bullying

THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE BY PATRICK HAMILTON

When I was a boy my Dad would take me and my brother on holiday. Being poor, what this meant was that we would be crammed onto a coach, with 50 other unhappy holidaymakers, and driven to one of the nearby seaside towns, Bridlington or Scarborough. Once there, we would trawl around the near-deserted town, whilst being spied on by suspicious-looking seagulls. We would mournfully cast our eyes over the cheap plastic souvenirs in the seemingly endless rows of local shops and kiosks before heading for a cold, windy, and dirty beach. Mercifully, around midday we would leave the beach and head for a café and eat fish and chips with enough salt and vinegar to make your eyes water and your tongue tingle. We always ate fish and chips, because that’s just what you do when you’re on holiday. After eating we would perhaps take a stroll towards ‘the arcades’. The arcades were a bunch of slot machines and video games that were hopelessly out of date. I would play some sort of football game and my brother would play Street Fighter. Then we would have a go at an evil contraption which involved a series of shifting plates, upon which were mounds of old coins, mostly made up of 2p’s.

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The idea was to drop your own coin into the slot and wait, in agonised suspense, to see if it would be the one to push the overhanging mound of old coins over the edge, so as to allow you to pocket them. Of course, this never happened. It is impossible. In the entire history of the world no one has ever won. And what if you had won? Who wants a heavy pocketful of 2p’s anyway? But play you must. In the afternoon we would take another stroll, a tired but strangely upbeat stroll, for the day was coming to an end. We would eat candy floss. You had to do it. If you didn’t eat candy floss you’d have to eat a stick of rock, and no one wanted that. At around five p.m. we would make our way towards the spot where the coach was to pick us up and return us to an equally miserable, but less indolent existence.

I tell this story because my memories of being on holiday with my Dad conjure up the same kind of melancholy feeling I experienced while reading Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. I am sure you could say this of all countries, but the English experience is a unique one, especially once you leave the bigger cities and head out towards the eternally dying coastal towns and little villages. There’s a unique kind of misery involved when one stays in or visits these places. Being English, no one ever really voices this misery, you simply suffer in silence, and pray for some sort of escape, be that the coach or train that will take you away, or death. I’m not suggesting that you must be English to enjoy the book, because that is clearly not the case, but I think it will resonate most strongly with someone from these shores.

The Slaves of Solitude is set in Thames Lockdon during World War Two; and is centred around a boarding house, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, which is mostly populated by spinsterish old women. The central character is Miss Roach, a timid, self-questioning, and pretty fucking unhappy, thirty-something who is staying in Thames Lockdon, not as a holiday, but in order to avoid the full force of the war in the capital. She is, in a way, in hiding, or certainly in retreat; and that tension and unease, that sense of being somewhere that you really ought not to be, somewhere that is alien, hangs over the novel.

For me, Hamilton’s novel is the greatest representation of the drudgery of a mediocre existence in literature. Miss Roach goes for walks, occasionally, but the majority of her time is spent, when not at work, in the guest house, in silent conflict with her surroundings, the owner, and, most intensely, Mr. Thwaites. The self-important Thwaites is a masterpiece of cuntishness; he’s a bastard of epic proportions [the “president in Hell”], and he is, also, probably the single funniest character in any novel I have read. His M.O. is a kind of passive-aggressive [less passive, more aggressive] verbal bullying. Again, it’s a very English kind of bullying, whereby instead of openly declaring one’s dislike for something or someone, one will make sarcastic allusions and jibes while appearing, on the surface, to be merely engaging in debate or friendly conversation. Take, for example, this interaction between Thwaites and Miss Roach, where he is accusing her of Communist sympathies:

‘I said,’ he said, looking at her, ‘your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual.’

‘Who’re my friends?’ murmured Miss Roach.

‘Your Russian friends,’ said Mr Thwaites.

‘They’re not my friends,’ said Miss Roach, wrigglingly, intending to convey that although she was friendly with the Russians she was not more friendly than anyone else, and could not therefore be expected to take all the blame in the Rosamund Tea Rooms for their recent victories.

As this conversation progresses, Mr. Thwaites’ baiting of Miss Roach intensifies, and becomes somewhat surreal, as he explores the consequences of a Communist society:

‘The Coalman, no doubt, will see fit to give commands to the King,’ he said, ‘and the Navvy lord it gaily o’er the man of wealth. The banker will bow the knee to the crossing sweeper, I expect, and the millionaire take his wages from the passing tramp.’

‘At least,’ he said, looking straight at Miss Roach, ‘that’s what you want isn’t it?’

While Thwaites, for me, dominates the novel, and Miss Roach is a believable, psychologically sound, and sympathetic heroine, many of the minor [although all of them are minor in some way – that’s the point] characters are also finely drawn. Vicki Kugelman is appropriately slimy, and the American Lieutenant Pike is brash, without coming across as a caricature or stereotype. Then there is the lovely piece of writing, a short story almost, involving Mr. Prest and the time he spends away from the Tea Rooms. This episode includes one of my favourite lines in the book, where Hamilton describes how, when playing golf, Prest will only leave the course once he has hit the ball squarely off the face of the club four or five times:

Alone in the distance, lost in the wind, this obsessed figure, requiring, really, a Wordsworth to suggest the quality of its mystery and solitude.

