At a distance of nearly 80 years, it is beyond the reach of most of us to know what life must have been like during the summer of 1939, before war broke out. After Chamberlain’s visit to Munich the previous year and the shabby betrayals that followed, the mood seems to have been one of uncertainty shading into dread. The world had escaped calamity once: did anyone believe it could escape again?
On Christmas Day 1939 Patrick Hamilton began writing Hangover Square, a novel that adopts those agonising weeks and months as its backdrop and brings the reader as close as possible to the feeling of a society – a world – unable to arrest its slide into the abyss. Yet it is another sort of abyss – an entirely personal one – that is the focus of Hamilton’s story. At the very instant we meet his protagonist, George Harvey Bone, he has plunged into one of his “dead” moods, a fugue state in which his mind shuts down and he proceeds through the world as an automaton, an experience akin to “a silent film without music”.
He has suffered these mental wipe-outs since boyhood, but lately they have been getting worse. Single, lonely, a depressed wanderer through the twilit seediness of Earl’s Court, George survives on a private income that fatally allows him to numb his wretchedness with drink.
What soon becomes apparent – to us, at least – is that his brain episodes are schizophrenic, during which he is consumed by a single course of action: “he had to kill Netta Longdon”. Netta, the woman he loathes, is the centre of a rackety bunch of drinkers to whom George is no more than a joke, the “dumb butt of their unfriendly wit”.
George, however, cannot help himself, for as much as he hates Netta he also adores her, flailing within “her imprisoning field of radiance”. Love and madness have been entwined in literature from time immemorial, but one wonders whether romantic obsession has ever been so morbidly scrutinised as it is in the pages of Hangover Square. Hamilton may have pondered the grotesque mismatch between Philip Carey and the prostitute Mildred in Of Human Bondage, but in his creation of Netta Longdon he exceeds even the vicious one-sidedness Somerset Maugham had depicted.
A would-be actor and social climber, Netta is one of the great, seductive monsters of modern literature. This is shown to be so not merely through the deluded consciousness of George, but in the sane and watchful perspective of his old friend, Johnnie, who sees through the woman immediately: “This girl wore her attractiveness not as a girl should, simply, consciously, as a happy crown of pleasure, but rather as a murderous utensil with which she might wound indiscriminately right and left.”
Hangover Square is, of course, a metaphorical place, a stopover on the long and lonely pub crawl to alcoholic oblivion. To adapt a phrase of Philip Larkin’s, drink is to Hamilton what daffodils were to Wordsworth. It is George’s refuge, at once his reason for living and his means of access to Netta’s company of drunkards, who take advantage of his easygoing way with money. The actual milieu of Hamilton’s fiction tends to be specific: it is in many cases London’s impermanent acreage of boarding houses, mean hotels and cheerless bedsitters. The West End of his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) now shares space inHangover Square with the lowering environs of Earl’s Court and desultory excursions to seaside towns. It is George’s unhappy fate that he can never settle anywhere, seemingly always in transition from one place to another. Even Maidenhead, the town he conceives as his idyll, proves in the end illusory.
Yet there are deeper, darker resonances thrumming at the margins of this tale of obsession and despair. Hamilton was writing the novel throughout 1940, the year Hitler’s Blitzkrieg hit its stride, overrunning mainland Europe and later launching air-raids on London. He identifies a chrysalis – fascism – that had been incubating in English life and had now burst forth in the hideous black butterfly of total war. And it is in the shadowy half-life of Earl’s Court that he finds the avatars of this poisonous doctrine: Netta, and her vile, moustachioed friend, Peter, a blackshirt thug and drunk-driver who has served prison time for killing a man. (Hamilton himself had a personal stake in this detail: in 1932 he was knocked down on a London street by a car and left physically handicapped, with permanent scars to his face).
Netta herself is sexually attracted to the fascist movement and its fetishistic totems: “She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts.” The political is contiguous with the personal. Her coarseness, her casual duplicity, her contempt for the weak and helpless – if Netta is not an actual fascist, she is a spiritual adherent, a ruthless foe of all that is decent and gentle and cultured. As George, in his abjection, pleads with her: “Can’t you be civil? Can’t you look at me and say something civil?”
For all its allegorical subtlety and atmospheric exactitude, for all its familiarity with the fatuous bravado of the drinking classes, Hangover Square derives its most powerful charge from the portrayal of George Harvey Bone, a lost soul of the time, perhaps of all time. Part of Hamilton’s genius is that he makes George so acutely and poignantly present to the reader: we see him vividly, this large, sad-eyed, shambling man who takes such innocent pleasure in things (a round of 68 on a Brighton golf course, a cigarette card, a stray cat) and yet remains so oddly mysterious. What did become of his sister Ellen? What lies behind his appalling mental disfigurement?
Hamilton splits his portrait between the plaintive drunk who repeats phrases in his head and the sober, fair-minded loner who sees the world for what it is. That is why George makes such a moving character, for outside of his psychotic blackouts he understands his situation all too well. He knows that he is Netta’s dupe, knows that he is being used and mocked and sponged off. And how ingeniously Hamilton links this awareness to the gathering crisis in Europe, dovetailing the private and the public in a proleptic moment of violence.
George, finding himself in Brighton in fuddled pursuit of Netta, goes to a theatre where he knows he will find her, cosying up to an influential theatre agent. He enters the circle, “and a huge roar of smoke-hazed, lime-lit laughter, coming out of the door like blast from a bomb, hit him in the face. It was like the world’s laugh in his face, Netta’s laugh, the last laugh of everybody at his failure and isolation, his banishment from the world of virile people who were happy and made love and had friends”. It is not an epiphany, because George already knows he is a figure of ridicule. But it is a terrible, terminal confirmation.
Hamilton finished writing the novel in February 1941, delivering it a month later to his publishers. He seems to have been in two minds about its merit, telling his brother Bruce that it was “unambitious” and yet, perhaps, “the best thing I’ve ever written!”
The reviews, after a slow start, warmed to the book, and its sales took off when James Agate, the most revered critic of his day, devoted a column to it in the Daily Express: “Don’t gulp this,” he recommended, “ration yourself to 50 pages a day, and make it last the week.” Its reputation has held steady in the years since, even if Hamilton is still bedevilled by the critical perception of him as a minor novelist. Today, 54 years after his death, there seems to be nothing minor at all aboutHangover Square. His examination of England in the limbo between Munich and the declaration of war is so quiet and understated that its skill may have been overlooked.
The tragedy of George Harvey Bone endures. As a study in the perils of drink it is piercing. As a portrait of a man at war with himself, it is unforgettable.
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