Saturday, October 28, 2006

The crouching monster

Yesterday being a most miserable day, a mix of uncooperative people and failing technologies (of many kinds and in multiple physical locations), I was looking forward to stopping by the library (Sergei Bondarchuk's film adaptation of War & Peace finally came in!), but alas, my journey by public transportation was marked by shortcomings both human and mechanical.

I arrived remarkably without having sworn at anyone (out loud), stepped on anyone's feet (deliberately), or pushed anyone down. What better place to compose oneself than in a library, I thought. So rather than simply pick up my film, I thought I'd see what Dumas offerings there were to be had (in English, though the French section turned out to fare little better), and there were scant three offerings: two I'd read, and the third I don't feel a pressing urge for. And at this, my spirits sank, further. So I reached deep into the recesses of my mind for the list I store there of books and/or authors I'm continually on the lookout for; one author name found therein is Patrick Hamilton. Have you heard of Patrick Hamilton? Have you read him?

It's been well over a year that Patrick Hamilton was added to that list (for Doris Lessing's mention of him), the particular title to watch for being Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, which in my book is one of the best titles ever (and I say that still, without having read it, knowing barely anything about it). I'd never heard of him, for some reason assumed he was contemporary, and only very recently discovered that he wrote in the interwar period and is dead. Knowing this aided my search technique a little, the name rising to the top of the list in my browsing of certain shops and falling off the list entirely when in others, but I haven't yet come across a book of his.

And so it was that I scanned the library shelves for his name, and felt like I'd found treasure when amid Janes and Ruths and others I espied two volumes by Patrick, though the bindings were ratty with titles difficult to make out. I passed over, for now, Hangover Square (his masterpiece, bigger, darker, and sounding more political than I'd expected) and alighted on the slimmer The Slaves of Solitude.

It begins thus:

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

The men and women imagine they are going into London and coming out again more or less of their own free will, but the crouching monster sees all and knows better.

Reading this helped my own soul to breathe, lifting it a little above the jostling crowds of my Friday gone wrong.

So this was the treasure I took home with me, and I am wowed like I do not remember having ever been previously wowed, every page being quotable, and clever almost funny (in a dark way); I'm finding it achingly bleak and beautiful, somehow true. But achingly. So sad, these slaves.

(The Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943. It was published in 1947. My library copy was borrowed once in each of 1959, 1977, and 1993, according to the stamps. I expect I'm the only borrower since. And that's a crying shame.)

I'm not quite a third of the way through the novel. To this point the story focuses on Miss Roach, a 39-year-old secretary who lives in a boarding house in Thames Lockdon, having been bombed out of London.

Here, for two hours or more every evening, the guests of the Rosamund Tea Rooms sat in each other's company until they were giddy — giddy with the heat, the stillness, the desultory conversation, the silent noises — the rattling of re-read newpapers, the page-turning of the book-reader, the clicking of the knitter, the puffing of the pipe-smoker, the indefatigable scratching of the letter-writer, the sounds of breathing, of restless shifting, of yawning — as the chromium-plated clock ticked out the tardy minutes. Finally they went to their bedrooms in a state of almost complete stupefaction, of gas-fire drunkenness — reeling, as it were, after an orgy of ennui.

Hamilton is a keen observer of human behaviour: the dialogue is spare and often interrupted — character interactions are very brief — but heavily laden with petty power games, ambitions, motivations, and second-guessing. It's a very rich picture of empty lives.

(I learn this evening that Patrick Hamilton wrote the plays Rope and Gaslight, the film adaptations of which I am familiar with (the former being one of my very favourite of Hitchcock's).)

I'm off to bed, to spend my extra clock hour with Mr Hamilton's Miss Roach (sympathetic, yet perhaps no better than any other character we may pass), her American lieutenant (a love interest, if she decides to think about love, and he stops behaving as if everything were inconsequent), her vulgar German friend (potentially a rival? "Her English accent was curiously in keeping with her cigarette smoking — a little too excellently polished, a little too much at ease, and conscious of being so. Her skill here, however, was remarkable, and could only have been acquired by one who had spent, as she had, the greater part of her adult years in England. It was, when first meeting her, only in the consciousness that she was speaking English extraordinarily well that the listener realised that she was not English."), and her rooming-house nemesis, Mr Thwaites.

(I think I'm in love with Mr. Hamilton.)

This is the part I'm at now:

Gloomy as both these enforced excursions were, Mrs. Barratt's soul was saddened less by the cemetery than by the Park. The Park, in fact, was the cemetery — the burial-ground, to those elderly ones who came slowly limping along its asphalt paths to sit down and stare, of hope, vivacity, enthusiasm, animation — of life, in the positive sense of the word, itself. Where the cemetery spoke greenly and gracefully of death and antiquity, the Park spoke leaflessly and hideously of life-in-death, or death-in-life, amidst immature municipal surroundings. Though of small, almost miniature dimensions, and bearing the singular characteristic of running by the side of a river, Thames Lockdon Park closely resembled other parks of its kind all over the country. Dominated by a small red-brick building, which was seemingly deserted all the year save by the gardener, and devoid of all furniture save the gardener's brooms, machines, and tools, Thames Lockdon Park, within its small acreage, contained and enclosed with neat hedges a green bowling-green, a green putting-green, a brown hard tennis-court, a sandy enclosure with swings for children, and a small recreation-ground for games of all sorts.

Threaded through these were the asphalt paths, bordered in places with grass verges and flower-beds, and ornamented here and there with brand-new trees about ten feet in height. Though much was thus offered to the public, little, even in the summer, was taken advantage of, and more was forbidden — Cycling, Spitting, walking on the grass, picking flowers, defacing the Corporation's property, removing its chairs, using the bowling-green, putting-green, or tennis-court without asking its permission, etc., etc. — these ordinances being proclaimed in white lettering on green boards here, there, and everywhere, and a reward of forty shillings being in some cases offered to amateur detectives of culprits.

Backed and tolerably comfortable seats, each accommodating five or six persons, were placed at intervals facing the river, and to these Mrs. Barratt — oblivious of putting, bowls, and tennis, or of the temptation to Cycle, remove or deface — went to sit. Nor was Mrs. Barratt, this morning, alone in the pursuit of this object, the unexpectedly fine and warm day having brought out several other people of a similar mind, age, and constitution from the boarding-houses of Thames Lockdon, of which there were many.

Nor was this weak, semi-tottering parade of death-in-life in the winter sun taking place in Thames Lockdon alone. Though happening so quietly, and as it were clandestinely: though utterly unknown to and unsuspected by the busy world of train-takers, office-goers, and workers, it was as much a feature of the English social scene generally as train-taking, office-going, and working. At eleven o'clock each morning, far and wide over the land — in Parks, in Gardens, on Sea-fronts — in shelters, on seats, in crazy-paved nooks; beneath walls, behind hedges, facing flower-beds, these inert and silent sessions were in progress, out of the wind and forgotten by the world.


Anonymous said...

Oh, what a wonderful find! I love the imagery of London breathing its commuters in and out each day. Such beautiful writing.

Your writing wrapped around the quotations is quite lovely, too.

Anonymous said...

my quest is to have this book in my hand sometime tomorrow. this goal might prove difficult, since it was reviewed by a much revered boston globe columnist in todays paper. thankyou for giving a peek along with ur loving comments. can't wait.