Do you remember much from school? Very little, you say. Surely you haven’t forgotten Archimedes? Jumping out of his tub dressed only in bubble bath. The teachers weren’t so imaginative? Oh well. But of course you remember him; running around nude and shouting Eureka! It’s enough to forever turn you off the contemplative life: knowledge all goose bumps and social embarrassment; or so it seemed back then.
Nevertheless, although risky, especially for the young and the fashion conscious, it is a good image, capturing, as it does, the wonderful excitement of new thought. We can apply it to writers as well. TS Eliot losing it when he compares the sky to a patient etherised on an operating table… For creating apposite metaphors can generate exactly the same emotions. You feel them pulsing through you. And out they pop. Bang! Fireworks on the writing table. And suddenly you feel so full, and so satisfied; and you have a sense of perfection for a few short moments. Though, strangely, you have thought about them hardly at all; experiencing the satisfaction of birth without the excruciating pain of long delivery. Everything feels so right! The seeming incoherence of reality reduced to the beauty of a simple form. I’ve found it!
In Hangover Square we follow George Harvey Bone around the streets of Brighton, until we stand next to him outside a shop window. The only thing he is good at, or so he believes, is golf; and his talent has attracted his eye to this sports shop. It is a convenient coincidence. For the one thing he needs to kill Netta Longdon is a blunt and heavy instrument. Of course! It is obvious. Buy a golf club! Although he is unaware of the reason for looking at these objects: only in his ‘dumb’ moods does he want to kill her; thoughts he doesn’t remember when his sanity returns.
You can imagine the moment when the author decides to send George here. His lines navigating the white page; first down Queen’s Road, then across Churchill Square, to Western Road, until they stop, finally, before these golf clubs. Golf? His hand stops. He puts the pen down, and lights a cigarette. But he cannot contain his excitement. So he gets up and goes for a beer at the local; The White Hart would be about right. Perfect! He would have said to himself. A genius! And it came out so naturally; like an old acquaintance appearing miraculously out of the crowd.
Raymond Tallis once wrote[i] of the many wonderful ideas he’s had over the years, but which on experimentation proved to be completely wrong. All those great insights, reduced to nothing by his later empirical researches. It is a cautionary tale. For so it is with metaphors. Some are too just good to be true.
He had planned to become a golfer, to start again. Well, wasn’t he planning to start again now? Then why not get some clubs and start his new life with golf – the one thing at which he was any good?…
Golf. The one thing you could do. He went into the shop, and came out a few minutes afterwards with a number seven. He had decided that a number seven, on the whole, was the best thing for Holland Park.
He felt astonishingly cheerful. The club was wrapped in brown paper – a sort of brown-paper bag made specially for golf clubs – but he knew how sweet and gleaming and sticky-gripped it was underneath, and he saw the shots he was going to make with it. He approached holes and made the shots as he walked along. You couldn’t be anything but cheerful with such a thing under your arm.
The irony is almost too much for us to bear. Then there is the pathos; followed by our own eureka “click”! when we realise what he has done. A fellow passenger looked at me oddly…
After the initial elation I thought a little more about my discovery: this passage is just too neat. Too much like the surprising (but plausible) solution to an Agatha Christie murder. It is too perfect; and feels out of place in a book which is well plotted but which nonetheless attempts to record a contingent, aimless way of life. Such a metaphor is too good for a novel like this, which needs something more ragged and open-ended; it needs something that doesn’t look so thought through; and feels so clever and seems so “right”. Something different is required; something that fits in with the drifters and no-hopers that this book describes so well; a world where everything is difficult and messy; and where everyone waits for some miraculous event to occur; a sugar daddy to drive them into a land of easy success. George is luckier than most, for such a person does eventually appear: it is his old friend Johnnie, yet in typical Hamilton style even he is not strong enough to pull him out of this pathetic existence. When you fall into the aimlessness of petty bohemia no one can pull you back into respectability.
