Language and form in The Lonely Londoners
The Lonely Londoners is regarded by many critics as a pioneering text in Caribbean migrant writing, not only because of its subject matter, but also because of its innovative use of literary form and technique. Before I ask you to read it in its entirety I’d like you to spend some time looking closely at the first few pages of the novel.
First, read from the beginning of the novel to the end of the second paragraph on p. 4 (which ends ‘he wish he was back in bed’) and then think about the following questions:
- What type of narrative perspective is used here? Do you find anything immediately striking about the voice of the narrator?
How does the narrative perspective change in this extract?
- What impression of London is given in this section?
- How does Selvon develop the character of Moses?
- I hope you recognised this extract as an example of third-person narration. The first thing you probably noticed was that the narrative voice does not adopt a Standard English mode of expression: phrases such as ‘when it had a kind of unrealness about London’ and ‘as if is not London at all’ (p. 1) reflect the idioms and rhythms of Caribbean speech.
Although the narration remains in the third person, I think there are some subtle shifts within that perspective in this passage. Frequently, the narrator seems to represent Moses’ consciousness. From describing his actions in the second paragraph – ‘When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose’ – the narrative shifts to describe Moses’ feelings about the demands placed on him by others: ‘That was the hurtful part of it – is not as if this fellar is his brother or cousin or even friend’ (p. 1). It is as if we are reading Moses’ thoughts, expressed in his own voice. The perspective remains in the third person, but I think our identification with Moses increases here.
- The London setting seems to me shadowy and ambiguous, effects created by the references to the ‘fog’ and the ‘blur’ that makes the setting seem as unfamiliar to the reader as it would have been to new migrants at the time. Note the evasions and qualifications in the description: ‘a kind of unrealness’; ‘some strange place’, and the otherworldliness of the reference to ‘another planet’ (p. 1). This version of London seems a rather sinister place.
- As this extract progresses, Selvon’s narrative strategies give us a clearer impression of Moses and his status as a well-known figure in the migrant community, an authority on living in London. Moses seems to take on this role grudgingly, blaming himself for soft-heartedness and berating those who send new migrants to him, but the extract also shows him to have a sense of duty towards his compatriots, evidence of a strong community spirit that unites these migrants from all over the West Indies: ‘But all the same he went out with them, because he used to remember how desperate he was when he was in London for the first time and didn’t know anybody or anything’ (p. 3).
The combination here of a non-standard voice and narrative techniques that render what for many readers would be a familiar setting in unfamiliar terms evokes sympathy, or at least empathy with the narrative voice. It seems that the reader is viewing the events and characters from a perspective within the community that is being described – the kind of community conventionally denied a literary voice.
In shifting the narrative focus to represent Moses’ consciousness, Selvon adopts a technique called focalisation. Although the third-person narrator can still be described as the ‘speaker’ in the second paragraph, Moses becomes the ‘focaliser’: the character through whose eyes and perceptions the narrative is mediated:
He had was to get up from a nice warm bed and dress and come out in this nasty weather to go and meet a fellar that he didn’t even know. That was the hurtful part of it – is not as if this fellar is his brother or cousin or even friend; he don’t know the man from Adam.
The level of exasperation in the narrative voice at this point seems to capture Moses’ frustration, rather than reflecting the narrator’s view. This kind of deep focalisation relies on the use of free indirect style. Moses is not speaking aloud here, but his consciousness is rendered as though he were speaking, though in the narrator’s third-person, rather than in the first-person.
The close correlation between the narrative voice and the voices of the Caribbean migrant characters is for many critics one of the most innovative elements of Selvon’s writing in The Lonely Londoners, having a crucial effect not only on form but also on subject matter. According to Kathie Birat: ‘by placing his characters in an unfamiliar context, he makes language, and particularly the characters’ search for a language capable of capturing their experience, the subject of the story’ (2009, p. 19). As discussed above, the effect created – making the familiar seem unfamiliar – also impacts on the non-Caribbean reader, rendering the London environment strange even to those who know it.
Selvon was by no means the first writer to explore West Indian migrant experience: as early as 1934 Jean Rhys (1890–1979), in her novel Voyage in the Dark, focused on a young woman from the Caribbean struggling to come to terms with life in London. Nor was Selvon the first to adopt innovative uses of free indirect style, but his experimentation with the dialect voice in exploring his subject matter and deploying his narrative techniques was something new at the time: ‘I think I can say without a trace of modesty that I was the first Caribbean writer to explore and employ dialect in a full-length novel where it was used in both narrative and dialogue’ (Selvon in Nasta and Rutherford, 1995, p. 74). In the opening pages of the novel, the key effect is to narrow the distance between narrator and character.
