It's more or less obligatory when beginning a piece of writing on Patrick Hamilton to stress his relative obscurity, or at least to point out that he was best known in his lifetime as a dramatist, despite his preference for novel-writing. This is usually followed with a kedgeree of biographical data reminding us that Hamilton was the incarnation of a type beloved by literature, the early twentieth century middle class boy who embraced an artistic life with ultimately destructive consequence: alcoholism, flirtations of wavering conviction with leftist politics, and ill-advised inter-caste romances are topped off with an untimely death under the existentially belittling skyscape of North Norfolk. The more one really thinks about Hamilton, though, the clearer it becomes that his (apparent) neglect is the figment which completes his libidinal function, where the reading public is concerned. After all, nothing warms the cockles quite as much as another tale of a poète maudit eking out an impoverished existence whilst honing a work destined to be met with ambivalence or apathy.
As ever, the truth is rather more prosaic. Hamilton made a comfortable living from his stage work --Rope, of course, was the source text for Hitchcock's bravura one-take film-- and the money allowed him a certain prophylactic distance from the seedy Fitzrovian lifestyle that his most famous novel, 1941's Hangover Square, depicted. Moreover, there is an obvious levity in even his bleakest writing, an affinity for camp and whisky-whipped farce that sits uneasily with the image of the fragile aesthete.
It's a moot point as to which was Hamilton's 'best' novel. Many enjoy the gutter romanticism of the three works that make up the trilogy 20,000 Streets Under the Sky (1929's The Midnight Bell, 1932's The Siege of Pleasure, and 1934's The Plains of Cement), recently dramatised by the BBC to a reasonably favourable response. However, none of these three really stands up against Hangover Square, with its permanently jilted and drunken George Harvey Bone and his jaundiced Faulknerian rage. Hamilton's manipulation of his audience, which testifies to his skill as a dramatist, succeeds in making us sympathise with the ultimately murderous Bone. This unnerving proximity is also what allows his second trilogy, the story of the swindler and sadist Ernest Ralph Gorse, to be played for laughs. Hamilton always inquired into the dangerous edge of things, and doesn't spare his reader from having to do so too.
In between Bone and Gorse, though, there is the much more sympathetic protagonist of Slaves of Solitude (1947). Miss Roach - 'Enid,' should you ask, though she'd rather you didn't - evacuated from London to the starchy, transparently-disguised regatta town 'Thames Lockdon,' is having her own problems with radical proximity, namely the company she is obliged to keep in the Rosamund Guest House and Tea Rooms. (Setting is a critical part of the Hamilton mythology: latterly there has been a clear demand for a laureate of English melancholy, and Hamilton's poeticisation of net curtains and four-ale bars seems inextricably linked to his reputation as a 'lost' author.) Roach not only has to cohabit, but also break bread, with a grotesque petit-bourgeois cast. There's the "pince-nezed" Mrs. Barratt, whose life is taken up with a "preoccupation in pills, medicines and remedies for minor internal complaints - for indigestion, constipation, acidity, liver, rheumatism - as advertised in the daily newspapers and elsewhere." Then there's Miss Steele, whose avid enthusiasm for "fun," for "cocktails," for "broadmindedness," for those kindred spirits who, like her, are "cursed with a sense of humour" masks the sadness of an unspent youth. Most of all, though, there is Mr. Thwaites. Hamilton was always shrewd in his characterisations, especially when it came to the vanities and unfulfilled fantasies of the lower middle classes, but Thwaites surely takes pride of place in this gallery. A retired man, "somewhere between sixty and seventy," he exhibits "the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the dreams of others." Thwaites isn't, however, the most obvious of bullies. His method, to use a Woody Allen-ism, is passive-aggressive: he looks to instil guilt in others, striking in ways which leave no right to reply.
The passive-aggression of the middle-class bully has always been fuelled by a paranoid anti-intellectualism. Thwaites is certainly no exception to this rule:
As Miss Roach came in he was settling down in his armchair with a book and taking out his reading spectacles. Mrs Barratt, getting her knitting ready, asked him what he was reading. "This?" said Mr Thwaites in a slightly shamefaced way. "Oh - only something I picked up at the library. What is known in vulgar parlance, as a 'thriller' or 'blood-curdler,' I believe. It serves passer le temps." Miss Roach went over to warm herself before the fire, and Mr Thwaites went on. "It may well not be Dickens or Thackeray," said Mr. Thwaites, puffing at them with his silk handkerchief, "mais il serve pour passer le temps."