The book is set in and around Earl’s Court; as it has to be. At its centre is a very beautiful woman, Netta Longdon, who has no talent or humanity. From birth she has done absolutely nothing; having got her way in all things: her beauty guarantees men will be her willing slaves. Now she is a queen on the outer edges of bohemia, and it has made her both lazy and vicious. Inevitably she wants a glamorous life to set off her stunning features, and assumes it will appear without any help from herself – the rich will search her out. But life is more complicated than this: there are many beautiful women; and the theatres and films want more than just good looks. But she is too lazy, unable to do the work that will develop the contacts she needs with the powerful and influential. And though compellingly beautiful she doesn’t have the talent to be a singer or actress; and her heartlessness is easily spotted by the experienced – Johnnie notices this deficiency at once. Instead, she exists on the fringes of the art world, occasionally going to parties, or performing as an extra in small, and quickly forgotten, film productions.
This is a mean world, full of no-hopers who are resentful at the success of others more talented or luckier than themselves. It is also a very self-conscious world, whose occupants are more bohemian, that is more self-consciously amoral and extravagant, than the actors and artists they would like, and often pretend, to be. On the fringes of the media world there is a sub-culture of minor crooks, alcoholics, prostitutes, ex-boxers and the like (we get glimpses of it in the scandals of our popular press). This is the world Netta Longdon inhabits, and to an extent enjoys; turned on by its periodic violence and transgression: she likes a bit of rough to stimulate her attenuated emotions. She has no feeling, and uses people for her own means, which are typically small and petty: to get enough money to eat and (mostly) drink. Although in a brilliant characterisation Hamilton shows there is little conscious planning in her manipulative behaviour; most of it is done reflexively, through her desires and the immediate responses of her senses. And yet she is very beautiful, and becomes more so up close: she has a strange magnetism when you are near her. But she finds admirers a bore. They get in the way. They expect her do things. They take up too much time - no one is as busy as a person who has nothing to do….
George, who needs a wife or business partner to organise him, is another drifter - in the suburbs of lower middle class life. By accident he enters this sub-culture; and then makes the mistake of falling in love with Netta; a mistake he compounds by declaring it. Too kind and innocent he is used mercilessly; both by Netta and her small group of friends. So that very quickly he becomes an instrument to fulfil their petty desires: a drink, fags from the shop; a hotel bill they cannot afford to pay. In his sane moods George is actually a caring and gentle man. Unfortunately he has found himself amongst people who are hard and unfeeling; little more than animals looking for sustenance and prey. Superficially easy meat his unconscious is storing up resentment for his mad self to use. If only they knew!
It is a boring world, and there is not much fun in it: most days are a few hours of sobriety sandwiched between alcohol and hangovers. This adds to the ennui… It is an interesting scenario, for it suggests that sense of anomie is not some modern condition (which it was taken to be a decade later) but belongs to this particular kind of culture; which writers have always partly inhabited. But this is not something that Hamilton is interested in.
Netta herself is hardly human, although her looks are suggestive of love and purity. George knows this. However, he is love obsessed, and cannot act on his knowledge; for transfixed by her looks he is unable to accept the meaning behind them. He knows her so well, but his desires are too strong and his will too weak… It is a brilliant study of an infatuation, and shows why good words and sound sense are not enough to break it: the physical manifestation of her beauty overwhelms the senses, which then overpowers all rational thought. Only a supreme act of will can save him; but this is too much for George. It is his tragedy.
There are, however, moments of revelation. He meets an old school friend, Johnnie; who now works for a theatrical agents. Johnnie offers a view from outside the cloistered world of Earl’s Court, and shows how Netta conforms to a familiar type: the good looking woman with no talent, and who doesn’t have the personality to make it in show business. For surprise surprise, and as George learns later, successful people like Eddie Carstairs, the famous agent, and the national comedians he manages, are actually nice people. The rich, it appears, are good after all. This revelation takes place at the end of an agonising day, when George thought even Johnnie had betrayed him; for he is too influenced by this nasty little world of Netta and her mates. And so for a short time he meets the rich and famous, has a lift in a Rolls Royce, and is overcome both by their stardom and their charm; and they like him; because he is gentle and kind. Here is a wonderful but tragically short holiday.
