Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Twenty thousand reasons

But I need give you only one: it's painfully beautiful.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, by Patrick Hamilton, contains 3 volumes — The Midnight Bell (Bob's story), The Siege of Pleasure (Jenny's story), and The Plains of Cement (Ella's Story). They were originally published separately (in 1929, 1932, and 1934) before being collected (in 1935), and each is self-contained.

The Midnight Bell is a pub where Bob is waiter and Ella is barmaid. (Much of the first volume is autobiographical:) Bob falls in love — rather, develops an obsession — with Jenny, a prostitute (the middle book tells how Jenny came to live the life she lives). Ella, meanwhile, is courted by a regular.

The pub is peopled by authentic "characters" — take Mr Sounder, whose first beer is in the nature of an investment as he relies on other patrons to pay his expenses.

These people's lives are replete with authentic non-events — the difficulties of umbrella-sharing, for example.

I've quoted from each of the volumes as I made my way through them (1, 2, 3, 4). I don't know what Hamilton's appeal is to me. There's a directness about very complicated thought processes. His dialogue is simple, neatly captured. But he can be verbose too. It's all very dark, but there's a clever wit. A tragic trueness. It's best, I guess, to let those excerpts speak for themselves.

Dan Rhodes in the Guardian says, "It's bleak and brilliant, and an authentic lost classic."

Ella's story is my favourite. She's the sensible one; she knows her weaknesses, but even she can't help but give in to them (making her most tragic of all, perhaps). Ella is ordinary, and her story, like that of most ordinary people everywhere, involves a lot of nothing in particular.

And, indeed, what had taken place in those dull months? Nothing, really, whatever — nothing out of the common lot of any girl in London, if you came to think about it. She had had an elderly admirer, (what girl has not been in such a dilemma at some time or another?) about whom she had not been able fully to make up her mind. Nothing in that. A connection of hers had been ill — a stepfather whom she disliked, and there had been domestic troubles. Nothing in that. She had been depressed by the fogs and the cold — who had not? She had looked for another job, but it hadn't come to anything — an ordinary enough occurrence. She had had what the gentlemen in the bar would have called a slight 'crush' on the waiter. But that was not the first time a girl had 'crush' on a man she worked with. You soon get over that. No — seen from an outsider's point of view she was lucky if she had nothing more to grumble about, and the gentlemen committed no error in tact in joking with her and teasing her just as usual.

This summation occurs in the final pages, and after all that had transpired it brought tears to my eyes. On top of everything, Ella's story has the very saddest closing sentence I've ever read.

Twenty Thousand Streets is published as a Vintage Classic. (A reading guide is available, but the first discussion point is a bit wrong-headed. The 3 volumes are not the same story from different points of view; they are the stories of 3 different characters that intersect and intertwine in the months up to Christmas. In fact, the bulk of Jenny's story, which starts just after Christmas, is a flashback to events taking place at least a year beforehand.)

The Random House UK website has a great deal of supplemental information, including Hamilton's own thoughts on this book in particular and on writing in general.

My present book is I think, streets ahead of what I've done before. . . there is only one theme of the HardycumConrad great novel — that is, that this is a bloody awful life, that we are none of us responsible for our own lives and actions, but merely in the hands of the gods, that Nature don't care a damn, but looks rather picturesque in not doing so, and that whether you're making love, being hanged or getting drunk, it's all a futile way of passing the time in the brief period allotted to us preceding death. It is the poet's business to put into words the universal wail of humanity at not being able to get everything it wants exactly when it wants it.

I urge you to pick up a copy of Twenty Thousand Streets before it's again allowed to fall out of print. Help ensure that doesn't happen.


Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed reading your Patrick Hamilton posts over the past few months. I sure will buy this book, based on your various articles, which have been so involving and mesmeric.

LK said...

I have added Patrick Hamilton to my possible authors list to read during my Neglected Books month.

Carrie said...

(Followed your link from Semicolon) This sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the review.