Hangover Square

I saw the 1945 film adaptation of Hangover Square long before I knew it was based on a 1941 novel of the same name by Patrick Hamilton. I’ve just finished reading the novel for my book club, and from what I remember of the film it’s quite a loose adaptation. The novel starts off a bit awkwardly, but does hit its stride as it moves along. This review contains spoilers, but not more than the J.B. Priestley introduction in my edition of the book.

This is a novel about alcoholism, obsession, sexual frustation, depression, cruelty, and mental illness. It is most accurate in the way it captures the giddy highs and crushing lows of constant heavy drinking. Its characters’ futile attempt to enliven a pointless reality through drink, and the ineluctable, claustrophobic quality to the dissipation itself, puts the novel somewhere in the space between Graham Greene and Charles Bukowski. It’s a bit lighter than the unremittingly bleak outlook of Greene’s Catholic novels, and even at its drunken heights it never reaches the reckless (but vaguely liberating) oblivion of Bukowski. The doomed attempt to revel oneself out of one’s situation is even a bit reminiscent of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. The claustrophobia is enhanced in the first half of the novel by Hamilton’s decision to inhabit exclusively the myopic and cyclical mind of its warped protagonist, George Harvey Bone.

Priestley calls Hamilton the novelist of homelessness, and while trapped inside his perpetual and desultory party, Bone is also excluded from society and from life. An outsider, he is the spiritual cousin of Dosteovsky’s Underground Man or Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Like these characters he is perpetually tormented by anxiety and regret, and in fact is more seriously mentally ill (though a rather questionable portrayal of schizophrenia) as well as more destructive than either of them. Despite this, it’s difficult not to find him more sympathetic than his literary kin.

Hamilton’s ability to engender sympathy for this character, then, is one of his achievements. In terms of his actions, Bone is closer to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, yet he never sinks to the spiritual level of these characters; neither, conversely, does he ever rise above. The novel never offers any hope or redemption following his deeds, nor even a particularly clear motive for them. Rather than being an argument for the redemption of criminals (like Raskolnikov) or suicide as a moral act (like Scobie), Bone is more simply a man who is seriously ill and unable to get help for himself or from society. In creating a character who commits awful yet remains sympathetic, Hamilton succeeds.

“She was a bitch, all right.”

Given that the murder of a woman is central to its plot, it is difficult not to view this novel as essentially misogynistic. Netta is horrendous, and Bone is sympathetic, despite the fact that, from any objective consideration of the events, he is a sexually-motivated murderer. Combined with its rather naive depiction of mental illness, it seems like it would be difficult for the novel to be anything other than a shallow apology for violence against women. And yet Bone remains fundamentally sympathetic, and not without some insight into amorous obsession. His description of the “auras” surrounding Netta, and the way that ignoring her physical beauty gives him a “vague backward look in the eyes”, are painfully accurate, and of course the way Netta toys with Bone is agonizing.

Hamilton’s intention was to make him sympathetic, and of course this would be much harder to do were he to attribute any redeeming qualities to Netta. Still, his statement that her thoughts “resembled those of a fish” is a bit much, particularly in the absence of any other significant female characters, and the near total absence of female characters altogether. She is conspicuously flat compared to other awful women in literature who are more clever and dynamic (Becky Sharp) or at least more interestingly damaged (Nicole Diver).

“Aren’t all places the same, my dear Bone?”

This is also a novel about London. In some ways, surprisingly little has changed in the London party scene since Hangover Square. You may be more likely to find a “set” of unfailingly drunk hangers-on in the art world or media than theatre nowadays, and more extreme stimulants have been developed, but the basic dissolute nature is familiar and familiarly difficult to escape. It’s quite as easy to live the same profligate life described here as it was in Hamilton’s time. Or to put it another way, it’s quite difficult to encounter any real opposition to doing so—judgements are few and far between, even when creating an appalling scene like the “set” does on its first trip to Brighton. Priestley in his introduction says that if anything, after the war, Hamilton’s depiction is an even more accurate portrayal of the young. It’s still not far off today.

The experience of reading Hangover Square is not unlike watching The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses, and similarly, it’s difficult not to have a drink during the experience. However harrowing the results for the hero or well-intentioned the cautionary tale, the constant boozing in these works somehow only ever manages to make one want a drink. (“To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”) It may not be the greatest novel of its time, but in its gin-soaked honesty it is not without its merits.

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