Indian from Trinidad), the world had changed.

That history comes from an excellent introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Moses Ascending by novelist Hari Kunzru.  He also offers the following relevant thoughts for this book:

In his introduction to a 1982 edition of The Lonely Londoners, Kenneth Ramchand warns against ‘loose talk about a Moses trilogy’, on the grounds that while the Moses of the earlier book is ‘seeking answers to profound questions with an intensity that suggests a closeness to the author…the latter books…suggest a disengagement by the author from his protagonist which at times…feels like cynicism or evasion.”  Unfortunately for Ramchand, his attempt to preserve the purity of The Lonely Londoners was made difficult by Selvon himself, who peppers Moses Ascending with references to its predecessor.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what discomforted Ramchand wasn’t so much ‘disengagement’ as the biliousness of an ageing writer who felt he’d been denied his critical and commercial due.

I quote that at length because it is a fair assessment in one sense, but wrong in another — this book is very much a fair follow-up to the previous volume.  Britain has changed and Selvon has changed; as readers, we should try to understand that change.

In one sense, Moses has definitely moved up the social scale.  He has bought a terrace house from Tolroy — it has already been condemned and is scheduled for demolition, but he has three years to make money off it.  He will rent suites in this “mansion” to people of color who were lucky to find a basement room in the previous book.  He himself has moved into the “penthouse” — if it had an attic, he would have moved higher still — and has started working on his memoirs.

He has also acquired a white footman/batboy/Man Friday, one Bob from the Black Midlands, who pretty much looks after the enterprise while Moses tends to his memoirs.  There is no doubt that employing a Caucasian is a significant step.  For potential readers who are feminists, this is also an appropriate time to warn that Selvon is not post-modern in his attitude towards women, whatever their color — he did get slapped at a 1980s meeting at the Commonwealth Insitute.  In the interests of historical understanding, we may have to forgive him that for a moment or two.

Alas, reflecting the new Britain, he has some “difficult” tenants — the Black Power party has taken up the basement suite as an office and an Asian who is smuggling Pakistanis into the Mother Country is using another suite as a safe house (the underclass of the first volume is being replaced by a new one — that too is part of the overarching story).  Moses, despite what we know from the previous book, is out of touch with this all — just as, we as readers must assume, Selvon, the “father of black writing” in Britain, is also finding himself passed by.

Like The Lonely Londoners, there is humor and hope in this book — unlike the previous volume, they definitely take the back seat.  Moses has lost touch and so for that matter has Selvon.  Hope has been replaced by resignation, humor is used as a source of coping — the world has not got better, it has go worse.

That sounds like a bad recommendation for a book and I utterly reject that — like The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending is a book that very much deserves to be read.  Undoubtedly, in conventional terms, the former is a better novel — but if you are willing to accept that fiction writers can comment on social history, and I do, the second book is every bit as important as the first.  The result is one of the saddest books that I can remember reading in a long, long time — and that is a positive comment, not a negative one.

Which then leaves the obvious question:  Why is Kevin reviewing a trilogy when he has only read the first two books?

Good question.  The first answer is prosaic:  Selvon is an easy author to read (don’t let the idea of dialect put you off; the rhythm is easily established) but not so easy an author to buy.  When I started this quest, I could find one volume in Canada, one in the UK and no sight of volume three, Moses Migrating, anywhere.  That last volume showed up a few weeks ago with a new edition published in the U.S. which hasn’t arrived in the mailbox yet — given that Penguin didn’t publish Moses Ascending in the Modern Classics series until last year, optimistic readers can hope that it will appear in a Penguin version in the next year or two.  If you want to read this trilogy (and you should), be prepared for a quest.

My other explanation is more personal.  I’ve avoided reading anything about what Moses Migrating is about because I want to preserve a sense of anticipation.  I know it wasn’t published until 1983, five years after Selvon left Britain for Calgary — that, plus the title, does convey some implications.  I’ll admit, since I respect the first two-thirds of this trilogy, I can’t wait until it drops through the mail slot.

EDIT:  I have now read Moses Migrating.  The review is here.

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25 Responses to “Two-thirds of a trilogy by Sam Selvon”

  1. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Excellent! Excellent review, Kevin. Of course, the covers alone are very compelling. This is a must for my list. It feels incredibly relevant to right now. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion here, too. I’m looking forward to when I can join in!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do think you will find this trilogy (of which, of course, I have only read the first two thirds) most interesting and relevant — and will be most interested in your thoughts on it when you have read even a part of it. The part of the world you live in is every bit as complex as London with its underclasses (although NY trains run later, so the night life runs later) and also every bit as dependent on them. Thanks for the kind words — I have to admit, I spent a longer time thinking about structuring and writing this review than I did reading the books. They join that very small group of books that don’t take that long to read but only then do you discover that you have just begun the process of understanding what it is they have to say.

  3. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Kevin, from my perspective your review does Selvon justice. Every once in a while when I write a review I think, am I really introducing this book to people in an adequate manner? Is my poor ability going to turn people off? This review makes the book incredibly compelling – and I imagine it will pay off.

