Sunday, 24 January 2010

"The Small Back Room" by Nigel Balchin

Like many writers, particularly those of the twentieth century, Nigel Balchin fought a long, losing battle with alcoholism and passed away in 1970 at the age of 61. Incidentally, he is buried in Hampstead Cemetery (which, despite its name, is not in Hampstead) close to the grave of another fine writer, Alan Moorehead, whose African Trilogy would probably feature on my list of desert island books.
Balchin is remembered chiefly for his two novels set during WWII, Darkness Falls From the Air and The Small Back Room, the latter of which I have just read for the first time, though of course I had seen the film. On the evidence of these two books he is a very good novelist and deserves to be better remembered (or, sadly, perhaps just remembered).
The central character in The Small Back Room is a first person narrator and he tells the story in the terse, clipped prose of the time. That is not to say that the book is dated, for it still reads very easily over half a century later, but simply a description of what to expect. He has, we learn at once, an artificial foot which occasionally hurts like hell, and he tells us in the opening scene that this is one of those times.
Perhaps with auto-biographical feeling, Balchin also has him pursue a somewhat over-enthusiastic approach to alcohol, partly because whisky (difficult to come by in wartime) is one of the few things he finds effective as a painkiller. This in turn increases the moods of black despair which frequently come upon him.
This is a bleak book, there is no doubt about it. The hero is intolerant of others, particularly those whom he considers of lesser intellect such as the military and civil servant types with whom he has to work. He is tormented by his foot. He struggles to understand how his girlfriend could want to be with someone like himself, and all these elements combine, with the alcohol, into downward spirals of depression.
The woman, incidentally, is of almost unbelievable goodness, in a Wagner / Schopenhauer sort of way, symbolising redemption through love. When regarded during his blacker moods, she adds sexual suspicion and jealousy to the mix.
Despite everything, the book is what the Americans call life affirming. There is no deus ex machina emerging suddenly to make everything all right, but there is an acknowledgement that life is what it is, not what you would like it to be, and that acceptance of this can bring peace, of a sort.
Balchin's books are out of print which, as I have said many times before, seems to have become one of the inevitable qualities of a fine writer, but please look out for them in second hand bookshops. They are both well worth reading.

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