July 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"A Banquet Ended": On Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton

Literature has the ability to relate the events again, but from the inside. What might have seemed like a crime beyond comprehension or an act of heinous stupidity can, in fiction or drama, be transfigured into something very much the opposite of that. To put it in economic terms, this is, I'd argue, fiction's basic comparative advantage in the world trade of arts and letters; it can photograph the invisible and transcribe what was never said.

Few novelists have leveraged this advantage of the medium as powerfully as did Patrick Hamilton, an English novelist who wrote between the 1920s and 1950s. I'd wager that Hamilton's obscurity following his death derives almost entirely from his preference for situation over the play of language -- in other words, he sat out modernism, which, according to the syllabus-makers, was a terminable offense. Hamilton was a drunk who was also unhappy in love; in his early thirties, his nose was badly disfigured in a car accident. His one stroke of luck seemed to be his theatrical career -- his authorship of the plays Rope and Gaslight meant that he never drifted into authentic poverty.

In beginning to discuss his art, I want to return to the fact that he was a drunk. There aren't many experiences as destabilizing and even supernatural-feeling -- like a visitation from the gods -- as beginning the evening with a single innocent drink and then watching your whole life essentially unravel over the next seven to ten drunken hours, and then waking up to the feeling that nothing can ever be the same again. That sort of thing happens in many novels, but I think Hamilton excels them all in a great sequence in Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky, his trilogy about working-class Londoners drinking and working and falling in love. The sequence I have in mind depicts Jenny Maple, a flamingly normal young woman just hired by frail retirees to keep house; given her low social station, this is a plum position, if a slightly dull one.

The novel depicts only scarcely more than twenty-four hours between Jenny's arrival at her new place of work and the dreary endpoint, where she finds herself turning tricks for the upper classes. The transition, summarized here, seems calculated to shock, like a freak show. But what's so remarkable about the novel is how every step of the way seems totally rational; helped along by the catalyst alcohol, driven by the desires to save face and make money, it seems beyond question that any sane person would act the way Jenny did. The execution is brilliant, slow and hilarious and searing and totally lacking ostentation.

Jenny, the eventual prostitute, is one of three main characters in Hamilton's trilogy, all of whom get a novel of their own, the events often overlapping as in Rashomon. There's Bob, the waiter with secret literary ambitions, who falls in love with the indifferent Jenny, and Ella, the barmaid, who, though in love with Bob, has to put up with an annoying, older suitor who might, thanks to Ella's plain appearance, be her only shot at marriage.

The story itself, meaning the events considered from an exterior perspective, isn't much. People take and leave jobs, go on dates, get drunk, cry. Hamilton is a poet repelled by romantic vistas, or to put it more accurately, Hamilton paints scenes where any sense of romance has been brutally obliterated by the petty and the everyday. What makes Hamilton such an extraordinary writer isn't his selection of outward occurrences but the hilarious and cutting way that he narrates them. Here, for example, is how Ella perceives a conversation with her almost insufferable suitor Mr. Eccles:

He had been going on for a long while about one of his Funny Little Habits. She was stalely familiar with the Funny Little Habit Series, the discussion of each Funny Little Habit forming, as it were, exercises in the Short Elementary Course in Ecclesry he was giving her. There was his Funny Little Habit of Getting his Own Way, there was his Funny Little Habit of Speaking the Truth, there was his Funny Little Habit of Returning other people's rudeness with Interest; there were his Funny Little Habits of Summing People up on the Quiet, of Making Decisions Quickly, of Knowing his Own Mind, of Gently but Firmly putting others in their Place, of not Saying much but thinking a Lot, and so on indefinitely.

Hamilton makes promiscuous use of the Capitalized Phrase as a signal that a character has alighted on one of their many personal conceits. That may be how Hamilton sees humanity fundamentally -- as incredibly "conceited," not just in the sense of self-importance but also as in the sense that our minds abound with conceits in the poetic sense -- models or allegories of the world which we mistake for the world.

(Kant and the other German idealists showed that what we experience as the real isn't actually the real, real thing; we are actually experiencing our experience of the real, real thing, an experience fabricated by an array of concepts that we impose, including time, space, and causality. Hamilton doesn't strike me as the kind to read abstruse tracts on epistemology, but he arrived at the same place using his sense of humor and skill with narrative.)

Mr. Eccles thought he was simply giving an entertaining little talk to his date when he was really revealing all the little conceits he carries around unwittingly. Trying to be original, he slips into the worn, common groove like a record needle.