    Now, if only I can find a copy. The cover of the American edition available on Amazon does not do the book justice.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My suggested buying strategy for you (and anyone else in North America) is to buy these two volumes from the Book Depository in the UK (good price and you also get great introductory essays in both) and buy Moses Migrating from Amazon.com in the States. Complicated and a little time consuming, but in two or three weeks all three volumes should be in hand at reasonable prices.

  5. John Self Says:

    Rather foolishly, I bought Moses Ascending without having The Lonely Londoners, so I shall have to remedy that. I will also do my best to find out if Penguin do plan to reissue Moses Migrating soon.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I knew I could count on you to do the heavy lifting on when or whether Penguin would publish Moses Migrating. Some trilogies can be read out of order — my view would be that this is one that has to be done A, B, C, although I admit to not having read C yet.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Tremendous Kevin, this really does encourage me to start on my copy of Moses Ascending before too long.

    Lovely notes by the way on the universality of the book in terms of relevance to new immigrant populations, new underclasses. I think that’s absolutely right.

    I agree also on the extraordinary 10 page passge, like you I tend to bounce off overly impressionistic writing, but this is a tour de force and really lifts the whole novel as you rightly say.

    The Lonely Londoners was one of my finds of last year, were I to do a list (which I don’t plan to as I’d feel guilty for every work omitted) this would easily be in my top five. I’m glad you wrote a review of it, Selvon’s a much neglected writer and if your review helps bring him to people’s attention that’s something I can only applaud.

    Now one of us should reread Damon Runyon and write about him…

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Max — and thanks even more for putting me on to Selvon. He is definitely one of my more important discoveries of the last year. As you can tell, I very much admire his work.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    And one of us should get to Runyon soon. He too is very topical in modern circumstances, which is what set us off on this whole topic.

  10. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Kevin, just wanted to update you on my blog move: I’m now at my own domain. Here is the link.

  11. Colette Jones Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I look forward to reading these. You have definitely inspired with that review.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome Colette and I hope you like these books — I think they are excellent. And since I know the value of your comments from other sites, please chime in often here. Cheers, Kevin

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve just received a copy of Banjo, by Claude McKay, that I bought recently. It’s subtitled “a plotless novel”, and is a 1920s novel of the Harlem Renaissance.

    I got the OOP (I think) Harvest edition, apparently the most recent edition changes all the language to make it modern English (rather than the original slang vernacular), and given the novel has no plot and only has its language that’s a pretty big change.

    Anyway, as I say, might make an interesting point of comparison.

  14. Stewart Says:

    Hmmm, I hadn’t realised it was part of a trilogy when I read The Lonely Londoners. In fact, until Moses Ascending appeared in Pengiun’s Modern Classics range, I hadn’t even realised it was a sequel to the book. Even having heard of Moses Ascending, from seeing an occasional tatty copy for sale on eBay, I never thought to connect Moses from the first with the title of the second.

  15. Rob Says:

    Thanks for this review, Kevin. I know I took my time getting round to reading it, but I’m glad I have. As you say, these stories are still highly relevant, especially in Italy, so I’m sure it won’t be long before I pick up a copy of The Lonely Londoners at the very least.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for chiming in Rob — it gives me the chance to say that this is one of those books (well, actually two books) that gets better in time with memory. Various themes and incidents keep popping into my head, which is always a sign that a book is particularly good. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Selvon when you get to him.

  17. Colette Jones Says:

    I finished The Lonely Londoners this evening. I love the end (I appreciate the whole book, but especially the end).

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I do think the way that Selvon draws this book to a close is a triumph of fine writing. Glad you enjoyed it.

  19. Moses Migrating, by Sam Selvon « KevinfromCanada Says:

    [...] And so we come to the final volume of Sam Selvon’s London trilogy, Moses Migrating.  I reviewed the background and first two volumes of the trilogy a few weeks ago.  As a short refresher, we [...]

  20. John Self Says:

    John: I knew I could count on you to do the heavy lifting on when or whether Penguin would publish Moses Migrating.

    And I can tell you now, Kevin, that they have no current plans to, though it is a possibility.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, John. I suspect this confirms my speculation in my Mosts Migrating review that Rienner has the copyright and that is all that will be available. Which means no matched set — and I certainly prefer the Penguin covers. Then again, a mismatched set does seem pretty consistent with some of the themes in Selvon’s trilogy.

  22. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    KFC – I note you have recruited Holly Golightly for a blog endorsement. Where DO you find these folks? Im looking forward to the Bhudda and Nathan Detriot – no doubt you know both their agents.

  23. Colette Jones Says:

    I’ve now read Moses Ascending and loved it. The situations Moses “innocently” finds himself in are wholly entertaining.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    glad you liked it Colette. I think you will find Moses Migrating every bit as entertaining. Selvon has a way of leavening the serious side of his story — which is certainly important — with a most humane understanding. I am very glad that I found his work.

  25. If you are a tenant, you catch your arse forever, but if you are a landlord, it is a horse of a different colour « Pechorin’s Journal Says:

    [...] which I discuss here and which Kevin from Canada discusses (together with Moses Ascending, here). Ultimately, both works form part of a trilogy, ending with the 1983 novel Moses Migrating, itself [...]

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