- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

"Hangover Square" is a terrific title, at once suggesting a mental state and a seedy, city locale. Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel also has an alternative title, "The Man with Two Minds," as well as a subtitle characterizing it as "A Story of Darkest Earl's Court in 1939." This acerbic description is a riff on imperialist references to "darkest Africa," of which Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is only the best remembered. It also pinpoints a date that resonates in British history: the year the country declared war on Hitler's Germany.
Mr. Hamilton looks back on that year and implicitly therefore to the coming of war. But he does not look back from the point of view of political or historical events: The invasion of Czechoslovakia and the inevitability of war get only the briefest of mentions. Instead, the author concentrates on the psychology of war: on George Bone, a mild, lumbering good-natured chap, hopelessly besotted with the beautiful Netta Longdon, an unsuccessful small-time actress.
George is the man with two minds identified in the subtitle. Most of the time his mind is on Netta. Occasionally, however, he clicks into another consciousness: Everything fades as he focuses on the necessity of killing Netta and escaping to Maidenhead, a Thames town that typifies the peace and orderliness he wants to recapture.
Things have gone seriously wrong for George. He had been in business with a friend. But that was a while ago. Now he is unemployed, eking out his small capital so he can date Netta. He spends his days planning meetings with her, hoping against all experience to the contrary that she will be nice to him. He drinks a lot as do Netta and her obnoxious friends. They thus spend much of their day getting over the night before.
His yearning hopefulness over Netta notwithstanding, George understands that she is cruel and worthless a liar and a cheat. He also understands that he is wasting his life. In this, he is very much a man of his literary times. In "Coming Up For Air" (1939), George Orwell's similarly named George Bowling uses a chance win on a horse race to return to the Thames valley in search of the England of his childhood. It wasn't an easier England, he concludes; individuals could suffer dreadfully, but it was safer as a whole, less infused with the hate mentality he now sees everywhere as war approaches. Bowling analyzes the situation more acutely than George Bone, but he is equally at a loss to do anything about it.
This feeling of powerlessness is shared with other contemporary literary characters: with the aging young things of Evelyn Waugh's "Put Out More Flags," published the same year as "Hangover Square," and with the denizens of Anthony Powell's "What's Become of Waring," a 1939 novel permeated, as Powell later noted, "by a brooding anxiety … the racking international atmosphere pervasive, if never explicitly mentioned."
This racking atmosphere infuses the drunken scenes, which are set pieces in the novels of this period. In "Hangover Square," George Bone begins drinking soon after breakfast, starting with pre-lunch beers in a pub or, on lucky days, with gin and lime with Netta while she bathes or dresses. More beers or maybe whiskies accompany lunch and the boozy evenings in bars and hotels.
Equally, Waugh's and Powell's characters are most at home in bars or at parties often set in splendid places and peopled by ineffectual men and at least one beautiful, charismatic but distant woman. Disorder prevails.
And sadness too: The fun quickly evaporates as boredom and regret set in. Regret, indeed, infuses George Bone's life, but while he can make plans to change, he never succeeds in freeing himself from Netta's vortex and the inconsequential round of pubs. Drunkenness thus spells irrationality and incapacity: the inability to think straight or to take control of one's life. As a condition that sometimes highlights truths but makes action impossible, drunkenness is a trope for unaverted war.
No one is more steely in presenting this than Patrick Hamilton. Born in 1904, he went on the stage at the age of 17 and later wrote several successful plays, including "Gaslight," which was turned into a successful film in 1940.
His dramatic training shows up in the shapely plot of "Hangover Square" and the sharp etching of its limited cast of characters. Hamilton never shifts attention from George, taking readers through the tender banalities of his day so that the wounds dealt by the scornful Netta and her cronies seem brutal as well as cruel.
It also gives "Hangover Square" a dark symbolic load. Kindly, not-very-bright George is Hamilton's essence of Englishness. (It was Orwell's, too.) The psychic engine that powers predatory Netta is fueled by ambition, greed, savagery, self-centeredness just the attributes of Hitler's Germany.
Paradoxically, though, these hateful attributes fascinate as much as perhaps even more than they repel, so while it is easy to spot that Hamilton's unremitting attention to Netta's personal defects streams out of unresolved anger at sexually unobtainable women, the abiding interest of "Hangover Square" is his illustration of emotional violence as the psychic underpinning of war the casus belli of all wars, and at work in belligerents on both sides of any conflict.
Today, 60 years since the publication of "Hangover Square," much of the sexual behavior and class politics it describes seem almost as antique as those of the 19th-century novel. But the emotions Hamilton depicts and the taut telling of his tale make it as compelling as ever. The author takes us behind the now-accepted "causes" of World War II unfinished business from World War I, an aggressive landlocked country grabbing territory at the expense of its weaker neighbors, a leader pushing the politics of power and hate to a cause more fundamental, more rooted in human personality, and very much in the minds of writers of Hamilton's era.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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