On the prose, it is both a great strength and a minor weakness. Hamilton could really write. He could write in a way that very few authors can, with consistent insight and empathy and humour. The book is chock-full of quotable, grim lines, like when he says of Thwaites “He had further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad, where he had again always made his way to the small hotels”; open it at any page and you will likely turn up some gold. However, on occasions Hamilton overwrote, although not in the way that one would usually understand that term. He didn’t succumb to treacly poetics, but, rather, was too keen on exposition. There are points in the text, particularly during conversation, where Hamilton resorts to over-explaining the thoughts, motivations, etc, of his characters, when it is already abundantly clear what these thoughts, motivations, etc, are on the basis of what is being said [there is an especially aggravating dialogue between Miss Roach and Vicki about a third of the way through the book]. Of course, one could argue that it is intentional, that this over-analysis is meant to amplify the atmosphere of monotony; if so, it works, but I think it is being very charitable to make that argument.

In any case, The Slaves of Solitude is a fine novel; it is eminently readable, despite the slow pace and lack of explicit drama, and possesses a depth that belies the relatively small number of pages. It is dark, it is pretty much hopeless, but, for anyone who is lonely or who has spent significant time in the company of a bunch of tedious, close-minded people [we all know them] it is a strangely warming experience: that, that warmth, is the joy of seeing one’s own fears and small-scale miseries shared by others. You are not alone. Someone understands you. That is the great wonder of quality literature: you never need be completely alone.

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EFFI BRIEST BY THEODOR FONTANE

Throughout my life, the one constant, vis-à-vis relationships, has been that I have always seemed to end up with crazy women. That has both its drawbacks, of course, and its benefits. I say crazy but maybe it would be better to say high-spirited or eccentric; in any case, I absolutely have a type. For a long time I thought that it was simply a coincidence that every person I dated was a little cuckoo, but then I realised that the things that I like, the things I am most drawn to – the spontaneity, the large personality, the artistic impulse, etc – are the consequence of a mind that does not move along the same tracks that most people’s minds do. That was an important epiphany for me, because I knew, then, that if I had to have those things of which I am so fond, those unusual qualities, I had to accept the other side too, the less stable side.

This does not mean, of course, that all eccentric women will be attractive to me, nor does it mean that all of them will possess the kind of qualities I have so often fallen for. There can and will be exceptions to all theories or ideas about humanity. One such exception was an ex of mine; she was crazy, oh absolutely, but she was also dour and lazy and unaffectionate. It’s a relationship that continues to baffle me, long after it has ceased to exist. Whatever did I see in…not her, but us [for relationships are not, of course, about individuals, but the complex interplay of two people]? We were chronically ill-suited. Was I really so attracted to her that I compromised on everything else? Perhaps. It’s a really strange situation, being with someone who you want to like, but whose entire approach is anathema to you. I was in a constant state of frustration. She must have felt the same way, I am sure. It’s like trying to waltz with someone who wants to do the mazurka.

In any case, although the two personality types involved are not the same, I was put in mind of this old relationship of mine recently when reading Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Even more than those found in Anna Karenina [Anna and Karenin] and Madame Bovary [Emma and Charles], the central relationship in the novel, between Effi and Innstetten, is, from the very beginning, so obviously, so absolutely wrong for both parties. First of all, there is, of course, the age difference; I have never been with someone decades my junior, because, well, it would be illegal; but, setting that aside, although I can understand a man of forty or fifty being attracted to a girl of, say, twenty it has always struck me as weird that a man of such advanced age could believe that he has anything in common with someone from a completely different generation, that they could have anything to say to each other; I don’t know how, in this situation, these men could not feel a little bit ashamed, and more than a little bit ridiculous. Fontane does not at all indicate that Innstetten does feel ridiculous, but the couple do have so little in common. This is made abundantly clear when, for the Honeymoon, he takes Effi around lots of art galleries and churches, things that she has no idea about, nor real interest in. However, a lack of shared interests is not the only problem, the differences between the couple play out in many ways; for example, the first day after the honeymoon he rises early and she sleeps in. It may seem mundane, and it is, but it is part of showing that they are simply not right for each other.

Effi appears to be frequently disliked by readers, certainly based on the reviews that I have encountered. However, I loved her. It perhaps comes back to my type, for she is, well, a little unconventional. She is seventeen at the beginning of the novel, and we first meet her playing outside with her friends, while dressed in some kind of a sailor suit. One could see this opening scene as the author accentuating her youth, her childishness, and that is undeniably the case, but I feel as though there is more to it than that; Fontane, in my opinion, wanted to say something about Effi’s personality, not merely her age. Later, her mother calls her something like a child of nature and that description gives depth to one’s understanding of the opening of the novel; Effi is, to use a popular phrase, a free-spirit; she has peculiar ideas, and her emotional and intellectual responses are frequently contradictory, often within the space of a single paragraph. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the kind of characters you come across in Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I have, in my reviews of his work, called Dostoevsky’s characters, his women in particular, profoundly bipolar, and while that phrase is maybe too strong for Effi she is certainly prone to mood swings.

