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Boston Globe: " Hamilton's novels are filled with drinking, murder, madness, unrequited passion, loneliness, casual cruelty, the anomie of modern society, dismal, drenching weather, and humor --the words "black comedy" spring to mind."

Date: Jun 20 2007

Whiskey, war, and bad wallpaper

Even as you read these words, a Patrick Hamilton revival is well under way in Britain. Can it be drifting across the Atlantic? The recent republication of the novels Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947) suggests that it is. But there remains one question: Who is this guy?

Patrick Hamilton was born in 1904 in West Sussex, England, to a former singer and her husband, a bullying, improvident, alcoholic comedian and historical novelist. Leaving school at 15, he knocked about the theater, took up writing, and published his first novel when he was 19. He gained financial success with his plays "Rope" and "Gas Light," both of which, of course, became movies. Along the way he wrote a number of novels including a couple of trilogies. He made a lot of money, squandered it, and was often broke. He was hit by an automobile in 1932 and was seriously injured and disfigured -- though I just saw a photograph of him in the Times Literary Supplement taken circa 1940 and he looks good to me. Hamilton was a Marxist, but fortunately for those of us who read for pleasure he did not pack doctrine into his fiction. He had a tormented love affair with a prostitute and two marriages. He was a dreadful alcoholic and finally succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.

Hamilton's novels are filled with drinking, murder, madness, unrequited passion, loneliness, casual cruelty, the anomie of modern society, dismal, drenching weather, and humor --the words "black comedy" spring to mind. The two I've read are imbued with a decidedly noir-ish sensibility. Still, Hamilton has been compared with both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen -- strange bedfellows, if I may put it so indelicately, and neither exactly the first name in noir. But there is truth there: Hamilton's characters, like Dickens's, are almost surreal products of the distorting forces of their society: They are the peculiar spawn of the modern age, sometimes predators, sometimes unhardy shoots of humanity deprived of sun, their promise stifled. And both writers see kindness as the highest virtue. As for his similarity to Austen: His portrayal of how manners and social relationships are integral to identity are akin to hers, as is the wickedness with which he dissects social situations. And, while we're at it, I, personally, would like to compare him with Barbara Pym in his bleak, biting wit and interest in the rotten deal given to quietly decent people of reduced means.

Hangover Square announces itself as "a story of darkest Earl's Court." I have no idea what Earl's Court is like now, but it once epitomized the dreary, down-at-heel existence of temporary lodgings, unpaid petty loans, and all the bathos of expiring middle-class hope. The story begins on Christmas Day, 1938, its center occupied by George Harvey Bone, a weak and poignantly obsessive man who, as far as life is concerned, has pretty much missed the boat. He spends his days rationing his dwindling inheritance, drinking large whiskeys, and pursuing a worthless, selfish woman called Netta. He returns at night to his room at the Great Eastern Hotel (a "large glorified boarding house") , where he sits in misery before a gas fire. ("To those whom God has forsaken is given a gas-fire in Earl's Court." )

This doesn't sound like much fun, I know, and will sound like even less when I tell you that George appears to be losing his mind. He is suffering from schizophrenia -- or at least a literary version of the condition, whereby he snaps in and out of two different personalities, one sad and one mad. The goal of the latter is to kill Netta, and as she reveals herself more completely we quite see his point. She and her ghastly friends -- brilliantly created creatures of the saloon bar -- use George in a wholly indecent manner. Netta, herself, is scarcely human; indeed, her thoughts resemble "those of a fish -- something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering slowly sideways without fully conscious motivation."

I think I will not insist on the comic nature of this book -- though I laughed many times. Its greatness lies in its conjuring of the period between the Munich Agreement (September 1938) and England's declaration of war (September 1939). It makes personal an atmosphere of deluded, cheap relief, of irresolution; and conveys all the crumminess of the sense of escape bought by a couple of stiff ones at mid-day.

The Slaves of Solitude begins in a boarding house in a suburb of London in 1943 where 38-year-old Miss Roach is lodging, having been bombed out of her rented room in Kensington. The place, the Rosamund Tea Rooms -- its name reflects its pre-war vocation -- is a claustrophobic, life-extinguishing nightmare. In the dining room, with its separate tables, the residents eat in self-conscious silence broken only by the sound of cutlery, furtive, murmured exchanges, and the tedious and malicious commentary of the house bully, Mr. Thwaites. The lounge, where the residents gather after meals, is airless and another venue for group repression. The bedrooms are meager and grim, clad in wall paper bearing "the mottled pattern of a disease of the flesh." The Rosamund Tea Rooms is, in sum, one of the great dwellings of English literature, as much a monument to a vanished world as to a condition of the soul. Hamilton describes it all with unmistakable relish, bringing a connoisseur's eye to every cheerless nuance and exquisitely bleak detail. And just as Munich is part of a piece with the dyspeptic atmosphere of "Hangover Square," so are wartime and its deprivations conflated here with the ambience of the boarding house. The blackout, for instance, and its heavy curtains suppress both light and spirit, making "the happy and unstrenuous lighting arrangements of the days before the war" seem festive and expansive in recollection.

Though I could have read about the life-sapping milieu and costive social life of the Rosamund Tea Rooms forever, the advent of a couple of American servicemen shakes things up and sends the novel off in a great number of surprising directions. Suffice it to say, these include the saga of "a feud between two women almost unparalleled in boarding-house history." I enjoyed every page of this novel, and have never had the pleasure of seeing the panoply of loneliness and depression employed to such brilliant comic effect.

by Katherine A. Powers