The trilogy is filled with similar examples. Here is how people perceive an old man whose infirmity has become a burden to those around him: "... with regard to him, people made the same error as they made with his sisters -- that of assuming that he had adopted extreme old age and deafness as a career." This attitude toward the old is still widespread and automatic. When two old ladies try to come to terms with their new and efficient maid, Jenny, they only have recourse to received and repeated phrases; Jenny delivers a conventional opinion to them at one point and they react as follows:

If that was not a Treasure's way of looking at things, what was? Indeed, was it not the remark not merely of a Treasure, but of an adorned Treasure -- might they not even dare to aver an Old Fashioned Treasure?

But for all his focus on the too, too easy recourse to received ideas, thoughts, phrases, and self-importance, Hamilton never becomes condescending like Flaubert with his highborn contempt for humanity, which he mistakenly called the bourgeoisie. (The son of a barrister, Hamilton nevertheless made the working class a frequent subject.) This is because Hamilton's subjects' recourse to conceits and received phrases isn't a symptom of their dullness but of their warped intelligence; Mr. Eccles may be a blowhard, but his intentions are earnest, and he operates according to his own logic; the reader doesn't get the sense that, in Mr. Eccles's place, that the reader would "do better," but simply that the reader has the advantage, because the reader is like a ghost hovering over the conversation, with unique access to both minds and therefore able to gauge the full extent of the social disaster.

Hamilton emphasizes what I think is true, that the most educated person has very little advantage over the least educated person when it comes to perception in social situations. ("Like most apparently simple-minded people, Jenny had, in her heart, a perfect apprehension of the subtleties of situation and character...") One of my favorite scenes is when Mr. Eccles brings his date with the diffident Ella to a close and he simply keeps repeating the word "What?" as he inches closer to her -- totally baffling Ella, although it's obvious to the reader that Eccles is trying to work up the nerve to kiss her. Why repeating "What?" should help him along in this direction is a mystery to Ella, to the reader, and almost certainly to Mr. Eccles too, but it makes, in Hamilton's careful narration, perfect sense.

A storyteller, despite their intentions, is always making a statement about how they believe life really is. And so, Hamilton states implicitly that he believes that people's minds and talk overflow with conceits and prejudices and private references that make it nearly impossible to communicate anything to anyone else. Another statement advanced implicitly by Hamilton is that there is always something left unspoken in a conversation or social act, and that this unspoken thing is maybe the most important thing of all. Hamilton's ability to sum up the unsaid during a night of drinking at a bar is, I think, astounding:

Widely apart in life as were the different groups along the bar, there was sufficient of a collective festal spirit amongst them to cause a faint and obscure suspicion, or even resentment, to arise against the newcomer. Each newcomer, at least, had to submit to a very brief, perhaps even unconscious, inspection before immediate loss of identity in the crowd.

Plenty of writers would notice the inspection of a newcomer, but how many would characterize it correctly as resentment and how many would note how they lose their identity in the crowd just as quickly? Then there's this succinct summary of how it feels to enter a bedroom for one:

There is a great deal of the tomb in a bedroom; all passions, delights, schemings, ambitions, triumphs, must be taken back at night to these caves of cold arbitration. All journeyings and busy vanity must capitulate before their stationary severity.

Or this, as Bob the waiter and Ella the barmaid clean up after closing time:

The one light feebly lit the bar, and the silence was that ultra-silence, at once sad, and terrifying, and beautiful, of a banquet ended, of people gone. They were both highly susceptible to it.

That is the overwhelming feeling from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: that most of life is submerged and that the most important truths about life dart away like minnows when you wade clumsily toward them. According to his vision, the most miserable thing about poverty isn't the material deprivation so much as the feeling of wasted potential -- a metaphysical ache. The smallest change could make everything turn out all right, but the change never comes and things proceed according to their own logic:

The trouble with both [housemates] was that they never had a resounding quarrel and made peace afterwards; but went on year after year, and day after day, and hour after hour, in their tardy progress to the grave, adjusting their little differences in this petty manner.

Hamilton is ruthlessly aware of the power that money has over people, realizing that people want it not "for itself" (who but a few hedge fund managers actually uses money to "keep score"?) or even to buy a particular thing but because money represents a future -- flexibility, the ability to escape -- to, for once, live without the pain of constant resistance. In Twenty Thousand Streets, every character is always applying for something -- a job, a sexual partner -- and more often than not is rejected. It's heartbreaking and hilarious to see just how much the characters invest in every long shot attempt -- usually joking with themselves at first that Of Course They Won't Get It and then gradually building ever more intricate castles in the sky based on the assumption that they're sure to get the girl, get the job, and finally take their place in Valhalla. They invest the smallest events with huge significance and calculate the value of everything according to their life plans.

If this strikes a little too close to home, to the point that it might dissuade you from reading the trilogy, it might be worth remembering that tragedy, like a splash of cold water, is actually refreshing with its cleansing shock. I can't remember the last time I was this entertained.