Reading the book I was reminded of Fitzrovia between the wars; though this novel depicts its fag end: these characters are the hangers-on, who stand at the bar, bum drinks, appear as the extras in the private drinking clubs; Netta a pretty girl who Dylan Thomas shags in a drunken stupor. They are the people no-one remembers. If they are lucky they may appear in an anecdote: I didn’t have any paper so I used her knickers; apricot silk they were; the black stitches gave me that third line…
Making my way through the novel I was also reminded of the tabloid press. Today Netta Longdon would be one of those minor celebrities who hang around the front pages, and sleeps her way to short lived fame. It is the world of petty criminals and semi-prostitutes; and drug dealers to the famous. Once it was hidden in the backrooms of Soho pubs, a bit of colour to set off the extravagance of the rich and successful. Now it is on the shelves of our supermarkets; as ordinary as broad beans and streaky bacon. A symbol, surely, of a significant cultural shift.
The book has a strange structure, which provides its tension.
It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. It had come over his brain as a sudden film, induced by a foreign body, might come over the eye. He felt that if only he could ‘blink’ his brain it would at once be dispelled. A film. Yes, it was like the other sort of film, too – a ‘talkie’. It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world. Life, in fact, which had been for him a moment ago a ‘talkie’, had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music.[ii]
George oscillates between two states. In his normal state he is “madly” in love with Netta. In the “dumb” one he wants to kill her. And in a series of marvellous descriptions we see his thoughts slowly progress to that final destination; for when in his “dead” state he has to reason everything out to the smallest detail – nothing can be left to chance. It captures the extreme rationality of a specific kind of madness, where reason has become too prominent, so that mental activities that are mostly reflexive, and which we leave mostly to chance and improvisation, are thought out too consciously and exactly.[iii] Everything has to be planned out in advance! Moreover, the conscious mind, being somewhat mechanical, has to make everything explicit, and this stultifies both thought and action; for such thinking is like walking with a Zimmer frame – continuous movement replaced by halting steps. Also, thinking everything out means planning for every contingency; it is reason’s need for totality; to which reality will never submit.[iv] This kind of thinking can go on for years! And it does… In either state George is unaware of the other one. This creates both tension and comedy, such as the taxi ride where Netta is all arrogant self-assurance and George is obsessed with killing her; but not now, in the Spring when it is warmer! Reason always finds a way of delaying things: she is like a scared virgin on the threshold of sex.
The book begins with an epigraph from Black’s Medical Dictionary:
SCHIZOPHRENIA… a cleavage of the mental functions, associated with the assumption by the affected person of a second personality.
This is surely accurate. However, George’s character suggests another scenario. His illness would once have been diagnosed differently. He has all the symptoms - the dumbness, amnesia, and the compulsive need to walk - of a disease that was once diagnosed in France as that of the mad traveller.[v] This novel is in fact an excellent imaginative recreation of that condition from the inside; and it makes one wonder at the need for that epigraph. Of course it is an explanation, and it sets up a tension – we expect bad things to happen when he is in the “dead” state. The epigraph is here part of the plot, and is playing with our expectations. However, what if the epigraph was removed, and we just experienced the novel without any signposts at all to George’s mental health? Very quickly we would understand something is wrong, and we would assume he was suffering from some mental illness; though we wouldn’t be certain what it was… we would have to speculate; thus leaving the book more open-ended. To label George a schizophrenic right at the start is already to limit the possibilities, by raising our expectations of a violent irrational end – few of us have had any real dealings with people who suffer from schizophrenia -; and it would be a mightily self-assured author indeed who did not satisfy them. In the interest of tension, he has pre-determined the ending. And thus there is, just slightly, a contrived feeling about it. What if he hadn’t concluded the book with the remorseless logic of his plot? The murderous thoughts could have remained mere thoughts, and we would have been witness to a self-enclosed world, which ultimately has its own validity. Hamilton, however, is too conventional, and condemns it to murder. Madness is still a crime, it seems, even in bohemia.
