My detour into amnesia stories of the forties has led me to Hangover Square (1941) by Patrick Hamilton, a very different novel from Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse, which I read earlier in the week.
While Traitor’s Purse sticks closely to the genre conventions of the light detective thriller (but plays some good tricks with them) Hangover Square makes up its own rules as it goes along. The central character is George Harvey Bone, a large melancholy man who pursues a fairly pointless existence in Earls Court, spending most of his time in pubs and hanging around on the edge of a crowd of people who despise him. At the centre of this group is Netta, a minor film actress. He is hopelessly besotted by her, even though she treats him with derision and takes advantage of him.
The twist is that Bone’s mind alternates between two mental states that are quite distinct. Most of the time he is the rather hopeless devotee of the awful Netta, but then – Click!- his brain switches and he is sure only of his mission to kill Netta and her unpleasant friend Peter, and then to travel to Maidenhead. The two mind-states are mutually amnesic, and their stories progress in parallel.
The action of the book takes place in the year between Munich and the declaration of War in September 1939, and the historical events that are happening are only rather vaguely registered by these self-centred characters. Hamilton has things to say about appeasement and fascism, however. Netta’s most unpleasant chum is Peter, who has served time in jail for beating up a leftie at a fascist rally. Netta herself is to some extent presented as the sort of unrooted, selfish person who would feel the secret thrill of fascism’s sexiness:
She was supposed to dislike fascism, to laugh at it, but actually she liked it enormously. In secret she liked pictures of marching, regimented men, in secret, she was physically attracted by Hitler: she did not really think that Mussolini looked like a funny burglar. She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts… She was bored to distraction by the idea of a war, of course, and hence arose her glorious joy… at the time of Munich, when, at one stroke, war was averted and the thing which she was supposed to laugh at but to which she was drawn in reality, was allowed to proceed with renewed power upon its way.
The political process of appeasement is mirrored by Bone’s appeasement of Netta. Desiring her yet frightened of her he gives in to her, pays her money, and lets her abuse his kindness. The other Bone – the killer – can therefore be seen as his instinctive self rebelling against this role, in much the way that other amnesics in other stories are reversions to a better instinctive self. To some extent the novel reminds me of The Enemy over Yonder, a 1919 story by A.M. Burrage in which a shell-shocked soldier, sleepwalking, does (without consciously knowing it) what everybody else, including the author, thinks ought to be done, and murders an unpleasant war profiteer called Freundheimer (“Freundheimer was a British subject, though his origin was beyond doubt.” ). The unconscious gets it morally right.
At the end of Burrage’s story, the ex-soldier gets away with it, because all his friends are happy to maintain a conspiracy of silence. Hamilton is more tough-minded. Bone has no real friends to speak of. His compulsion tells him that after the murders he must go to Maidenhead. Presumably this is because the name symbolises virginity, a rebirth into purity. When he gets to the place and discovers the reality of what had previously been just a name in his mind, he finds it is banal, just like everywhere else. There is a hint that like London and Brighton it is tainted by the Netta vices, since one of the few landmarks there that the book mentions is Skindles, a riverside hotel famous for adulterous assignations.
Anyway, it’s a terrific book, and highly recommended, as is a critical work which pointed me towards both Hangover Square and Traitor’s Purse, Victoria Stewart’s Narratives of Memory : British writing of the 1940s (Palgrave 2006).
Amnesia stories of the forties – both Hangover Square and Traitor’s Purse, and also James Hilton’s Random Harvest – look at the problem from inside the amnesic’s head. Great War stories that I have read so far see the amnesic from outside, as a problem that the rest of society has to deal with. Is this always the pattern or are there exceptions? I must read more, and try to find out.