Nigel Balchin’s Contemporaries
For the purpose of this exercise, I have defined Balchin’s contemporaries as those writers born within ten years of him and I detail any known links between them and Balchin. Some of these people authored at least one work of fiction that I think has a fair bit in common with a Balchin novel; others really have little or nothing in common with Balchin in terms of their writing style or subject matter but are simply fine novelists whose work I enjoy reading. Do let me know if there are any other writers that you feel should be added to this list.
Nevil Shute (b. 1899)
Like Balchin, Shute was a trained scientist who for many years held down a full-time job and only wrote in the evenings. Despite marked similarities in the two men’s backgrounds, careers and war service (Shute was a lieutenant-commander in the navy during World War Two) they have surprisingly little in common as novelists. Shute frequently tended towards sentimentality in his writing and introduced fantasy elements into his plots towards the end of his career. Balchin was hard-edged, ruthlessly realistic and more world-weary. However, I do feel that a novel like No Highway (1948) could perhaps have been written by Balchin, although he would undoubtedly have treated the romantic side of the story very differently.
Elizabeth Bowen (b. 1899)
Between 1942 and 1955, Elizabeth Bowen reviewed almost all of Balchin’s fiction for the Tatler and Bystander, and was always very complimentary about it. It was Bowen who described Darkness Falls from the Air as “one of the most remarkable novels I have struck this season”. On other occasions she said that Balchin “never lets the reader down” and complimented him on being “a master story-teller”. Bowen’s most celebrated novel, The Heat of the Day (1948), is set in London during the middle years of World War Two and therefore shares some common ground with Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room.
Geoffrey Household (b. 1900)
Although his fiction is very uneven, I include Household in this selection on account of his superlative 1939 ‘novel of pursuit’ Rogue Male and a handful of others such as A Rough Shoot (1951), Watcher in the Shadows (1960) and Hostage:London (1977). Balchin and Household were part of a distinguished crowd of writers (others included Elizabeth Jane Howard and Philip Larkin) who served on the Management Committee of the Society of Authors in the mid-1960s. I am not aware of any other links between the two men although Balchin did of course dabble in the political thriller genre (which Household specialized in) with 1966’s In the Absence of Mrs Petersen.
George Orwell (b. 1903)
Orwell and Balchin shared a literary agent, Leonard Moore, during the middle years of the 1930s. Whilst clients of Moore, they both published a novel (Balchin’s Simple Life ; Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying ) partly set in an advertising agency. That aside, there are few obvious connections between the two writers but the novels they penned during the 1930s can generally be hung on the ‘social realism’ peg and displayed a willingness to engage with contemporary issues and to propound certain non-conformist philosophical viewpoints.
Evelyn Waugh (b. 1903)
There is little to connect Balchin and Waugh as writers or, indeed, as human beings. However, it should not be forgotten that Balchin’s novel Lightbody on Liberty (1936) was a comedy in a similar vein to the novels that both Waugh and Anthony Powell were writing at around the same time. Along with Balchin, Waugh fell victim to the vituperative journalism of Daily Express columnist Nancy Spain in the 1950s.
Patrick Hamilton (b. 1904)
Hamilton’s milieu (grimy pubs, tatty boarding houses and cheap hotels) is a relentlessly down-at-heel working class version of Balchin’s, which was almost exclusively middle class. Both men achieved fame via the film world, although Hamilton (unlike Balchin) also succeeded as a playwright. Hamilton tends to be more interested in trying to generate humour than Balchin but both writers share an intense interest in the human condition and are meticulous observers of the mundanities of everyday life.
Graham Greene (b. 1904)
Greene is widely regarded as being the better writer but Balchin’s novels are perhaps more enjoyable. Both men demonstrated tremendous versatility throughout their careers, excelling across a broad range of disciplines: novels, short stories, journalism, screenplays, etc. In their novels, both Greene and Balchin display an obvious sympathy for the underdog. Published in the same year, 1951, Greene’s The End of the Affair and Balchin’s A Way Through the Wood dissect the break-up of a marriage in a somewhat similar way. In the mid-1930s, Balchin contributed two pieces to Greene’s short-lived periodical Night and Day.
Henry Green (b. 1905)
Published in 1929, Green’s Living is consistently held up as an exemplar of that under-rated and under-populated genre ‘the factory novel’. I can’t believe that Balchin had not read Living when he made his most significant contribution to the genre with 1953’s Sundry Creditors. In Living, the author is primarily concerned with the fortunes of the workers (Green himself worked for a while on the shop floor of his family’s factory in Birmingham) whereas Balchin in Sundry Creditors focuses more of his attention on infighting between various company directors. Although I prefer Sundry Creditors as a novel, Living is a memorable and striking piece of work.
Anthony Powell (b. 1905)
Balchin and Powell don’t have much in common as prose stylists but there are a few links between the two men. Balchin’s third novel, 1936’s Lightbody on Liberty, was a comedic work constructed along similar lines to the comic novels that both Powell and Evelyn Waugh were writing in the mid-1930s. I have long thought that Balchin’s superb roman fleuve The Fall of the Sparrow can be regarded as a massively condensed version of Powell’s magnum opus A Dance to the Music of Time, a book which, incidentally, is my favourite novel of all time. Finally, Powell reviewed several of Balchin’s books, often quite snippily, in the Times Literary Supplement in the 1940s.
Helen MacInnes (b. 1907)
MacInnes was a thriller writer who wrote more than twenty espionage novels (several of which were filmed) between 1941 and 1984. She thus has much more in common with Eric Ambler (see below) than with Balchin. However, the one MacInnes novel I have read to date, 1941’s Above Suspicion, does have something of a Balchin flavour, reminding me a little of the likes of A Way Through the Wood and In the Absence of Mrs Petersen.