The diagnosis has also pushed the author in a particular direction. Without the epigraph there would no need to frame the story in such a binary way: both good and evil existing in George, but separated by two different personalities. This would open up a richer field of possibilities, with the “good” George as likely (more likely?) to commit murder as the “bad” one. How interesting would that be! After all there is something peculiarly mad about the supine way he puts up with all the abuse and mistreatment of Netta and her friends. Love is one kind of mental illness.
Imagine if Hamilton had reversed the polarities: the “dead” phrase the periods when he is free from the possibility of killing her: relief coming only when he is mad. How disorientating! But how true… And two decades later, after RD Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement, how persuasive – Hamilton’s novel was written a generation too early!
But I am rewriting a very good book. Changing the author’s intentions, which no doubt required a particular underlying mythic element: he wanted Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and needed them to evoke our expectations, to set up the plot tensions necessary for the book’s narrative momentum. Although this represents a more general weakness of this author, I think, where the plot becomes just a little too obvious; and too mechanical. But it is a weakness we accept for all the good things in it: Earl’s Court, Netta, and the mentalities of George. Even the plot we accept; because for all its weaknesses it is odd and powerful; and has a life of its own. We won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
[i] During what I believed was an incisive critique of AS Byatt’s current interest in neuroscience. When I reread the article I was wrong. However, it is good to keep the link: it is a brilliant demolition job of yet another attempt to make literary criticism scientific.
Neuroscience increasingly seems to be replacing Deconstruction as the latest literary-intellectual fad, and for the same reasons: the humanities and the social sciences need some theoretical framework to give their subjects intellectual rigour; thus creating the illusion that they are proper research subjects like the hard sciences. The history of the profession, since literature became an academic discipline in the early 20th century, is of a succession of grand theorists who have dominated their particular generations – I.A Richards, F.R. Leavis, Freud, Marx, Structuralism, Derrida… - and all of whom have then been used to create general laws; turning the subject into a pseudo science.
Although one of the curious aspects of this trend, as Tallis himself notes, is the poverty of engagement with fields in which these ideas have originated: the practitioners of this kind of lit crit tend not to master the subjects of psychology and philosophy, preferring to absorb their favourite thinkers wholesale; which they then adapt to their area of study. Rarely, it seems, do they sense there might be a problem with those original ideas. Marx undermined by later economists, Freud by new models of the mind; Derrida by Hume (that’s right two centuries before the Parisian star was born!). Of course, there can be plenty of value in these “multi-disciplinary” exercises; although that value is limited if they are not fully understood within the texture of their own fields: dubious or unsound ideas are then treated as a given; while ideas that form part of a creative dialogue within the original discipline are extracted and reified, to become simply formulas, and later clichés. This accounts for a certain intellectual poverty about “Critical Theory” that often repels.
[iii] Too much rationality is a kind of madness. Outside the scholar’s chair it is rarely appropriate… and is often the cause of both the tragedy and the silliness of intellectuals.
[v] See Ian Hacking’s brilliant Mad Travelers. His argument is that this condition, like personality disorder in the 1970s, is an example of a transient mental illness; where an ecological niche (a set of cultural, social and intellectual circumstances) is produced, which allows for particular diseases to be created by the psychiatric profession: by describing their symptoms, giving them names, and treating them with particular drugs and therapy. However, because the disease is dependent on a specific matrix of social and cultural factors it soon dies out when these factors change. In this case the Mad Traveler’s Illness had disappeared almost completely by the 1920s, when Schizophrenia began accounting for most of its symptoms.