Brilliant Baron is back

A forgotten fiction writer, who stands comparison with Mailer and Heller, makes a welcome return to the bookshops.

By David Herman, June 10, 2010
Alexander Baron: vivid, vigorous and versatile in style and output

Alexander Baron: vivid, vigorous and versatile in style and output

From The City, From The Plough
By Alexander Baron
Black Spring Press, £9.99

The Lowlife
By Alexander Baron
Black Spring Press, £9.99

One of the most exciting developments in Anglo-Jewish writing in recent years has been the rediscovery of Alec Baron. He was a prolific writer, producing a dozen novels, one book of short stories and more than 150 television screenplays. King Dido, a powerful novel about violence and gang warfare in the East End before the First World War, was republished last year. Now we have arguably his two best novels, From the City, From the Plough and The Lowlife, both revived with excellent introductions that illuminate different aspects of Baron's life and career.

From the City, From the Plough was Baron's first novel. Published in 1948, it was a critical success and sold over half-a-million copies. V S Pritchett wrote that it was, "the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me." Largely based on Baron's own wartime experience, it tells the story of the fictitious 5th Battalion of the Wessex Regiment in the final months of training leading up to D-Day and then during the Normandy campaign.

For a war book, there is curiously little action, at least until the dramatic and deeply moving climax in northern France. Instead, as Sean Longden points out in his illuminating introductory essay, "the focus is largely on relationships - both within the core group and with outsiders - and emotions". In particular, it vividly conveys the two worlds the men inhabit: home, and the new world of being a soldier.

Some are hardened veterans, who have already fought in North Africa. Many are young men, like Baron, who joined up at 22, and went on to experience fierce fighting in the Italian campaign, Normandy and Belgium. Some might recognise Baron in the figure of Corporal Gonigle, "the solemn little corporal", quiet and bookish, in his horn-rimmed spectacles.

Like his Jewish-American contemporaries, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller, Baron immediately found his voice as a writer in his first war novel. He had the ability to bring to life a wide range of characters, including the chirpy Cockney, Charlie Venable, brash but with a heart of gold; the violent scouser, Scammock; young Alfie and his first sweetheart, Floss; "the mad Major", perverse, courageous, hated by the men; and many more.

Baron weaves between their stories, in short, sharp episodes (which clearly prepared him for the demands of television drama). These are punctuated with extremely moving moments, free from sentimentality or cliché. "There was no sentimental talk," he writes, "no soft singing or playing of harmonicas, no writing of farewell letters." Indeed; just human drama, beautifully told.

The Lowlife (with introduction by Iain Sinclair), from 1963, is a very different book showing how Baron was at home in more than one genre. It tells the story of Harryboy Boas, Jewish East-Ender, loner, addicted to gambling on the dogs. This is Baron's world, the East End he grew up in. It is Harryboy's world, too. Having fought in the war, now 45 he lives in one room in a shabby boarding house straight out of Pinter's The Caretaker.

Harryboy is a survivor from a lost world. His parents are both dead, his sister has married well and moved away and his beloved East End is full of negroes, Cypriots and Indians. Baron catches the new world of 1960s' London, with its racial tensions and social change. Harryboy watches it all, unblinking, like Bellow's Sammler or Herzog, lamenting the past, perhaps never to be at home in the present.

Both novels are full of powerful drama, yet the real substance is in Baron's characters: creations of one of the 20th century's finest Anglo-Jewish writers.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011