The Hook by Arthur Miller

This frenetic American drama was composed in the immediate post-war period. It focuses on corruption in the unionised workforce on the docks in New York. Instead of being a conventional play, the script is intended to be shown on the screen, but it originally ran into trouble with the authorities because of its overtly political content.

The production in question is on show in a Liverpool theatre. The docks in the city might not be as important economically as they once were, but the lack of regulation of the local labour market make it an ideal place to witness the gritty drama.

The pace never slackens and there are numerous plot twists. The narrative shows how hard it is to translate growing class consciousness into genuine working class power. During the performance it is hard not to be affected by the suspense, but afterwards it makes you think of the vagaries of the Labour leadership campaign. One question has been asked by the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn- is the bureaucratic and stalled Labour Party ready to become a social movement once again?

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Strangers by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is a novelist who tends to go over similar themes. Since Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984, she has written often about disappointment, isolation, and solitude. Her neat stories are frequently tributes to light, colour and warmth, but the sun never seems to shine for long. Her characters rarely lack money, but they tend to have deficits in other areas.

Strangers is a quiet meditation like the others, delicately constructed around a few suffering characters. However, the dilemma in this novel is essentially one of getting old. Here the cruel process strips away dignity, illusion, and minor happinesses.

The writing is of quite a high quality, but there seems something missing. Perhaps it is the dialogue which tends towards the lifeless. The reliance on Freud is also a strange choice. His sexism in the 1930s might not have seemed so aberrant, but fortunately the world has changed since his day. A different psychology or philosophy might have allowed more comfort to seep into the story. This is an accomplished piece of work by a skilled novelist who is witty enough to leave a Jane Austen around, but it is hard to agree:

“But Fate is rarely kind, and nature never.”

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

This compelling novel touches on some of the same grim themes as Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. However, it is based on the template of War and Peace. As a consequence, it has the political resonance of the former work, but the huge canvas of the latter masterpiece. Grossman shows an appreciation of political philosophy, coupled with the insight of a poet.

The narrative is an absorbing one and the reader is challenged by the magnitude of the historical events which form the framework of the tale. Somehow the ordinary person is taken to the streets of Stalingrad and to the interior of the Lubyanka. Despite the horrors he depicts, the author retains balance and a high degree of sympathy with the human condition.

While defeating Nazism was of profound importance, Grossman is scathing of what happened to the ideals of the Russian Revolution. There can be little surprise for a reader who discovers that the realist writer encountered harsh censorship. Nonetheless, by illuminating the kindnesses and braveries of which people are capable, Grossman ensures that his novel is not a disappointment for a genuine socialist.