To echo Thwaites himself, this may not be the prose of a Virginia Woolf or a Henry Green, but it is an unerringly accurate depiction of the way power is manipulated, even now, in small-c conservative Middle England; indeed, one is almost expecting Mr. Thwaites to describe Miss Roach's tacit enthusiasm for the Russian advances of 1943 (which he, of course, feels very uneasy about) as "political correctness gone mad." Few writers, before or since, have been able to capture this double-edged rhetoric with the drunkard's clarity of Hamilton.
Rather fantastically, the novelist introduces himself into the story as one Mr Prest, a guest who sits alone at mealtimes, does not speak, and disappears on whole-day excursions to the West End to get tight with theatrical acquaintances. In this way Thwaites' cloying, intrusive idiocy is subjected to a detached critique from within the world of the novel. Although they don't know it, Prest views the inhabitants of the Rosamund- with the exception of Miss Roach, whose job in publishing gives her a modicum of intellectual worldliness in his eyes- "with the disdain of an original and educated man who had seen life for small-town ignoramuses too confined and paltry in their outlook to take seriously for a moment."
Two other prominent characters add to the volatility of this mixture. Vicki Kugelman, an expatriate German, takes advantage of Roach's friendship in order to inveigle herself into the Rosamund, where she befriends Roach's enemy Mr. Thwaites and publicly questions Nazi responsibility for the war, thereby offending Roach's political sensibilities. As if this were not enough, Vicki also moves in on the charming Lieutenant Pike, Roach's American who has hinted at marriage and a new life for her in the Midwest. Facing an uncertain future with the imminent opening of a new European front, Pike inspires a passable impression of hedonism at the Rosamund by dispensing spirits liberally, to make what might be his last days go with a bang.
In a recent Guardian article David Lodge claimed that "Hamilton's work [...] is neither modernist nor consciously anti-modernist, and it contains no anticipations of postmodernism." This is Lodge working to his own spec., and though his argument does admit the "unconscious anti-modernism" in Hamilton, it does not allow the possibility of a similarly unintended modernism. Whilst Hamilton's work is Dickensian in all the best ways (characters who become archetypes rather than fulfil them; an unflinching social critique; a permanent sense that 'life' is always somehow 'larger than life'), there is also something in Roach's situation which would not be out of place in Beckett or Sartre: the inertia that modernism so frequently dealt with may not be there in fact, but it is at least a thematic presence in Slaves of Solitude. Lodge's point might be nuanced by saying that, as of 1943, rationing and black-out had made life come to imitate the disordered stasis of much modernist art: "The war which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without something else gone or going."
The synthesis of a well-wrought mimesis and the realisation of modernism's existential dilemmas within that plausible setting is Slaves of Solitudes' greatest achievement, and it allows us to situate the book alongside similar works from the period which manage such an intermeshing of life and art: Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour (published in the same year), Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter (1948), and the far-too-obscure William Sansom's The Body (1949). All of these works make Lodge's categories of 'modernism,' 'anti-modernism,' and 'postmodernism' problematic, but the black comedy and enduring character sketches of Hamilton's novel perhaps make it the ideal point of access for those seeking to familiarise themselves with the fictions of indeterminacy that developed in parallel with the Orwellian dystopias and truculent Movement anti-modernism of the post-war period. --Joe Kennedy
Joe Kennedy is a writer, academic, and teacher, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on 1940s English fiction. Originally from Darlington, County Durham, he has lived in the Yorkshire Dales and Norwich, where he taught literature at the University of East Anglia. He currently lives in Budapest, Hungary. His review of Henry Green's Back appears below.--Ed.