Eric Ambler (b. 1909)
Balchin and Ambler met shortly after the end of the Second World War. They did not get on at all on that occasion which is a pity because they were so alike both in terms of their backgrounds and the fact that they succeeded as ‘technocratic’ authors who demonstrated a sound grasp of the scientific and technical subjects they interwove with the plots of their novels. Ambler wrote exclusively political thrillers and so has little in common with Balchin in terms of writing genre. There is however some definite overlap between Balchin’s In the Absence of Mrs Petersen and Ambler’s markedly superior The Schirmer Inheritance (1953).
Victor Canning (b. 1911)
I have only read two of Canning’s novels to date (Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern) but both of those books I would highly recommend. At first glance, there would appear to be a number of connections between Balchin and Canning. Both found fame comparatively early on in their writing careers but struggled to gain critical recognition for their work in later life; both served in the army during World War Two (Canning trained alongside Eric Ambler in the Royal Artillery); both worked for a time in Hollywood and wrote extensively for film and television. Most importantly, both Canning and Balchin were talented all-rounders who mastered a wide range of writing styles and forms. Click here to visit a fantastically comprehensive website dedicated to Canning.
Gerald Kersh (b. 1911)
I have read very little of Kersh’s work to date but he was another highly prolific jack-of-all-trades who excelled at the short story and the novel. Kingsley Amis, an admirer of Balchin’s The Small Back Room, also read Kersh whilst on army duty during World War Two. Kersh can be thought of very much as a ‘London writer’ as London is the setting for many of his novels, and the same epithet can also be applied to Balchin. Two of Kersh’s novels that I’m very much looking forward to reading in the near future are Night and the City (1938) and They Die With Their Boots Clean (1942).
Roy Fuller (b. 1912)
Fuller is known first and foremost as a poet but I was introduced to his prose work about eight years ago and have never regretted it. Stylistically, Fuller shows little similarity with Balchin. But Image of a Society, Fuller’s 1956 masterpiece, is extremely Balchinesque; in fact, it comes close to out-Balchining Balchin by virtue of its setting, structure and intentions. The story is set in the offices of the Saddleworth Building Society, somewhere in northern England, and Fuller intertwines the personal lives of his cast of characters whilst also describing their working routines in compelling forensic detail. As such, the book functions almost as a pendant to Sundry Creditors, which was published just three years earlier.
Pamela Hansford Johnson (b. 1912)
She was of course married for many years to C. P. Snow, who is often compared to Balchin as a scientist who could write (although most good judges agree that Balchin was the better novelist). Hansford Johnson reviewed a great many of Balchin’s books in the 1940s and 1950s, often for John o’London’s Weekly, and was generally quite positive about them. It was she who coined the phrase ‘Balchin’s Formula’ when reviewing A Sort of Traitors in 1949, suggesting that many of his novels adhered to a template. I am also very fond of the fact that, according to Clive James, Hansford Johnson once observed that “the trouble with most Balchin novels is that everything in them is relevant”. That statement is (a) very perceptive and (b) true, although whether you consider this perceived failing to be problematic or not will depend on your mindset. I have only read three of Hansford Johnson’s novels to date but would warmly recommend the volume in question, which goes by the name ‘The Dorothy Merlin Trilogy’.
Elizabeth Taylor (b. 1912)
In terms of their plots and prose styles, Taylor and Balchin have nothing whatsoever in common. They do share a personal connection though: in 1970, both served as members of the ‘Guiding Council’ of the International Writers School, an offshoot of the notorious American correspondence course The Famous Writers School. Taylor once said that “I write in scenes rather than narrative, which I find boring”. Her detailed, minutely observed novels, among the best of which are Palladian (1946), A Game of Hide and Seek (1951) and In a Summer Season (1961), are deeply rewarding.
Julian Maclaren-Ross (b. 1912)
There are few parallels between Balchin and Maclaren-Ross. They did however both serve in the army during World War Two and extensively documented their experiences of the military in a fine series of novels and short stories. In May 1953, Maclaren-Ross wrote a long review of Sundry Creditors for the TLS, which he combined with a penetrating assessment of Balchin’s career up to that point. Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love And Hunger (1947), a fabulously entertaining story about the pre-war travails of a vacuum cleaner salesman, can perhaps be classed as a ‘work novel’, like many of Balchin’s. Click here to visit an excellent website devoted to Maclaren-Ross.
John Mair (b. 1913)
I’ve racked my brains but can think of nothing under the sun that can be said to link Balchin with Mair. But I feel able to include Mair in this survey on the strength of his wonderful 1941 political thriller Never Come Back which has recently been reissued (click here to buy a copy). Never Come Back is an exciting and intriguing ‘man on the run’ novel that stands comparison with the best work of Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household and is well worth a read for that reason alone.
Hammond Innes (b. 1913)
Aside from an abortive attempt at his Air Bridge (1951) when I was aged about seven (!), I have not read the work of Hammond Innes. But he established himself on the back of a series of novels based on his wartime exploits in the army and so has at least that much in common with Balchin. I would imagine that Innes’s novels more closely resemble those of Nevil Shute than those of Balchin although all three writers probably occupied broadly similar territory during the 1940s.
Alexander Baron (b. 1917)
A newish discovery for me and, on the face of it, a novelist who would appear to have very little in common with Balchin. But Baron, who served as a private soldier during the Second World War, drew inspiration from his wartime experiences for many years afterwards when writing novels, two of his best books along those lines being From the City, From the Plough (1948) and There’s No Home (1950). As Balchin was still writing about the war and its aftermath as late as 1955, in the guise of The Fall of the Sparrow, it can be seen that there is some overlap between Baron and Balchin in terms of the subject matter of their fiction.