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Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook

September 20, 2013 21 comments

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. 1941 French title: Hangover Square

Set in London in 1939 and more precisely in Earl’s Court, Hangover Square describes the obsessive, consuming and destructive passion that George Harvey Bone has for the attractive Netta Longdon. But, let me introduce you to George:

He was thirty-four, and had a tall, strong, beefy, ungainly figure. He had a fresh, red complexion and a small moustache. His eyes were big and blue and sad and slightly bloodshot with beer and smoke. He looked as though he had been to an inferior public school and would be pleased to sell you a second-hand car.

This short description conveys information about his features and his character. George is weak and reminds me of Charles Bovary. It must be the beefy look –literally bovin in French— and the apparent slowness of mind. Contrary to Charles, George suffers from mental illness; sometimes his mind snaps and he starts living in an alternate reality. Hamilton mentions schizophrenia. George was born like that, is used to living with his funny moods and has never seen a doctor for this. He’s known and mocked for his stupid moods and people around him wait for him to come out of his mindless state.

Poor George is incapacitated by strokes of schizophrenia and he’s intoxicated to the point of stupor by alcohol and his special brand of dope, Netta Longdon. Alcoholic states have been abundantly described in literature and I don’t think I need to add anything to it. Plus, you may have experienced drunkenness yourself. However, you’ve mostly likely not experienced schizophrenia and this is how Patrick Hamilton pictures it for us:

A silent film without music – he could have found no better way of describing the weird world in which he now moved. He looked at passing objects and people, but they had no colour, vivacity, meaning – he was mentally deaf to them. They moved like automatons, without motive, without volition of their own. He could hear what they said, he could understand their words, he could answer them, even; but he did this automatically, without having to think of what they had said or what he was saying in return.

Hamilton has a fascinating way to describe George’s inner mind when his brain is off-balance. When he’s in his other mood, he has an idée fixe; he must kill Netta Longdon and then go and live in the country, in Maidenhead. The book alternates between chapters when George is “normal” and chapters when George is “gone”. Each time he’s “gone”, he goes further in the preparation of the murder. And the reader wonders: will Netta die?

George’s mind is assaulted by two illnesses: his schizophrenia enhanced by his heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages and his desperate and unrequited love for Netta Longdon which results in the said heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. He’s in a vicious circle and his life spirals out of control. He can’t fight the attraction and loves her and hates her at the same time for the hold she has on him:

Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.

And Netta is what Guy would call a nasty piece of work. She’s lethal as a syringe full of heroin. She’s lovely outside and rotten to the core inside. George is aware of her lack of qualities, of her brutal use of her beauty. She’s a bully. She’s a beauty and uses her charms as a weapon. But she’s not charming. Netta is not a courtesan who flatters, entertains and bewitches a man with agreeable manners and stunning looks. Netta is a black witch who oozes fatal attraction and George is caught is her spell like a butterfly to a light:

Then it happened. At one moment she was just something he was talking to and looking at; at the next she was something of which he was physically sensible by some means other than that of sight or sound: she was sending out a ray, a wave, from herself, which seemed to affect his whole being, to go all through him like a faint vibration. It was as though she were a small amateur wireless station, and he alone was tuned in to her and listening. And the message she was tapping out was, of course, her loveliness.

George is helpless. He despises himself for his weakness and loathes her for her power as soon as he’s far enough from her range of attraction. She’s stupid. Some people are stupid and nice; some are stupid and mean. Netta falls into that category. She uses George for his money and at the same time can’t bear his presence. She has no conscience, no moral compass, no compassion. Hamilton says she’s like a fish:

Her thoughts, however, resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering slowly sideways without fully conscious motivation.

I don’t know how it is in English, but in French, if someone compares your brain to that of a goldfish, it’s more than derogatory. She acts like an animal, taking what she needs without thinking about other people’s feelings or the consequences. George has no chance to fight the attraction and he knows it. That’s why killing Netta is the only solution he sees but only voices when his mind has snapped. George seems stupid with his strange moods but he still has quite a good grasp of political matters and people. He sees people and events with clarity. He can’t defend himself because he lacks confidence. He’s always been treated as inferior by teachers, family and comrades. I felt compassion for George because he’s lucid about the lethal attraction and can’t help it. I also felt compassion for him because he’s lonely, isolated by his illness which he doesn’t recognise as an illness.

Hamilton_HangoverApart from Netta and George, Hangover Square is full of colourful second characters, London being one of them. Netta’s friends aren’t better than her and Peter is particularly repulsive. He’s a fascist and George loathes him for his privileged relationship with Netta and despises him for his political involvement with fascist activists. With Peter and Netta, Hamilton evokes the fascist current in England in 1939 and the country on the eve of WWII. I liked Johnnie, George’s only friend. He’s ambiguous and kept me wondering if his friendship for George was sincere or not. I mentioned London as a character. The novel is set in Earl’s Court but it also describes other neighbourhoods and part of the action takes place in Brighton. Hamilton describes the city and its pubs where George spends most of his time. I wonder if George’s desire to kill Netta Longdon and go and live in the country isn’t a metaphor for the city. Is the corrupted and insensitive Netta a metaphor for London and its failings while the good and slow George represents the countryside? London is the place where George is currently unhappy; the countryside is where he feels peaceful and happy.

Hangover Square is a multi-layered book. The toxic relationship or lack of relationship between Netta and George is interesting in itself. The description of George’s mental illness, its effects on his consciousness is brilliantly done; it could be a book in itself. Then there’s the ambiance in London just before the wart starts, the divisions among the citizens and the fascist movements which have touched part of the population. All this is enveloped in the global atmosphere of the city, its streets, its pubs, its boarding houses. I’ve read that Hamilton drank heavily, used to live in a boarding house and lived in London. This is probably why his descriptions sound so right.

Hamilton’s style is excellent, sharp and spot on. Few words bring the reader where he wants them and nail a character. See what he writes about Netta She looked like a Byron beauty, but she was a fish. or about George He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded. I can imagine him pretty well, his loneliness showing through his postures, his looks, the way he carries himself. I liked George, despite everything. I pitied him and the idea that someone like Netta could have such a hold on somebody else’s life made me shudder. I think this book will stay with me for its characters and the beauty of its language.

One last thing: many, many thanks to Max, from Pechorin’s Journal for recommending this fine piece of literature. I owe you one.

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