Literary Review: W. A. Harbinson - Knock
The most unfortunate circumstance of the original publisher's, Intergroup, prematurely folding before W. A. Harbinson's novel Knock reached distribution in 1975 sadly deprived readers of a sensational work by this best-selling author. Until now. Knock has at last been re-published and therefore is at long last obtainable for the reading pleasure of the general public.
W. A. Harbinson's Knock is the story of a London postman, simply known as 'Postie'. Or rather, of his last week on earth before shuffling off his mortal coil. The storytelling is not just masterful and spellbinding as you would indeed expect from Harbinson. It is far more than that. Written entirely in a stream of consciousness narrative (that of 'Postie', of course) and interspersed with a few supremely crafted surreal dream sequences, Knock is a veritable tour de force written by a true virtuoso, as riveting as it is moving, as sad as it is funny, and moreover an almost improbably mature work when you reflect that the author was a mere thirty-four years of age at the time it was written.
Harbinson's use of language is always beautiful and outstanding. With Knock, this beauty excels and exceeds that of the Irish literary tradition stretching from Charles Lever and Samuel Lover through James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and on to James Patrick Donleavy - a tradition to which this work and Harbinson clearly belong - to attain, dare one say, Shakespearean heights. This applies particularly to the various snippets of elegant 'dialogue' that you instantly feel could have come straight out of one of the bard's comedies, albeit in a modern vernacular.
'Postie' indubitably would be as at home in the streets of Dublin or Belfast as those of London where the novel is set, and possibly more so. And so, indeed, would most if not all the other characters. This quite erudite 'Postie' with the gift of the gab is quite the loveable bit of a rogue that, to a greater or lesser degree, most of us men surely must admit to identifying with. At least. if we're honest. And haven't been entirely emasculated by the concept of the politically correct 'metrosexual man'.
Post-Stalinist 'political correctness' had, thank goodness, not yet reared its ugly head when Harbinson wrote Knock. Even if it had, it seems very doubtful that it would have been allowed to intrude. Thus, 'Postie' is a reasonably thorough, good old-fashioned MCP - 'male Chauvinist pig' - who wears his badge with some pride. His extramarital affair is a matter of course, although handled discretely, of course. 'Postie' is, after all, a sensitive and kindly soul. And considerate to a fault. He is easy-going, witty and funny, often quite satirical. And averagely lustful and lecherous. 'Postie' is Harbinson's Leopold Bloom. 'Postie' is ever curious about and fascinated by life as it presents itself all around him, and he has the rare gift of empathy, even compassion. But in the course of his rapidly progressing illness, of which he is blissfully unaware, his complex character undergoes a drastic transformation.
As this comic tragedy unfolds it takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride that can only end in tragedy - indeed, a foregone conclusion, this. The passing away of 'Postie', in his street of dreams, away from his family, is as inevitable as night following day, but no less sad and tragic for it. Ultimately, all may be futile, but this is a comic tragedy and therefore the futility is full of humour and a certain irony. Above all perhaps, there always remains an undercurrent of optimism.
A little vignette of life, Knock is a curiously timeless novel, at least for now. (The kind of local pubs encountered here are already getting somewhat thin on the ground, especially around London and the South East of England. Whether posties will still be around in any recognisable shape or form in ten years time may also seem doubtful, given on the one hand the seeming determination of politicians of all persuasions to rid themselves of yet another public service and on the other, the inexorable onward march of technology.) One could still imagine Knock being set in the present. Certainly, its underlying theme of the human condition will remain timeless as long as society continues in its present form.
So long as there isn't a fundamental change in the human condition, there will always be 'Posties' and Eleanor Rigbys (an oblique tribute to The Beatles - yet another stroke of genius so characteristic of Harbinson), Miss Lovelorns, Hans Wernhers, Archie Browns, Mrs. Whittakers (aka Pig Features) and their squalid offspring, Louise Bleakleys and parents, Daniels and Davids, Pete Whelans, and Marges and Bills and Franks... And of course not forgetting 'Postie's' own nearest and dearest. Universal characters, one and all.
The original insightful foreword to Knock by Colin Wilson (The Outsider) in the present edition has been appended as an afterword. Maybe that is where it actually fits best. One cannot help but agree with much of Wilson's text, particularly when he states that 'Any resemblance [of Harbinson] to other writers is due to a similarity of vision rather than deliberate imitation.'
W. A. Harbinson's Knock is without a doubt the most outstanding work of literary fiction of the late 20th century and still remains unsurpassed. Despite its somewhat abortive start (as explained earlier), Knock is more than alive and well. A different kettle of fish from Harbinson's more mainstream works, to be sure. A work of singular beauty, elegance and supreme artistry, W. A. Harbinson's Knock is an unforgettable and utterly compelling read. And herein perhaps lies Harbinson's greatest genius - in always remaining accessible to the general reader. If the term 'literary fiction' might put you off for being too high-brow or some such, ignore the label and just think of Knock as a gripping, superbly told story that you really shouldn't miss for anything. A true masterpiece.
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