Saturday, October 27, 2007

High Praise for a Novel

In the form of an unusual experience: I enjoyed reading Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square so much that I actually forced myself to read it slowly, rationing it out to just a little each night and the ending this afternoon, so that the enjoyment of reading would go on and on.


Otherwise I might have overindulged in a night and might have woken up regretting it the next morning (thus requiring I take a stroll 'round hangover square). I can't remember that last time I liked a book that much.

The novel is neat and clean, and successfully and suspensefully weaves together a few narratives each of which would not add up to as much on its own: it is the story of a bunch of freeloading drunks living in London just before the start of WWII; very subtly, it is an allegory of the politics leading into WWII; it is a story (and this is established first) of a man who has two personalities, one of which is in love with Netta Longdon, and the other which only knows that he cannot find peace until he kills her. That suspense, established at square one, brings edginess to the whole novel, makes it emotionally irresistible for the reader -- and makes more palpable the threat of impending war.

But as the heart pounds, the brain delights: I'm not sure I've ever read an author with such a brilliant knack for dialogue, especially the dialogue of drunks. His descriptions also show an astonishing talent for making the familiar unfamiliar so that we better know it, perhaps for the first time. I'm going to give a small example, one that really delighted me:

In the mornings, nowadays, George Harvey Bone was awakened by a fluffy white cat belonging to the hotel. At about seven o' clock he would hear a little cry--petulant rather than appealing--outside his door, and he would blunder out of bed in the darkness and open the door. He would blunder back into bed and hear no more.
Then there would be a sudden springy soft weight on his body, and the cat would begin to manoeuvre near his head. Sleepy as he was, he could put out his hand and stroke its fur.
After a while this motion seemed to generate an electrical disturbance within the animal--an aeroplan-like throbbing, slowly growing in volume and drawing nearer--the purring of the cat in his ear. The purring, this surrender of its being to a rhythmic and externally audible throbbing, in its turn seemed to induce in the cat a sort of frenzy, a frenzy manifesting itself mainly in the front paws, which, in the agony of restless pleasure, stretched and relaxed, the right paw stretching while the left relaxed, and the other way about, in eager alternation. George called this "playing the piano." He did not know the name of the cat so he called it "Pussy." "Don't make such a noise, Pussy," the big drinking man would gently murmur in the darkness. "And stop playing the piano." But the cat would not stop until a place had been found under the bedclothes near George's head; then it would go to sleep, and George would attempt to do the same.
But usually it would be too late, and in a few moments he would be wide awake, grinding out the problems of his life, delving into the night before to see where he had got to exactly, where he had left off. This morning he knew, because of the sickness in his heart, and the giddiness in his head, that he had got drunk, but he couldn't at first remember how or where...
Of course I've had this experience a million times, the cat waking, the drunk waking, the cat drunk waking, but this passage made me feel it new. I really admire that kind of skill. If you want to love reading a book, I recommend this one.


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