This line is a refrain throughout one of my favorite novels of all time, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
You’ve probably never heard of this book. Most people haven’t. My exposure to it is one of the greatest bits of luck I’ve had — it was required reading in an English class during my sophomore year of college, and, right from the opening boozy pub scene, I was hooked.
It was one of the first times I realized you could write “literary” novels about people like me. Maybe not a shocking insight for most, but, for me, it was a revelation. Arthur Seaton, the main character, is a factory lathe worker in Nottingham during the 1950s, a kind of pseudo-Marxist-philosopher everyman who rails against the evils of modern society in plain language.
He’s a proto-punk: you could see how the same character born twenty years later would have been the frontman for his own Sex Pistols, reveling in the anarchy of frenetic rock-reincarnate bliss (which may explain why Arctic Monkeys stole the title to their seminal album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, from this book).
But he wasn’t born twenty years later; he was born into the working-class world of the decade, trying to navigate it as best he could, grabbing whatever pleasure he could get. A hard life indeed, if you don’t weaken.
On the eve of what will be, let’s say, an interesting few months (or years), this line feels especially relevant.
It says what we all know: this is a marathon. All of it — the world, the election, politics, your job, your vocation outside of your job, the ticking clock that is always right outside your perception, never fully in focus but never fully gone either, and the fact that it’s Monday and have you taken the trash out yet?
It is all unending. Until it finally does end. Maybe when that happens, we can all find some solace. But in the meantime, you have to find a way to grind out every day. It’s as simple as it is exhausting.
I go back to this book a lot. A piece of me is embarrassed by this. Let’s just say, it’s not exactly Ulysses. I’m like a child going back to his teddy bear: something I should have grown out of, but haven’t. Instead, I just have this creeping concern that (sort of like Arthur Seaton himself) I probably should have moved on from this kind of juvenile behavior by now.
Maybe I haven’t grown out of the book because of its truth. It is a hard life if you don’t weaken.
An interesting phrase. It makes you wonder — what happens if you do weaken? If life is already hard, does it get easier? Or just harder?
By the way it’s phrased, this line argues that this “hard life” is actually a gift. I think this is part of the reason why the back cover of my copy has the following pull-quote: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” Strange, because these words never appear in this exact order at any point throughout the book. Somehow, the struggle inherent in our existence is a part of its value.
And maybe that’s why I haven’t grown out of this book. That’s the whole point: you shouldn’t grow out of your ambition for a better life, no matter how naive or adolescent it may seem. Don’t let the bastards grind you down — another catchphrase of Arthur’s from the book (he’s got a lot of them).
It’s also how I’m feeling about this whole music thing. It’s a hard life if I don’t weaken, if I don’t throw in the towel, give it all up and save myself the heartache.
It’s a marathon. It’s a goddamn war of attrition. It takes work to create a good life, to create a better world. But I think the alternative must be worse. Or at least a whole lot less fun.