Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Man Who Won the Pools (1961) by J. I. M. Stewart

The Man Who Won the Pools

A young electrician in Oxford wins an enormous lottery jackpot and has some educational experiences among the higher and lower classes.

There is a psychological tradition in the classic British novel and a perhaps stronger melodramatic one. Stewart, both under his own name and as Michael Innes, borrowed from both, but it was the melodrama that never let him go. Sometimes its grip on him seems so strong, even in his 'straight' fiction, that one wonders if it could be just from lack of trying, consciously opting for the easier choices. A lottery win is, of course, pure melodrama to begin with, but the novel starts in what could at least seem a psychological vein, and as usual Stewart can be quite subtle about his characters' interactions and inner states. That's what makes jarring the sudden melodramatic turns of events which puncture this narrative at regular intervals. It's like there were two different books in here spliced together by different authors - one of them, quite possibly, Michael Innes, as some of the incidents wouldn't be out of place in a John Appleby thriller. It's a likeable but slightly disappointing novel, especially when one knows what Stewart was capable of (The Last Tresilians - also not without its share of melodrama, but under much tighter control).

The main subject seems to be the British class differences, and the conclusion is, apparently, that they can't be surmounted by love or money. The only way across is the way of the mind - an education. And that, perhaps, not so much a way across as the way that makes class differences immaterial. At the end of the book the working class protagonist and an Oxford undergraduate he's befriended discuss Piero's Flagellation - while the former is planning to study engeneering at Cambridge. It's almost like a meeting of Snow's two cultures and the birth of a new Renaissance man from a proletarian mould. Stewart I think voted Labour so it may well have been an idea dear to him, whether or not he could accept it as at all realistic. All in all, the book reads rather like a fantasy - almost like something out of H. G. Wells, who also followed the melodramatic tradition and was even deeper involved with Labour. Only with Wells it would have been on a larger scale - a miraculous substance, let's say, instead of a pools win, which would have sent the whole of humanity into IQ stratosphere, to embrace knowledge and social progress. What I would have liked from Stewart is a novel about a man who made all that money and then discovered its limitations. But such a subject would probably have been less open to melodrama (and, anyway, it's sure to have been covered by Henry James or somebody like that).

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