Patrick Hamilton has been one of those I-must-get-round-to-reading writers for a number of years. I forget exactly how I first heard of him – I suspect he may have been a Palimpsest recommendation. Anyway onto the list he went and stayed and stayed until the lovely Frances generously included The Slaves of Solitude in a NYRB classics giveaway. I snagged it and so onto the TBR it went where it stayed and stayed a while longer until Simon at Stuck-in-A-Book organised a readalong.
So it was quite a journey that Hamilton had before I read him and so was the journey back into World War II that I experienced in return.
The focus is not on the battlefield but on the world of the civilian. Miss Roach, bombed out of her flat in Kensington, has moved to Thames Lockdon where she now resides in a boarding house, The Rosamund Tea Rooms (so called because that was its original function). It’s a stiffling atmosphere. The shared meals are, due to the loud and opinionated Mr Thwaites, oppressive.
Although in relative safety, the war still imposes itself:
the war was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, emptying the shelves of the shops — sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, beer from the public houses, and so on endlessly — while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room on the trains
A grey existence, therefore and so no wonder she takes up with an American Lieutenant to amuse herself even if he’s completely unsuitable. Easy going where she is old-fashioned and skittish, a hard drinker where she is quite moderate. He is also completely inconsequent, disappearing for days on end without notice, reappearing just as suddenly. She excuses his behaviour – after all he must distract himself from the thoughts of his forthcoming posting – and settles herself into her romance, convincing herself that she would marry him if he asked. Enter the fly in the ointment – Vicki Kugelmann – a German girl raised in England. Mistrusted by all. Miss Roach befriends her and for a while their friendship is confined to the odd coffee morning. Then Vicki moves into the Rosamund Tea Rooms and the downward spiral begins. Miss Roach, an ardent lover and pursuer of privacy, is disconcerted when Vicki visits her in her room and
after they had heard the (dinner) gong below being hit by Mrs. Payne, Vicki arose from the bed (withot making any attempt to adjust the rumpled art-silk coverlet, or to smooth out the dent which her body had made in the bed) and, going over to Miss Roach’s dressing-table picked up Miss Roach’s comb, and began hastily to comb her hair in the mirror
On such presumptions do budding alliances and female friendships, in particular, flounder.
On the personal and psychological levels, Hamilton cranks up the pressure. At first Miss Roach’s growing antipathy to Vicki Kugelmann appears paranoid. Then maybe not. Increasingly she must share her dates with the American. Then she is forced into revealing her detested first name. When Vicki Kugelmann allies herself with Miss Roach’s boarding house tormentor, Mr Thwaites, a secret Nazi sympathiser who insists that Miss Roach is a supporter of Stalin, life turns sour both inside and outside The Rosamund Tea Rooms for Miss Roach.
Hidden within this seemingly banale drama is the greater metaphor.
What about the early Vicki – the timid, the ingratiating one? …. Was not the period when Vicki was sucking up to her, trying to get into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, posing as a delightful friend – was not this period the Ribbentrop one, nauseatingly Ribbentroppish through and through? And making, like Ribbentrop, gross Ribbentroppish mistakes? – offending the friend she sought to make …. And then, with her object achieved, the exquisite conventional Teutonic change of demeanour! The lightning Teutonic arrogance! ……
That passage is the start of Miss Roach’s diatribe, a demonising of a woman so utterly unlike her, a display of spleen proving that this underdog is very capable of turning. Be warned – as the final conflict approaches, Miss Roach is not the timid appeaser of times past.
I was bowled over by the precision of Hamilton’s language, the naturalness of the dialogue, controlled pacing and insight (particularly into the cattiness of female friendships). The achievement becomes even more extraordinary upon learning that as he wrote this at a time when he was consuming up to three bottles of whisky per day. (He eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.) Nevertheless like others who participated in this readalong, my first instinct is to rush out and read more. The only thing that’s holding me back is that The Slaves of Solitude appears to be Hamilton’s masterpiece and I suspect that anything else may disappoint, or would that be to misjudge the author as badly as Vicki Kugelmann misjudged Miss Roach?
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