Wednesday, December 19, 2007

a war not to be taken in a local-library way

The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton’s wise, witty, & psychologically penetrating novel from 1947 (New York Review of Books Classics, 2007) is but one of this author’s underrated works. Hangover Square has been released in the United States (Europa Editions, 2006), & the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky will soon be available (also from NYRB Classics, February 2008).

Set in Thames Lockdon, a fictional suburb of London, the slaves of the title are the temporary denizens of a somewhat downtrodden boarding house during the Second World War. Dominated at mealtimes by Mr. Thwaites, a ghastly, emotionally immature old man, the residents of the Rosamund Tea Rooms endure his variable moods, which can range from expansive to bullying, all of which, however, are obnoxious in their particular ways. When in good humor, Mr. Thwaites speaks to the others in a ridiculously arch language called Troth, in which a library is a House of a Thousand Volumes & one does not simply take a walk but “goes forth into the highways and byways, to pay thy due respects to Good King Sol.” On other occasions he egotistically repeats bland or ignorant statements, or resorts to his syrupy “I-with-the-third-person business” (“I keeps my counsel, like the wise old bird” or “I happens to know the law”). And on top of this he secretly remains a “hot disciple” of Hitler even at this late date: as Christmas approaches in the winter of 1943.

But it is the bullying around which this novel revolves. Miss Enid Roach, a woman David Lodge terms, in his introduction, the principal “center of consciousness” of the novel, is slim, nearing forty, “with a nice face and liquid brown, appealing eyes.” She was bombed out of her home in London—thus found lodging at the Rosamund Tea Rooms—and continues to work for a publishing house in the city editing manuscripts. It is this decent heroine who inexplicably arouses dislike in Mr. Thwaites, and day after day she must parry his insistent interrogations and false imputations. Upon discovering that Miss Roach reads literary political publications Mr. Thwaites, in his warped logic, thereafter associates her with Russia and communism, & is forever commenting on her “friends’” activities on the Eastern Front. No amount of polite dodging can sway him from being unpleasant to her at every opportunity on this or any number of other topics: her personality; her appearance; her association with Lieutenant Pikes, an American soldier--even the time she makes it down to the common dining room is scrutinized & judged.

Well known in his time for the Victorian thriller Gaslight (1938), Patrick Hamilton was clearly familiar with maddeningly clever malicious intent.

When Mr. Thwaites asks whether Miss Roach plans to “partake of the noxious brown fluid” with “a certain dame of Teutonic origin” on Sunday, he means coffee with Vicki Kugelmann, a seemingly timid German friend toward whom Miss Roach feels protective; the two met in a grocery store when Enid defended Vicki against the hostile staff. However, Vicki proves to be quite other than a shrinking violet: not only does she secure lodging at the Tea Rooms but forms an instant alliance with the hateful Mr. Thwaites and flirts grotesquely with the Lieutenant in blatant contrast to the thoughtful, analytical Miss Roach. Enid’s demeanor during drunken outings with these friends is mocked as being unsporty; if she states that she prefers to go home it quickly leads to her being called a prude and a jealous woman.

Worse still is the method by which Mr. Thwaites and Vicki now torture our protagonist back at the boarding house: in the stultifying atmosphere of the dining room, all is cowardly, indirect implication that infuriates and sickens Miss Roach. This novel feels fresh because it is: the way people project their own dishonorable behavior onto others and poison a friendship is a frighteningly common practice in the twenty-first century as well.

Despite her unfortunate surname, Miss Roach sounds like a character you could root for with her scruples and mounting desire to seek revenge. No need to spoil the ending, but you’ll have a front-row seat when the spotlight of justice swings her way.


Blogger Mary Sheehan Winn said...

I enjoyed my visit and will be back to read more book reviews.

December 22, 2007 at 8:43 PM  
Blogger kookaburra said...

Hello, & thank you. Very glad you'll be back.

December 23, 2007 at 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The hateful characters sound like some North Fork people I've met.

December 29, 2007 at 8:55 PM  

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