Sunday, April 21, 2013

Of two minds: on cruelty and violence in Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square

 Of two minds: on cruelty and violence in Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square

     About two-thirds of the way through Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, this reader wasn’t sure she could hoist another page. What kind of person keeps reading page after page of drunken bouts, page after page of the plight of a fool taken advantage of and humiliated by the cruelest of glamour girls and her hangers-on?
     Well me, a reader drawn in by back cover praise by Doris Lessing: “Patrick Hamilton was a marvelous novelist who’s grossly neglected. . . He wrote more sense about England and what was going on in England in the 1930s than anybody else I can think of, and his novels are still true now. By Nick Hornby: “His laconic narrative voice is always a pleasure to read, and as a social historian he is unparalleled. By others such as J.B. Priestly, Francine Prose.
     A reader lured into shady caves of pubs, curious to overhear the callous conversations, to observe the careless predators and parasites of Earl’s Court, London, 1938-9.
     A reader immobilized by the dark allure of Hamilton’s sentences, the pendulum swing of his plot
    A reader who wants to jump in and shake some sense into the too-nice, often bullied, easily placated George Henry Bone, the book’s main character even as his actions – and their consequences -- seem unstoppable. 
Someone first said – possibly Albert Einstein, more likely “anonymous” -- that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
     More recently, anonymous members of AA and NA and others have been repeating it as a mantra. By this definition Bone is doubly mad.
      He drinks, resolves to cut down, and drinks again; he fawns and gets used by the beautiful, ruthless Netta Langdon, resolves to quit her and her crowd, then madly falls for her again. He’s so addicted to alcohol and Netta, even he calls himself a fool. That “foolishness” becomes ever more painful for the reader as Bone’s desire for a dinner alone, and a romantic weekend at the beach end in humiliation.
     He also has something defined as schizophrenia in this pre-DSM novel first published 1941, perhaps closer to what’s casually referred to as split personality. His “co-morbid” alcohol abuse and mental illness – whatever it is -- would likely qualify him for dual diagnosis today.  Bone creates clang associations playing with Netta’s name and net in it’s many variations:  brunette, net, nettles, nest, nestle, rest breast, in her net, net profit, Nestles chocolate, etc.
     Bone’s brain clicks, snaps and cracks and poof, the world around him goes soundless and distant as if he is watching a silent film without music. Bone is in what he calls one of his dead moods --  “in which he could do nothing ordinarily, think of nothing ordinarily.”  When he snaps out of these moods he doesn’t remember where he was, what he did or what he thought while he was in them.
            But the reader knows. While Bone clicks out, he is imagining killing Netta Langdon.  He carefully plots. When he returns to “normal,” he’s her lackey.  She and her crowd tolerate him for favors he’ll do, for money he lends, and for the drinks buys.  She uses him to get closer to a man she’d like to have use her – in films, Eddie Carstairs, a theatrical agent. Bone’s the group’s toady. In return, he’s mocked, ignored, used and abused.
     It’s an apt metaphor; what’s happening to George  -- the out of control cycle of hopeful appeasement followed by controlled rage is what’s happening to England.  And in England, as in Bone’s head, one state of mind is blind, deaf and dumb to the other; the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
     England’s teetering on the brink of war.
     Tiny glimpses of the larger conflict are inserted in the Bone-Netta story. Neville Chamberlain goes to Munich for chummy photo ops and conversations with Hitler and Mussolini, and belief in peace.  Some ordinary folk like Bone are shamed by what they see as a phony display.
Others, like Netta and her cohort Peter – described as a fascist – are drawn to cruelty and power (the way Bone is drawn to Netta) Later in the book:
“Netta knows she is supposed to dislike fascism but she’s attracted to it. “In secret she liked pictures of marching, regimented men, in secret she was physically attracted to Hitler; she did not really think that Mussolini looked like a funny burglar. She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swaztikas, the shirts. She was probably sexually stimulated by these things in the same way she might have been sexually stimulated by a bullfight. It might be said that this feeling for violence and brutality on the Continent, formed her principal disinterested aesthetic pleasure.”
       Whew! How does Hamilton get from Fascism and Hitler to “disinterested aesthetic pleasure.”
       And just what aesthetic pleasure am I the reader getting from this dark novel?
       So one question such a book raises, is why is a reader is drawn to reading about the indifference and cruelty, perversion of innocence and warping of simple dreams? Why is darkness so riveting?
     I lingered in the creepiness of the edgy eve of the WWII for a week after finishing Hangover Square.  Wow, was my reaction to its ending in which the two stories— the personal and the historical, Bone’s and England’s come together forcefully. For me it brought new understanding of war’s eve, an answer to how it could happen. While history can explain the factors and figures leading to war, fiction like this provides a sense of what approaching war feels like. Is that something I need to know?   
I think so. Understanding the unimaginable is not just about understanding facts; it’s also about feeling.
Hamilton’s work is bleak.  At the very bleakest, the work is about blindness and aesthetic pleasure.  We need to make sense of violence and fiction is a way of seeking that sense.
     But I am of two minds, two sentiments.
     On the one hand, I’ll be less blind; I’ll know it when I see it – or something like it -- by encountering these emotions safely and in other times and places I may recognize them and perhaps deal better with them if and when I encounter them in my world.  My world which seems to be daily more horrific. As an informed citizen, do I need to have opinions on cruelty and violence? On what Hornby calls social history?
     On the other hand, anything I put into my head and heart feeds me, changes me. Wouldn’t it be better to put down such books, turn off the news and put my head in the sand?
     Wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to put my two hands together in the dirt?
      I know myself well enough; it’s likely I’ll do both, balancing reading – sometimes edgy reading with dark themes, sometimes noir, with gardening trying to make something grow in good dark dirt.


  1. What a great post! I've never heard of Hamilton or Hangover Square but I want to read it. I think you're right, it's best to balance our reading since we're so affected by it.

  2. Thanks Vasilly. Those of us who love reading are transported by it and it takes us to interesting places -- I just wonder why I want to visit some of those places.