Henry Green's Back
During the recent rediscovery of English mid-century writing, one figure in particular has presented challenges for literary archaeologists. While Patrick Hamilton translates well into semi-nostalgic small-screen adaptations, and Julian MacLaren-Ross's downbeat minimalism is amenable to reinvention as a precursor to more recent narratives of boozy, artistic lifestyles, the novels of Henry Green (1905-1973) have remained a largely academic concern. Green's novels are dense and elliptical, stylistically more proximate to William Faulkner or Gertrude Stein than to Graham Greene or Elizabeth Bowen, and determinedly resistant to adaptation, due mainly to the fact that they contain very little 'plot' to speak of. His sixth novel Back (1946) contains perhaps more narrative than the rest, and its setting during the final days of World War II might well make it appealing to scriptwriters looking to cash in on the era's current popularity.
The protagonist Charley Summers hasn't had a good war. From the scant back-story that the novel provides, it appears that he was captured by the Germans around the time of the fall of France, and, despite never having fired a shot in anger, was maimed and is now wearing a prosthetic leg. When the story begins he has just returned to England and is looking for the resting place of his lover, who died during his absence.
He had known the village this church stood over, but not well. He had learned the walk before he turned soldier, though he had met few of those who lived by. The graveyard he had never entered. But he came now to visit because someone he had loved, a woman, who, above all at night, had been in his feelings when he was behind barbed wire, had been put here while he was away, and her name, of all names, was Rose.
'Of all names'? As ever, here Green straddles playfulness and a more philosophically-primed horror of contingency and coincidence. In his earlier novel Caught (1943), an unsettling, markedly Proustian account of memory and frustrated longing in Blitz-era London, the symbol of the rose is manifestly crucial to the work and yet repeatedly shown to be beyond the clutch of metaphorical exposition. Caught transposed a key Symbolist technique into the conflagration, in order to express the bankruptcy of the realist, historicist mindset in the face of what the contemporary critic Adam Piette calls a "Freudian apocalypse." The reappearance of this slithery, unverifiable signifier at the very outset of Back alerts the reader to an inevitable doubleness on the part of the novel: any realist narrative will be offset, or undermined, by a modernistic anti-narrative.
'Realism' might be denoted here by an Orwellian checklist of quintessentially English iconography. Superficially, Back's is a landscape of Saxon churches, redbrick villas in "London's outer suburbs," dispiriting office politics, Eliotic rose bowers, landladies parsimoniously eyeing the coal scuttle, magazine subscriptions, jugged hare, corpulent bon vivants becoming over-familiar with waitresses, and extramarital affairs. None of these would seem out of place in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954) or Philip Larkin's Jill (1946), novels which announced an anti-modernist turn in English literature which has not yet been reversed. Nothing in Green's universe is quite what it seems, however. Tellingly, Charley's injury resulted from his failure to notice "the gun beneath the rose" (surely here Green is echoing Lady Macbeth's injunction to "look like the innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under't,") a phrase which suggests the pitfalls awaiting those readers who take the novel at face value.
What, then, is the textual 'gun beneath the rose'? Green subtly implants the mythic into the tropology of late-war austerity, and then proceeds to decouple the novel almost completely from any putative realism. Charley's journey to the graveyard, ostensibly an occasion for the paying of respects, rapidly develops into a travesty of Orpheus's quest to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld. Before long he goes to see Rose's father, one 'Mr Grant,' whose name marks him out as a (weirdly Freudian) paternal arbiter of wishes; similarly, the name of the suburb in which the Grants live, Redham, carries a phonetic echo of the verb 'redeem.' Following a bizarre conversation with Rose's parents (Mrs Grant mistakes Charley for her brother, killed in the First World War), Mr Grant encourages Charley to pay a visit to a certain address, where he is confronted by the living likeness of Rose, albeit with different colour hair. Charley is thus pitched into a scenario of uncomfortably Kafkaesque dimensions, convinced --due to his unawareness that the woman, Nancy, is Rose's illegitimate half-sister=- that the object of his affections is still alive.
