Friday, 22 May 2009

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Tibor Fischer is a justly celebrated novelist, but let us turn now to yet another of my special interest areas, namely unjustly neglected novelists.

Patrick Hamilton was born in Sussex in 1904 and died in Sheringham, Norfolk, where by coincidence I spent much of my teens, in 1962. Of cirrhosis of the liver, I should add, which tells you all you need to know about his drinking habits. His personal life was itself the stuff of popular fiction. His father was a spendthrift as a result of which the family never really had a home and lived in a series of south coast boarding houses. This also effected Hamilton's schooling - he finally left for good at the age of 15. His father's first wife was a prostitute who ended up committing suicide, and Hamilton himself was also to fall in love with one.

Interestingly, though many people today may not recognise his name, they would certainly recognise two of his early plays, Rope and Gaslight, both of which were made into films, and which provided him with financial security. They would also doubtless remember the TV series The Charmer, which is an adaptation of two of Hamilton's novels.

His real reputation as a novelist, however, rests on three books, the last of which I have but recently read. Hangover Square, set in Earls Court, is a marvellously dark story featuring quite possibly the most awful woman ever created in English fiction, a selfish tease who expects everyone else in life to exist for her own personal convenience. 20,000 Streets Under the Sky is actually three books, the first of which is heavily auto-biographical as it chronicles the sad self-delusion of a man who falls in love with a prostitute. Then there is The Slaves of Solitude, which also features regular pub scenes and a frightful female character, but also a truly sympathetic one, Miss Roach, though in fairness there is also Ella in 20,000 Streets, silently nursing her unrequited love for Bob.

Miss Roach lives in a boarding house in a thinly disguised Henley on Thames, and many of the boarding house scenes and characters must surely be drawn from Hamilton's memories of boarding house life so long before. There is the resident bully Mr Thwaites, the unspeakable vamp Vicky who steals Miss Roach's man, and the awkward Mr Pest, who turns out to be not so awkward after all, but full of fun and genuine sympathy, and possessed of a secret theatrical life to boot.

This time it is a woman who falls in love with an unsuitable man, rather than vice versa, but the results are equally predictable. Her American officer is, she admits, inconsequential. He turns up or telephones on a whim, and blows alternately hot and cold. In her eagerness not to give offence, Miss Roach boxes herself into one corner after another, but the worst one of all is when she manages to convince herself that he is in love with her and secretly pining to marry her.

I am a speed reader and the greatest compliment I can pay a book is to recognise that one has to slow down and read it almost at speaking pace in order to savour the prose. This happens at once with this novel, as Hamilton's style is superb. In describing the elderly people who sit in the same park every day, for example, he writes:

"whereas the cemetery spoke greenly and gracefully of death ... the park spoke leaflessly and hideously of life-in-death or death-in-life, amidst immature municipal surroundings."

Miss Roach, we learn, has previously had an offer of marriage from an elderly admirer (an echo of Ella in 20,000 Streets), which she turned down.

"...her liquid, loving eyes, looking shyly out of the taxi window, were probably less those of one sympathising with the man she was rejecting ... than of one contemplating, with resigned sadness, the joy which would have been hers had she now been receiving, or had ever in her life received, an offer which she could reasonably accept."

Miss Roach is one of life's inoffensive, self-effacing creatures who probably glimpse their own personality but shyly, and make a hopeless hash of assessing other people's. Then, when offence is given, she is incapable of responding in kind. Others, predictably, take advantage of this.

This is a very fine novel indeed, set in an atmospheric wartime England, the black-out "like moonlight gone bad", the crowded trains, the sudden light from within a pub as the door opens and shuts, its warmth and noise drawing in nice middle class single women who would never have thought of entering a pub on their own before the war.

He is not afraid of using dramatic conventions, including sudden death. However, there is a very nice touch at the end when he introduces that fictional staple, the unexpected inheritance. Yet, where this brings freedom and peace of mind to many a character down the ages, Hamilton, as with Dickens in Little Dorrit, realises that it can simply release someone into a whole new type of anxiety and unhappiness. As the newly affluent Miss Roach settles awkwardly and embarressedly into the Ritz Hotel for the night, we leave her deciding which of the two beds in the room to sleep in. The final words are Hamilton's, and surely some of the bleakest ever to close a novel:

"God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us."

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Good to be God, by Tibor Fischer

I was happy to be asked to review Tibor Fischer's most recent novel as part of a blog tour as I was captivated by Under the Frog, and The Thought Gang is one of my favourite novels, a book that I have recommended to countless people.

It is difficult to review Good to be God without giving away the plot, so let me just say that it is a tale of stolen identities, and fake religion veering into organised crime. Standard Fischer fare, then, an anarchical story shot through with black humour. I thouroughly enjoyed reading it.

I think the problem for me with Fischer is that The Thought Gang is so very good that it stands head and shoulders above anything else he has written. It is also very different, though this latest book is probably closest to it in style. This raises the question: was TTG just a briliant idea, brilliantly executed but essentially unique and unrepeatable, or has Fischer been deliberately experiementing with different ideas and styles in the meantime? Since he is clearly a novelist endowed with exceptional technical skills, one is prepared to believe the latter, but if so then he really should concentrate on what, I believe, he does best.

Personally I hated Voyage to the End of the Room, and The Collector Collector wasn't much better; interesting ideas do not not necessarily translate well into full length novels. Intriguingly, Fischer's situation may parallel that of Quentin Tarantino, who is attempting to kick-start his career with the release of Inglourious Basterds at the Cannes Film Festival. I think my reaction to Good to be God is similar to the assessment of the critics who have seen the film: that it has enough touches of Tarantino's genius to resuscitate his reputation, but that it is still not up to the standard of his earlier masterpieces.

I cannot believe that Fischer is really a one-trick pony. He is far too good a novelist for that, certainly one of the best English novelists of the last twenty years. I believe that he may be like Picasso, so bored with existing conventions once having mastered them at an early age that he feels the need constantly to be exploring new territory. That's fine, but you need to take your audience with you. Perhaps it is this realisation that has brought him back towards Thought Gang territory. So, like the Tarantino critics, I think this book shows that he still has what it takes, but it leaves me only half-convinced.