Although Alan Bilton is an English lecturer teaching in Wales, who specialises in American fiction and silent film, this, his first novel, has its roots firmly in Scotland. Set more or less in Stirling (where he was an undergraduate), the town's mixture of gothic antiquity, tenements and 1980s wasteland of construction sites, car parks and laundries provides a grittily detailed setting for a surreal, dream-like journey.
At first we are introduced to a rather sinister tour guide shepherding his soaked and nervous flock on what may be a 'ghost-walk', but the spirits we track are aspects of one man's life. Hans, whom we encounter and accompany through four interlinked sections, is a dreamer – always seeking something, always missing his chances. His life begins among the washing-lines of a tenement-yard and continues through aimless jobs, grubby pubs and lonely flats, through the recurring nightmare of a hellish station and train journey to the whimsical dream of a castle ball. His path keeps crossing that of a lost girl (Clara) who is forever struggling with luggage and plagued by physical unease. This is not, however, an account of a life lived but of many possible fates of Hans and Clara – they might die at several points – but a story can be re-written, a film re-edited, a boy and girl escape their grey fate.
Despite the depressing potential of the material, this novel is often as funny, touching and compelling as a Chaplin film. It transmutes its ‘dreich’ contemporary material into a timeless (and frequently time-line crossing) quest which owes something to Gogol and Kundera as well as Buster Keaton. Its grey/black/white landscape is sometimes splashed with riotous colour and outrageous characters like the 'gorgeous, aflame' paint-factory girls and the wonderful barmaid obsessed with creating immortal art from the detritus around her – or the saga of lovers united by a wardrobe.
Repetition is very much the fabric of this novel as lives are re-configured around the same streets and objects but some of the nightmare sequences of downpours and crowded trains could do with a bit of pruning. Nevertheless, the author's joy in language and storytelling carries us along like ‘crazy Klezmer music’, at once sad and riotous.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Alan Bilton teaches American Studies at Swansea University. His nonfiction titles are An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction (New York/Edinburgh University Press) and the three-volume (co-authored) America in the 1920s (Helm). He is currently writing a book on silent film comedians for NY University Press.
The first of his family to be university-educated, Alan Bilton is now an academic specialising in silent film, and has taught literature and film at the universities of Manchester, Liverpool Hope, and currently, Swansea. His official activities range from showing Chaplin movies to bored nineteen year olds, to taking film clips to graduate classes in Spain and the US, and delivering conference papers on silent film and American Literature in Prague, Mississippi, Zaragoza, Rennes, Nicosia, Seattle and Oslo.
Hans is a dreamer, a waiter, a security guard, a young man tending elderly parents, a layabout, an old man scribbling his memories. Driven out in his pyjamas into a strangely black and white Scottish town, Hans sets off in search of both his girl and the one mysterious thing that will solve the riddle of his life. Clara is the art school girl with the lovely round face and ants in her pants, the crazy girl from the pub, always hindered by luggage or her dodgy innards, the sleepy waitress at the ball in the castle grounds, the blowzy dame with the world’s most beautiful mouth. But can they find each other in time? Set sometime around now, and yet also any time, this is a beautifully surreal romantic comedy wrapped around the forms of the silent film and the Gothic city ghost tour. A cross between Kafka and Mary Poppins, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball is filmic, funny and lyrical in turns. Always moving, it follows two lives: a man and a woman, and their many attempts to hook up together.
“A script put together by Franz Kafka, Spike Milligan and Charlie Chaplin at a drunken party to celebrate the twinning of Royston Vasey with the Gorbals. A welcome addition to Celtic Gothic.” Lloyd Jones
"**** (Four-star review), The Sleepwalkers' Ball is by no means a mere ghost story. It's also a modern rom-com, a satire of the urban grind, and an exquisite study of voice and perspective, all rolled into one. I could see Guillermo del Toro or Terry Gilliam turning their hands to filming it, only with flashes of Allen Ginsberg, Neil Gaiman, and even Monty Python thrown in for good measure. The Sleepwalkers' Ball is a nightwatch like no other, filled with stormy, punchy writing, and featuring some of the best descriptions of weather, old age and drunkenness I've read in a long, long time. Above all, though, it's a rampant celebration of the simultaneity of the mind and the power of dreams, walking the tightrope between fantasy and reality with the greatest of ease." James Hogg, www.inpressbooks.co.uk
"A confident storyteller, using mythological structures mixed with street and shop talk... as enchanting as the ball to which the brothers Grimm send their twelve dancers, wearing out their pretty shoes by morning... Bilton has the craft of an artist, not just a writer." Sian Melangell Dafydd, New Welsh Review
DM Thomas of The White Hotel endorses Scottish paean to British Rail, the Golden era of silent comedy and Kafka
Author Alan Bilton’s father worked as a carriage works and track worker for British Rail. The family managed without a car until he was 17, enjoying as they did free rail travel. They often ate dinner collected by Dad: headless train-kill rabbit – the victims of bunnies’ counter-evolutionary habit of listening too late on tracks for the train coming. His father loved Charlie Chaplin. Obsessions with train journeys and silent film are Alan Bilton’s childhood legacy, and both are crucial to his first novel, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball, published on 29 April.