The Orphic theme was a particularly resonant one in European modernism: Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, Maurice Blanchot's seminal essay "The Gaze of Orpheus," and Jean Cocteau's film Orphée demonstrate its currency across the Channel. (Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was to transpose the myth to an Anglophone environment in the surreal, San Francisco-set Vertigo, and it would be surprising if Hitchcock had not read Back.) Green's work is particularly reminiscent, and probably deliberately so, of an early piece of Orphic modernism, the Belgian Symbolist Georges Rodenbach's melancholic novella Bruges-la-Morte (1892) in which a lonely widower attempts to transform a courtesan into the reincarnation of his beloved wife. Narrative congruities aside, Green's co-option of modernist reactivations of the Orpheus myth is striking because of that myth's curious appositeness to an anti-representational poetics. In Orpheus's eventual inability to retrieve Eurydice, European modernists caught sight of an allegory for the duplicity of poetic language, which simultaneously courts an object and makes an elegy of its failure to restore that thing's presence.
This allegory works on multiple levels in Back. Given the year of its publication, the novel cannot help but attempt to formulate a sensitive intellectual response to post-war discourses about reconstruction. This response is sceptical: the text reserves a measure of distaste for Charley's fellow returnee Middlewitch, a rambunctious Lothario who spent his internment imagining "summer evenings and roses," and is disgusted to have "found everything different to what we expected." Middlewitch's implicit wish is that everything should reset to chime with his own idealised image of England, albeit with his licence to enjoy the sexual spoils of his 'heroism.' At this point the allegory mutates into a forecast of the post-war literary battleground, as Green links this desire for continuity with the epistemologically-confident historicist mindset. Both Middlewitch and the increasingly dislikeable Mr Grant tend to speak in extended monologues that lay a definitive claim to experience, a rhetorical mode that contrasts with Charley's own uncertain, half-formed utterances. As Mr Grant observes to Charley, "The plain fact is, we're past it. You'll find out as you grow older. You seem to lose grip somehow. Worst of all, you don't seem to notice. But the hard part must have been the ladies, eh? Because it's not natural to be without them, after all."
When Mr Grant dies near the end of the novel, his wife's amnesia abruptly disappears, and the imaginative leap required to believe that this condition has been purposefully nurtured and prolonged is not huge. In speeches like the one above, a conservative tendency is married to an assured belief in concepts such as the 'natural,' and an irritating proclivity for assumed sagacity. Mr Grant's fondness for 'plain facts' foreshadows Larkin and Amis's dismissal of modernism's alleged irrationality in favour of what they took to be commonsensical realism: proleptically, Green is organising the resistance to the formal and linguistic reductionism of the Movement and their cohorts.
As is characteristic of Green, the politics of experience and form are by no means straightforward in Back. It is, after all, the sympathetically-portrayed Charley whose restorative agenda is tracked most closely by the narrative. However, his mission is gradually transformed into a learning curve as he comes to accept the fact of Rose's passing and, in doing so, develops affections for Nancy. Her own husband lost in the North African campaign, Nancy, like Charley, is struggling with the irreconcilable instincts of reconstruction and restoration. By the novel's conclusion the two have entered into an uneasy physical relationship, with Nancy not altogether convinced that Charley sees her as anything more than an inferior substitute for Rose.
What Green gives us, then, is a meditation on nostalgia which acknowledges the desirability of the past while also dramatising the necessity of change. Charley is caught between the poles of what Jean Starobinski described as 'restorative' and 'reflective' nostalgia. The former, which seeks an absolute return to some imagined prior state, has become part of the theoretical and rhetorical armouries of conservative-minded politicians with varying degrees of calamity. The latter, discussed at length by Svetlana Boym in her recent work The Future of Nostalgia, is more akin to the elegiac poetics of missed experience in the poetry of Baudelaire.
By ultimately erring on the side of the reflective, Back makes a significant claim about how the subject of national identity might be addressed amidst the debris of war. 'Englishness' becomes a vocabulary of signs to be manipulated poetically into an analysis of the nature of 'pastness' itself. On these grounds one might also read the novel as an elegy for modernism, as realism's restorative intent is disputed by a hidden set of anti- or non-representational devices; Green reflects on the post-war viability of modernism, whilst refusing to abandon its aesthetic strategies entirely. The novel represents, therefore, a significant alternative to the realist volte-face with which English writing of the period is most commonly associated.--Joe Kennedy