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Novelist John Braine Dies at 64; Wrote ‘Room at the Top’

Times Staff Writer

John Braine, whose tortured anti-hero in “Room at the Top” became a symbol of much that was wrong in postwar British society, died Tuesday in a London hospital at age 64.

His family said he had died of a bleeding stomach ulcer.

“Room at the Top,” Braine’s first novel in 1957 and its sequel, “Life at the Top,” in 1962, described the struggles of Joe Lampton, a self-centered clerk striving for upward mobility but stuck in the British welfare state.

The successes Lampton finally achieve come at the expense of his self-esteem and instead of the ambitious and angry campaigner against caste he once had been, he transforms, deserting the woman he loves (she commits suicide), marries into money and retreats into a conservative and unfulfilling existence.

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Braine’s life paralleled that of his protagonist, for he was working as a librarian in industrial Yorkshire and earning less than $2,000 a year while writing the book.

Both the Lampton books were made into films starring Laurence Harvey. “Room at the Top” won Oscars for actress Simone Signoret and scenarist Neil Paterson.

Although Braine would go on to write several more novels, it was his Lampton sagas that made him a part of a group the critics came to call “the angry young men.” They included playwright John Osborne and novelists Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Keith Waterhouse along with Braine, and the sobriquet came from Osborne’s first play, “Look Back in Anger,” a satire on the middle class.

These writers painted common portraits of workers trapped in bleak, usually industrial surroundings, who were caught between the dreams of success instilled in them as youths and the bleak economic realities Great Britain faced after a devastating war.

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Like most of his contemporaries, Braine then held socialist views, but he, like Lampton, became more conservative. The London Standard wrote Wednesday that Braine was “an un-angry old man” after he moved to London’s Hampstead district in 1983, and he enjoyed the tolerance of the cosmopolitan neighborhood while continuing to rail against standard dogma.

Early this year, he hoped to raise $37,000 from the auction of his diaries but bidding failed to reach that figure and they were not sold.

Warned that his health was failing, he kept on smoking even though breathing had become difficult, the Standard said. The paper quoted him as saying, “Two world wars were fought on smoke.” His retort to government health warnings about smoking was, “If a government’s against something, I’m for it.”

The anthology “Great Writers of the English Language,” sums up Braine’s career by likening him to his creation, Lampton. “His early successes put him at the very top and, in a sense, he has been trying (through his later, largely unsuccessful novels) to hold on to his place there ever since.”

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