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Up From the Coal Mines

Saville by David Storey Harper & Row, $10.00, 506 pp.

By Julia M. Klein

BECAUSE I insist on being one thing, it doesn't mean I've to deny being another," declares one of the characters in Saville. But straddling two worlds is not so easy. Between the dark drudgery of the coal pits and the cold, clean life of the middle classes, there can be little dialogue. Colin Saville, bred from the mines to escape their pull, stands between the two worlds mute and placeless; all that remains for him is to rage wordlessly at the circumstances which have set him free.

Such freedom as Colin possesses is merely the badge of his isolation. Coached by his coal-miner father, he has made it past the crucial examinations into grammar school, the English ticket out of the working classes. But the long bus rides, the harsh school regimen, the summers spent working as a farm laborer are only the downpayment on his escape; the price for fulfilling his parents' dream is one that Colin, severed from a past which lingers to haunt him, must keep right on paying.

The lingering imprint of the past on the present is a theme which haunts David Storey's work. That imprint is evident in the way Storey borrows from his earlier creations in constructing Saville, which uses characters, situations and even dialogue from his play In Celebration. In the play, the three Shaw sons, all upwardly mobile, rejoin their working-class parents for a celebrations which founders on old family conflicts. Saville focuses on a strikingly similar family, exploring the genesis of those conflicts with sensitivity and style.

Storey's method is that of the playwright: character and plot emerge mainly through dialogue, backed up by simple, controlled description. Blatant authorial intrusions are rare. Like his Victorian predecessors, Storey remains outside his characters, looking in; he avoids interior monologues, allo ing the feelings of his characters to surface in their words and actions. Colin is the focal point of the novel--Mr. and Mrs. Saville are always referred to as "his father" and "his mother" even when the antecedent is unspecified--but Storey refuses to lose himself in a single point of view, preferring the role of a restrained omniscient narrator.

Colin's story begins before Colin's birth--in the mysterious wanderings of his older brother Andrew. Between Andrew and his mother there exists a bond religious in intensity: he is "both a trophy and a burden, she the successful recipient and suffering host." Her suffering reaches its apex when it turns out that Andrew's persistent excursions from home have an otherworldly goal; after his death of pneumonia, the longing for escape which was his by nature is projected onto Colin by his ravaged parents with a fervor which is again religious.

THE SAVILLES' RELIGION is, in fact, upward mobility, and it is this which is to be their gift to Colin. To evade the mines, the eternal sameness and the dirt of pit life--for this, his parents' goal, Colin must struggle to harmonize the different requirements of village and school. The task is almost impossible. Returning home by bus while his more prosperous schoolmates take the train, Colin encounters an increasing demand for sacrifice and his parents' barely concealed scorn for the life they have foisted on him.

Love is no kinder to Colin. Keeping company with the feminist Margaret--who believes she can balance her womanhood and her career ambitions--Colin finds himself incapable of performing a similar balancing act. As the relationship deepens, he begins to see the poverty and dreariness of his origins through her eyes--clearly enough to understand why she leaves him for his glib, middle-class friend Stafford. But that understanding serves only to deepen his anger and his isolation.

Set in the mid-century Midlands, Saville tells its story of individual alienation within the larger story of a society in transformation. The bleakness of the depression years, the depredations of world war, the nationalization of the mines--these provide the backdrop against which Storey's characters move. The landscape Storey describes is not only social, but literary: beside the stolidity of a Lawrentian mining village, he sets the formal rigidity of a Dickensian public school, with its masters almost comic in their severity. Through this landscape flits the mystical figure of Stafford, Colin's foil, who, like Dickens' Steerforth, sloughs off the spoils of his prosperity and talent with the same ease with which they accrue to him.

Stafford's facility finds its parallel in Storey's own gift for creating character and scene. Storey's style is unobtrusive; but the sense of reality which eludes Colin is all about him, in Storey's precise depiction of the fictional world he inhabits. The effects in Saville are rarely obvious; our passport into Colin's dilemma is understatement and the slow accumulation of detail. Storey uses strings of adjectives almost lovingly. Writing of Colin's mother, he says: "It was as if her life had flooded out, secretly, without their knowledge, and she some helpless agent, watching this dissolution with a hidden rage, half-apologetic, half-disowning." It is this dissolution, the steady draining away of life and resolve, which afflicts so many of these characters.

OFTEN, in contemporary novels, the protagonist sees his identity as bound up in the past, in the acknowledgement of his roots. Colin too suspects that his identity derives from the world he has left behind, and he is constantly looking back, hoping it will overtake him. But when he turns toward Saxton, his home, he finds it empty of meaning, as insensible as the coal to which his father has mortgaged his existence. "It's no good hanging on," Colin finally tells the older woman he deserts, with sudden insight. The alternative, beautifully inevitable in Saville, is to walk fearlessly ahead into a vacant future, armed only with the prayer that life, freed from its bondage to the past, is indeed limitless.

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