Saturday, February 04, 2017

Reading group: The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob with a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.

Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty, wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.

Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and intensely interested in finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.

However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book: he didn't find the relationship believable at all.

There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.

Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious. People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious, it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone) agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded her lodgings without paying the rent).

I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:
Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.
Engaging as this is as a piece of verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:
...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:
'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.
And so on (and it does go on...)

That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.

Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:
'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'
I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book (he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.

Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.

It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to, and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and, importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel, which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.

Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they' or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the book was best read as a historical document.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Friday, February 03, 2017

Guest post: Reading group: The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:


Mark chose The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was “absolutely terrific”, particularly mentioning the author’s grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on occasion “laugh out loud”. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider (or The Stranger) by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, and which now seems a far more traditional approach; see our discussion of it.)

There was some disagreement about how funny this book is; though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages. Clare said she “didn’t get it”, presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the group’s response to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and finally succeeded with that one. He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of the group had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour is a very personal thing.

There was general agreement that this is an important book, and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of that race) is in fact a group of races, “whites”, “Negroes”… Our discussion took place before the current developments in America underlining the book's message, and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as “mixed race”, and the member who had made an academic study of post-colonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed race member of the group stated that he had been racially abused as a boy, in particular on one occasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the attack was racist due to the vocabulary the youths used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) “passes as white”. He was in a non-heavy sort of way (I think) raised as a Christian. I said that I felt it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his presence within the security of the group but that some groups of people would either be too embarrassed to do this, or there would be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress issues such as this, relationships between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any foundation in reality.)

There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, with a style perhaps more usual to short stories. There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was “hard work” but went on to say that this was about the point when the book benefitted from the use of a more traditional story line. I also compared it to Ulysses, saying it was similar in the use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society he lived in.*

Doug was unable to attend the group and briefly summarized his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:

“I’ve not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book and the cultural references had me resorting to Google on a regular basis. So I just found it quite hard going - far more so than, say, A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the language.
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.”

I and (at least?) one other member of the group expressed surprised as we had felt Doug would like the book, with what (to me at least) is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty’s digressions served little more purpose than to introduce a joke that did not strike me as being particularly funny.

The discussion of the book concluded, but as often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether one actually likes the book or not, the issues are important. One member agreed that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously, she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of chocolates, with initial enjoyment, leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses. Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.

Report written by John.

*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here