Author Alan Biltons father worked as a track walker for British Rail. The family managed without a car until he was 17, enjoying as they did free rail travel. His father loved Charlie Chaplin. Obsessions with train journeys and silent film are Alan Biltons childhood legacy, and both are crucial to his first novel, The Sleepwalkers Ball , published next week. The novel was launched in a 1950s restored railway carriage, La Charrette, the smallest cinema in Wales, at the Gower Heritage Centre. Here the author will introduce to a select audience (the cinema seats only 23 people) two screenings of Buster Keaton films, High Sign, and Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton is a projectionist who falls asleep and enters the world of the film he is showing.
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 undergrads, 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.
The novel features 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 trains 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, to Russian novels. The 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. Modelled on silent film, the author chose to cast 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 (and strangely black and white) Scottish city dominated by a castle, it is based on Alan Biltons 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 peoples working day. Im aiming for this tension in the novel, between work and play, dreaming and doing, my naive happiness then and the melancholy hopelessness all around. The Sleepwalkers Ball is united by a charismatic tour guide who 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 hook up, though finally finding happiness.
Hoping to build on an increasing popular interest in silent comedy, Alan Bilton admits hed like his 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, An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction (New York/Edinburgh, 2002), America in the 1920s (co-ed with Phil Melling, Helm, 2004), and is currently working on a third, Constantly Moving Happiness Machines: New Approaches to American Silent Film Comedy. His forthcoming book on silent film connects slapstick comedy to American culture in the Twenties, especially through themes of consumerism, mass consumption and the ideas of Hollywood as Americas dream factory, themes which also occur in The Sleepwalkers Ball.
As a kid, Alan says, I adored Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. But if Stan Laurel messed up or Charlie Chaplin was trapped, I got so worried. Slapstick comedy is about anxiety as well as wish-fulfilment: a game without consequences and a nightmare version of adult life. In my novel I 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.
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.