“Life at the top”, by John Braine (1922-1986)

london By london, 31st May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/3pr-iovn/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Fictional Narrative

John Braine (1922-1986) belonged to the so-called “Angry Young Men,” and was author of a famous book entitled “Life at the top”, whose protagonist is Joe Lampton, a social climber.

Life at the top

In the 50s a group of “rebels” followed the example set in the 30s’s by Auden, Spender, Lewis, etc., who tried to get over the spiritual crisis of the period by engaging themselves in a literary activity largely inspired by Marxism. The “new rebels” were soon labeled “Angry Young Men,” from the title of a drama which seemed to voice forcefully and violently their protest, viz. Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne: “Osborne quickly became associated with a group of writers, including Colin Wilson and John Braine, who were known as angry young men. Osborne, through Jimmy Porter, was voicing the natural uncertainties of the young, their frustrations at being denied power, their eventual expectations of power and their fears of abusing, it, either in running a country or a family.” (Elsom, 1976, p. 76).

Thus, the Angry Young Men were poets and novelists who declared war upon tradition and opportunism, or the so-called “Establishment.” Generally, the angry men’s protest took the form of a bitter satire of contemporary culture and an indictment of the affluent society. It was principally from the stage that they gave vent to the anger, though some of them made also the novel a vehicle of their protest. John Braine became known to the public for his novels Room at the Top (1957) and Life at the Top (1962). In these novels he tells the story of a man who, having married a well-to-do woman in order “to get to the top,” discovers that he is not accepted by the new people around him, tries to break away from them, bur eventually return to his “life at the top” acquiescently.

Joe Lampton, the hero of Life at the Top, has married Susan Brown, the daughter of his boss, a steel industry owner, in order to “get at the top,” that is reach the summit of social and economic success for a man of his extraction. The marriage, however, proves a failure, for Susan senses his lack of affection and returns to her previous lover, Mark: “In the sequel Life at the Top . Joe learns by experience the superficiality and aridity of life at the top and the backlash of the torrid love affair which he sacrificed in his climb still trouble him in family life.” ( Blamires, 1983, p. 33)

Also Joe’s relations with Susan’s father are strained and difficult, and come to a crisis when against his father-in-law at a Council meeting. Having returned home after the meeting, Joe has a violent argument with Susan who confesses that one of their children, Barbara, is Mark’s daughter. Embittered and desperate, Joe tries to rebel against and escape from all these people he now bates, leaves for London, and half-heartedly goes to live in a dreary London flat with his lover, Norah. The success of Joe Lampton, the hero of John Braine’s series of novels, has sprung from the identification of their readers with Joe himself.

He reflects in many ways the aims, the ambitions, and even the failure of the typical angry young man of post-World War II years. In his struggle to reach “the top” he finds himself fighting a series of psychological conflicts which will bring him to spiritual defeat: “Complaining in a high quavering voice about the inadequacy of the compensation made to the subject of a compulsory purchase order. He seemed to be totally unaware that he himself had approved the compulsory purchase order.” (Braine, 1962, p. 188). The success of Joe Lampton, the hero of John Braine’s series of novels, has sprung from the identification of their riders with John himself. In fact, he reflects in many ways the aims, the ambitions, and even the failure of the typical angry young man of post-war years. In his struggle to reach “the top” hi finds himself fighting a series of psychological conflicts which will bring him to spiritual defeat.

However, Joe’s determination to break every tie with Susan and her family, little by little begins to wear off. He loathes the drab, anonymous atmosphere of his new quarters and is dispirited by the emptiness of his new life. The climax is reached when Joe learns that Harry, his second child, has run away from school. He realizes that there is no turning back in life and “acquiescently” returns within the “establishment.”

Endnotes

Blamires, H. (1983). A Guide to Twentieth Century Literature. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Braine, J. (1962). Life at the Top. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Braine, J. (1965). The Jealous God. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Elsom, J. ( 1976). Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge.

Tags

Ambitions, Angry, Life, Men, Struggle, Top, Young

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I am a Professor of Literature and History, and I write articles about various topics such as art, literature and history.

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