DM Thomas, the author of The White Hotel, in which train journeys also prominently appear, has provided this novel with a cover endorsement: “Alan Bilton's artfully interwoven narratives, part zany city guide, part silent film, create an imaginative whole which is poetic, inventive, surprising and pulsating with life.” Nightmarish train journeys: the anxiety of lateness; losing or merely lugging around luggage; the pressure of packed stations and waiting for loved ones; carriages which are chopped up and fed to a train’s furnace while a bride and groom look on, en route to their honeymoon: all appear or recur in this fantastically surreal and stylish debut.
Alan explains, “The idea of a rail journey as a metaphor for life has a long modernist pedigree – from Freud’s argument that all dreams about travel are really dreams about death, to Russian novels like The Zero Train or The Yellow Arrow. The nightmarish journeys in The Sleepwalkers’ Ball are influenced by war images, or one of my favourite films, 'Closely Observed Trains', which like my novel, is a slapstick comedy about death, and also juxtaposes the romantic with the sinister.”
The novel’s second endorsement, by novelist Lloyd Jones, hints at its filmic and surreally comedic pedigree: “A script put together by Franz Kafka, Spike Milligan and Charlie Chaplin at a drunken party to celebrate the twinning of [the League of Gentlemen’s] Royston Vasey with the Gorbals. A welcome addition to Celtic Gothic.” It is very much a European novel along the lines of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark with echoes of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. Modelled on silent film, the author chose to recast silent film actress Clara Bow as his leading lady, creating an exaggerated emotional world of slapstick happening and reoccurence, into which the reader could project their longings, fears and fantasies. Set in a fictional dour and strangely black and white Scottish city dominated by a castle, it is based on Alan Bilton’s experiences as an undergraduate in Stirling, “I was there in the Thatcher era: the town was run-down, depressed, violent at the edges... but I had discovered European films, modern art, books, and love too. Stirling was this amazing Kafka-esque Gothic place, all granite blocks, twisting cobblestones and the castle, and then you had the grim reality of most people’s working day. I’m aiming for this tension in the novel, between work and play, dreaming and doing, my naive happiness then and the melancholy hopelessness all around.” As well as borrowing forms from silent film slapstick, comic books and the folk tale, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball is united by a strong and charismatic voice, drawn from Music Hall, a tour guide of the type that leads literary or haunted city sites; he takes the reader around the city, dipping in and out of the lives of Clara and her would-be suitor Hans Memling as they meet, miss, find and fail to connect up with each other, but finally find happiness.
Made up of four inter-connected stories, these gradually link in the novel to tell a tragi-comic tale of idealised and lost love; old age; losing grip, and the perils of drifting, dreaming and sleepwalking. Underpinning it is the notion that, as in a dream, the same characters - the lazy daydreamer Hans; Clara, the crazy girl from art school – turn up in different guises and places, but that slowly their stories merge mysteriously into one. Beautiful recurring imagery and comic scenarios guide the reader like landmarks in a lyrical mist, and include pyjamas; problematic shoes; fat faces; barrels, tubs and wardrobes; dodgy innards; a dishevelled band; meaningless jobs; terrible toilets; impromptu carnivals in unlikely places, flying laundry and timid lovers.
Hoping to build on an increasing popular interest in silent comedy fanned by Paul Merton’s recent TV series 'Silent Clowns', Merton’s book, Silent Comedy, and Paul Auster’s silent film-themed Book of Illusions, Alan Bilton admits he’d like his hyper-enthusiasm for this art form to spread beyond academia. Nevertheless, his credentials in the latter regard are impeccable, as he has written two nonfiction books, one of which includes the silent film era, America in the 1920s (co-ed with Phil Melling, Helm, 2004), the forthcoming Constantly Moving Happiness Machines: New Approaches to American Silent Film Comedy, and widely published essays, including in The Invention of Illusion: Paul Auster and Silent Film (Cambridge Readers, 2009). His forthcoming volume on silent film covers key figures Chaplin, Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, and connects slapstick comedy to American culture in the Twenties, especially consumerism, mass consumption and Hollywood as a dream factory, some of which themes occur in The Sleepwalkers’ Ball.
“As a kid,” Alan says, “I adored the standard early clowns; and later got into Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But I must have been kinda nervous, because I was desperately anxious even about the stupidest scenario. If Stan Laurel messed up or Charlie Chaplin was trapped, I identified with them so strongly. After all, slapstick comedy is about anxiety as well as wish-fulfilment: a game without consequences and a nightmare version of adult life. And because of the lack of sound, everything seems so phantasmal, robbing everything of their weight. In my novel I hope to have created cartoon-like and grotesque characters that we identify with emotionally but who are also apparitions shifting in time and space, in the way that silent film occupies a space between comedy and terror.”
With the author poised to teach his novel next autumn at the universities of Zaragoza, Bath, Swansea and Manchester, as well as promotion at Scottish festivals and international academic conferences, he hopes that his novel may survive the filter of such varied competitions as the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic writing; the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, and Le Prince Maurice’s Prize for love stories. Born in York, living in Swansea and passionate about Scotland and early Twentieth-century America, Alan Bilton is one of the few writers who still describe themselves as British.