While the youthful and highly-strung Effi is not like the mature and passionate Anna Karenina, Innstetten is much like her husband Karenin, in that he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with what he has got. Like Karenin, Innstetten may love his wife, but he is a failure as a lover. He is too conventional, too reserved to romance or court Effi in a way that would lead to a genuine intimacy between them. Indeed, he tends to treat her as a child, as someone who ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, and exhibit maturity, where possible, but who ought not to be indulged when showing her immaturity. So, for example, he asks Effi’s opinion about which of the local resident families and households they ought to patronise, and yet when she has a turbulent night’s sleep because she thinks she hears strange, unnerving noises, which she is told is the wind sweeping the bottom of the curtains across the floor, he is resistant to do the small thing it would take to ease her anxiety [i.e. taking up the hem of the curtains].

Those strange, unnerving noises are particularly significant because they are the first suggestion of something sinister in a novel that becomes progressively eerie and odd. As already mentioned, Effi, who hears these noises soon after moving into her new home, is initially told that it is the wind and the curtains. However, they are subsequently attributed to a ghost. Effi, in fact, sees the ghost more than once; the first time it rushes past her bed and out the bedroom door and the second time it looks over her shoulder. Add to this, the story of the severed head, the frequent allusions to death, the old lady and the black hen, and Effi repeatedly, almost randomly on occasions, declaring that he feels afraid, and Effi Briest starts to resemble a Gothic novel. What is most fascinating about all this is how Fontane uses the Gothic to reveal aspects of his character’s personalities. For example, when Effi tells Innstetten about the ghost he does not deny its presence in the house, but rather gives the impression of wanting to convince her of its existence.

It is at this point that one starts to doubt one’s initial impressions of the husband. At first he seemed nice but dull, yet eventually his behaviour struck me as troubling and I came to regard him as a cold manipulator. It becomes clear that he uses the idea of the ghost to unsettle Effi, to keep her on her toes, so to speak. This is actually a torture technique, although I doubt Fontane was aware of this; the idea is that if you can prevent someone from thinking rationally, if you disturb their sleep and their peace of mind, then they will become more pliant. More than once Innstetten reminds Effi of the ghost, but he does so in very clever ways, so that it seems, on the surface, as though he is being supportive. For example, at one point he says, ‘don’t be afraid, it won’t come back,’ when Effi herself had not even mentioned the subject. Here, it seems Innstetten is bringing up the subject, is trying to keep Effi afraid, as a way of controlling her. He says it won’t come back, but is really suggesting that it will, is actually bringing it back by mentioning it. He engages in this kind of passive-aggressive bullying frequently. he makes apparently innocuous remarks, little sly digs, that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. And yet, and yet, just when I was convinced of his villainy, I began, towards the very end of the book, to feel sympathy for him. Ultimately, Innstetten is a man lacking imagination and ambition, not in the way that one would ordinarily understand those words, but in terms of appreciating and getting the most out of his life and making himself truly happy.

If the critical essays, and the introduction to this edition, are anything to go by, much is made of Fontane’s subtlety as a writer. Deservedly so. There are times when the author holds back almost to the point of baffling the reader, or this one anyway, in a way I have only come across elsewhere in the work of Henry James. Before I read the book I was aware of Effi’s reputation as an adulteress, and yet it does not, until it actually happens, seem inevitable that she will play her husband false. Indeed, unlike most novels of this sort, I had no inkling at all as to who she would do the dirty with. Not only that, but the cheating, the cheating that we have access to at least, is so minor in form that you wonder whether it can be called cheating at all. It was only with the revelation of the letters, something like seven years after the events, that I became of the opinion that it went beyond a bit of flirting and hand-kissing. I really liked how Fontane dealt with all that. The way that he treats Effi’s ‘affair’ is to allow the reader to imagine all kinds of things by revealing only a little.

However, despite providing plenty of evidence of Fontane’s subtle touch, my one [relatively small] gripe with the novel is that it is, at times, also woefully heavy-handed. The characters are, mostly in the first half, constantly psychologically sizing each other up, and engaging in conversations about each other’s motivations and behaviours. You are seductive, Innstetten tells Effi, while she goes on to explain how he is ashamed of husbandly affection, that he deems it unrespectable. Likewise, the scene where Crampas calls Innstetten a pedagogue, and Effi replies with something along the lines of, do you think he is trying to teach me? Like, duh. The thing is, this is the opposite of what I wrote about in the previous paragraph, in that this kind of stuff gives the reader nothing to do, allows us no opportunity for thinking for ourselves. In fact, it was often the case that I would already have come to the same conclusion as the characters before they voice it, so them doing so seems like overkill. The Japanese writer Kenaburo Oe does the same thing in his work, and I find it maddening.

Having said that, it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience of the book. I found Effi Briest an engaging and moving read; I could, in fact, keep writing about it, but I have just noticed the word count. 2000. Oh dear, no one will read all this. And what about Rollo? I haven’t even mentioned him. Fucking hell. Rollo. That dog broke my heart.