It is 1943, and the war ‘which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look around without finding something else gone or going.’ So writes Patrick Hamilton in his brilliant, dark novel about the fate of civilians in a time of conflict, The Slaves of Solitude. The observations here are filtered through the perceptions of Miss Roach, who is exactly as she sounds, a respectable, timid, dignified spinster, who has given up on her life, as not least amongst the items the war has pilfered are eligible men, meaningful work and pleasant places to live. Bombed out of London where she works at a publishers (‘slowly but surely another enormous and menacing No was creeping forward – no paper’), she has been forced to commute from Thames Lockdon and rent a room in the existential hell of a boarding house with the misleadingly twee name of the Rosamund Tea Rooms. The intense psychodrama of bored and miserable people acting out on one another is sharply and hilariously described, as Miss Roach struggles to gain a fresh start out of life, one way or another.
The actual war may not feature at all in The Slaves of Solitude, but unarmed combat is engaged in constantly under the cover of the sort of extreme politeness English dining rooms are fabled for. The chief villain is Mr. Thwaite, a retired man with the ‘steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others.’ The boarding house, with its endless supply of reticent women was the perfect hunting ground for his particular combination of ‘loquacity and malevolence’. Mr Thwaites is a dreadful bully, and Miss Roach his favourite victim. His methods are all concerned with dominating the conversation (easily done in the restrained and super-polite atmosphere of semi-strangers) by means of accusing Miss Roach of things she hasn’t done (sympathise with the Russians, in particular) or by delivering speeches in a range of peculiar discourses, including a cod-Scots: ‘I Hae ma Doots, that’s all…’ a cod-renaissance: ‘A fine morning, in Troth… In veritable Troth, a beauteous morning’ and referring to himself in the third person: ‘I Happens to be like the Wise Old Bird…’ Patrick Hamilton was better known as a dramatist than a novelist and you can see why because the dialogue is outstanding; vivid, full of character, often perverse, hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr Thwaites and his language of Troths is the most painfully funny creation in a painfully funny book.
So, there’s poor Miss Roach, forced into endless attempts to deflect Mr Thwaites’ needling, with little else to look forward to in life, when two possible supporters come on the scene. The first is the American, Lieutenant Pike, stationed nearby and dining at the Rosamund Tea Rooms who starts to take Miss Roach down the pub and then on to be kissed in the park, and a German expatriate, Vicki Kugelman, who Miss Roach has befriended and who is to take up residence in the boarding house. Only of course, these two turn out to be false friends with different ways of torturing Miss Roach. Lieutenant Pike is a desperate hedonist, determined to enjoy whatever remains of his days in wartime, drinking himself into a stupor and even out of it again, and Vicki turns out to be the worst of them all, out to steal Miss Roach’s final possessions – her fledgling relationship, her sense of self and her peace of mind.
For me, this novel provided a searingly astute portrait of a sensitive, cautious, introverted mind being pushed beyond its limits by ill-intentioned extroverts. It contains some of the best scenes I’ve ever read of what happens to sober people surrounded by riotous drunks, determined that everyone should ‘join in’ so that they don’t have to face a measure of decent humanity in their pursuit of excess. Between them, Mr Thwaites, Lieutenant Pike and Vicki Kugelman push Miss Roach to breaking point – but when that calamitous moment finally arrives, the outcome is not at all what the reader would suspect.
This is the kind of book in which a great deal is made out of a very little; in essence, not much happens, but that not much is magnified, explored, dissected and scrutinised. It might have been dull, but the superb quality of the prose means that it offers instead a very rich account of timeless humanity. I can’t help but think about books at the moment in terms of Josipovici’s analysis of modernism. On the face of it, this is a simple novel of realism. But the way that moments are slowed down and made to expand over pages, their invisible contents exquisitely detailed, gives it a distinct modernist flavour. Many modernist novels tend towards stasis and suspension because of the underlying conviction that the task of telling a truthful story is impossible. It’s also the neurotic’s mantra – ‘I can’t but I must’. I think that in this case, it is the fault of the war, pilferer of light, hope, happiness and reason, as well as stockings, groceries, cigarettes, places on trains, etc, that produces the requisite neurotic and claustrophobic circumstances. But although this novel is very dark, it is consistently amusing, and it even has an almost-happy ending. I’m very grateful to Simon T for organising a readalong – The Slaves of Solitude had been sitting on my shelves for a while without any incentive for me to pick it up, and now I’m very glad I did.