We will return to Selvon’s literary style later, but now I want you to read the novel in its entirety. Don’t worry too much about any unfamiliar terms or phrases, but aim for a general understanding of the content and structure of the narrative.
When you have completed your first reading, think about the following questions:
- How would you describe the structure of the novel? What is Moses’ function in the narrative?
- What is your overriding impression of the characters’ experience of London?
- I’d describe the structure of the novel as episodic, consisting of a succession of anecdotes, shifting from character to character, creating a complex web of interrelations between vividly drawn figures from different areas of the Caribbean: Moses, Galahad, Big City and Bart are all natives of Trinidad; Tolroy and his family originate from Jamaica, as does Harris; Five Past Twelve is from Barbados; and Cap is not from the Caribbean at all, but from Nigeria, though ‘many times you would mistake him for a West Indian’ (p. 35). From the white perspective glimpsed occasionally in the novel, migrants are reductively categorised as Jamaican, but Selvon is at pains to stress the variety of his characters’ origins, often through their reminiscences about the lives they left behind. Formally, this is reflected in the use of a dialect voice that equates to no specific Caribbean location, but amalgamates different dialects. These characters are united by the language, which also forges a link between them and the narrative voice, and by their common struggle to survive in British society. They are also united by their shared connection to the figure of Moses, whose presence links the various narrative threads.
- These characters’ experience of London is largely negative, but the use of exaggeration and comic interludes offers a more life-affirming counterpoint to the recurring motifs of disillusionment and alienation in the novel. Despite their disparate backgrounds there is also a sense of kinship connecting these characters.
Critical discussions of the novel’s structure have made comparisons that bear in different ways on our concept of ‘literatures’, relating The Lonely Londoners to other narrative forms, both literary and non-literary. For Nasta, in her introduction to your edition of the novel, the fragmentary structure offers evidence of the influence on Selvon’s storytelling strategies of Trinidadian calypso, a musical form ‘well-known for its wit, melodrama, licentiousness and sharp political satire’ (p. xiii), in which, furthermore, as Donnell and Welsh have suggested, ‘we can finally locate a working-class uneducated voice representing its own perception of cultural and social issues, as opposed to the conscious downward gaze of the intellectual and writer’ (1996, p. 125). This gives the narrative a recognisable oral dimension that, in drawing on a non-Western and non-literary source, reinforces the challenge to conventions of literary language and form posed by the use of a modified Caribbean dialect, and facilitates the articulation of a voice – that of the black working-class immigrant – that had hitherto been largely denied recognition in literary fiction.
Similarly, in his introduction to the 1985 edition of The Lonely Londoners, Kenneth Ramchand endorses the idea of a relationship between Selvon’s approach and an oral storytelling tradition, prominent in societies that did not privilege the printed word. He also stresses the novel’s status as a written text, seeing it as ‘feed[ing] on oral literature and on the stuff that oral literature itself also draws upon without losing its identity as writing’ (Ramchand, 1985 , p. 10). The connection here with oral literature reflects a challenge to traditional conceptions of the literary that gives primacy to the printed over the spoken word. Despite its ‘written’ status the language of the text prioritises voices excluded from the literary mainstream at the time it was written.
Sukhdev Sandhu offers yet another slightly different view of the novel’s structure, describing it as:
a series of loosely related sketches of metropolitan life. To read it is to undergo a series of jolts and tumbles as characters flit in and out of view; comic vignette rubs up against mordant reportage. The effect is rather akin to that of a whitewashed wall that, over time, has become a messy riot of colour as fly-posters, graffiti art and community news-sheets vie with each other to adorn it with newer and ever louder information.
Sandhu’s interpretation invokes a range of textual forms that do not fit into traditional definitions of the literary – ‘reportage’, ‘fly-posters’, ‘graffiti art’, ‘community news-sheets’, and so on – that further highlights the novel’s somewhat problematic status as ‘literature’ when set against canonical expectations. As we shall see later, the novel also engages in subversive interactions with canonical models and references.
The critical perspectives outlined above may differ in emphasis, but the common thread that links them is the close relationship between form and language, subject matter and themes. I want now to explore this relationship further by considering Selvon’s techniques of characterisation. The Lonely Londoners has a relatively large cast of characters, but there is not space here to discuss them all. Instead, I want to focus on how three characters are depicted: Moses, Bart and Galahad, comparing the representation of their migrant experiences: how they respond to the disillusionment that many critics have seen as central to the theme of migration in West Indian writing; the role that memory and reminiscence play in providing a contrast with their experiences in London; and how they are portrayed through Selvon’s distinctive use of language and form.