Impromptu in moribundia, p.1
Impromptu in Moribundia, p.1Patrick Hamilton
IMPROMPTU IN MORIBUNDIA
Edited, with an introduction and notes, by Peter Widdowson
‘From the perspective of the 1990s’, writes Patrick Hamilton’s principal biographer to date, ‘[Impromptu in Moribundia] looks impossibly dated’.2 Well, we shall see. Published by Constable in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War — a commercial failure never reprinted until now — the novel does indeed seem to ‘belong’ to the late-1930s. Nevertheless, it is at once a fascinating relic of that period, an innovative piece of thirties fiction-writing — typographically, if in no other ways — and a novel which may well entertain and strike a chord with contemporary readers in these postmodern times. At the very least, then, the present reprinting allows those unfamiliar with Hamilton’s work — or familiar with only that part of it which has surfaced through the swirling mists of oblivion which otherwise surround this now undeservedly little-known writer — to make up their own minds.
Patrick Hamilton was born into a ‘good’ but profoundly troubled Edwardian family in 1904, and became a professional writer in the mid-1920s. By the end of that decade, he was already established as a successful novelist and playwright, but a severe injury caused by being knocked down by a car early in 1932 seriously compounded his already disturbed psychological condition — the symptoms of which he attempted to dispel by heavy drinking. However, he remained extremely productive and highly-regarded throughout the 1930s, during which period he became a convinced Marxist, like so many other intellectuals, although he never actually joined the Communist Party. Hamilton’s writing career continued into the post-war period, but by now his alchoholism was worsening and effectively caused his premature death in 1962. His last finished novel was published in 1955, and his work was rapidly lost sight of in the following decades. It is a cautionary tale of how, in the unpredictable realm of literary evaluation, a talented and once very successful writer can disappear from view almost overnight.
Hamilton is best known for his theatrical thrillers, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (or Angel Street, 1939) — both grossly adapted as Hollywood films3 — and for his mordant novel about the raddled English bourgeois culture preceding World War II, Hangover Square (1941).4 But he wrote many other works both before and after the war: Craven House (1926), Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, A London Trilogy (1935),5 The Slaves of Solitude (1947), and the ‘Mr. Gorse’ novels of the early 1950s (The West Pier , Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse  and Unknown Assailant  — adapted as a television series, ‘The Charmer’, in 1987).6 In addition, he wrote a number of successful radio plays, such as To the Public Danger and Money with Menaces (both 1939).
All these works, as with those of so many others of his generation, locate what they see as the inner stagnation and decay of the English middle class between the wars, and its responsibility for the condition of contemporary society, in the personal crises of individuals and marginal groups of ostensibly trivial people. Just as the airless and corrupt orthodoxy of bourgeois families and attitudes, the sickening stench of the decaying genteel, incubates private neurosis, so cumulatively it seems to engender public crisis. Such a metaphorical correlation informs the early poems of W.H. Auden, the thirties fiction of Edward Upward, the seedy world of (Graham) ‘Greeneland’, George Orwell’s obsessive late-thirties novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939), Christopher Isherwood’s earlier ‘English’ novels, All the Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932), and his famous ‘Berlin’ ones, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). A kind of ‘synthetic’ realism — in which the enormities of contemporary history (what Isherwood called the ‘fantastic realities’ of ‘the everyday world’)7 are ‘tea-tabled’8 by peripheral and irresponsible goings-on within individual hells — allows the physical and mental landscape of an ugly and neurotic world, private and public, to be depicted. Unlike Hamilton’s other work, however, Impromptu in Moribundia, whilst still concerned to excoriate English middle-class ideology, belongs to a different mode of 1930s fictional experimentation in its attempt, too, to convey ‘a world of realities so preposterous that [the] human brain could not cope with them’.
Many of the novelists of that decade show a significant irresolution about their fictional form, oscillating between a more or less realistic portrayal of the social world around them and the contrivance of ‘parallel’ worlds through fable, allegory, satire and dystopia. There seems to have been a pressure to expand the novel form, not as the Modernists had done in order to penetrate and express the shifting inner realms of individual consciousness as a way of comprehending the world, but to find a strategy for representing and commenting directly upon the large forces and movements of society that determine and control the lives of the individuals within it.9 If ‘History’, to borrow Stephen Dedalus’s phrase in Joyce’s Ulysses, was the ‘nightmare’ from which the Modernists had been ‘trying to awake’, novelists in the nineteen-thirties sought to engage it head on. Examples from the period of writers exploiting the boldly simplified, cartoon-like methods of fabulation would include: Aldous Huxley’s shift from his earlier Modernist fictional mode to the dystopia, Brave New World (1932); Edward Upward’s surrealistic fables, The Railway Accident (written 1928) and Journey to the Border (1938); Rex Warner’s satirical allegories, The Wild Goose Chase (1937), The Professor (1938) and The Aerodrome (1941); and, a little later, Orwell’s ‘solving’ of his late-1930s formal dilemma in the fabular mode of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) — not to mention many examples of the rapidly developing genre of Science Fiction. Such novels, however obliquely, represent an attempt to engage with the crucial public issues of their time: with its new sciences and technologies, with its political, military and economic movements, with contemporary historical realities. In a telling passage in Impromptu, Hamilton comments on the Modernist literary writers of ‘Moribundia’ (or England, as we shall see). Using a simple but effective comic device almost certainly derived from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon novels (1871, 1901) — which also offer a satirical ‘reverse’ image, in the fabular country of their title, of (Victorian) bourgeois culture — he refers here to ‘Toile, S.T.’, ‘Ecyoj’, ‘Yelxuh’ and ‘Ecnerwal’, amongst others:
… they are for the most part hopelessly and morbidly turned in upon themselves, and sterile in consequence. But where else are they to turn save upon themselves? In a world which is unchangeable and inexpandable, where is there to gaze save inwards? … Obviously, in doing so, they must become self-conscious to an ever more tormented degree, and paralysed for effective action accordingly. Finally, a stage must be reached when the mind can only look at ever-receding reaches of the mind, and an art on the border line of madness or idiocy must be reached….
For these reasons art, literature, and poetry in Moribundia take on a more and more painfully subjective aspect, more and more the character of meaningless masturbation, there being no future which they can fertilize,
‘Effective action’ towards a less moribund ‘future’ are goals which
Impromptu in Moribundia begins — admittedly rather slowly — as a rough pastiche of the ‘Time Traveller’ type of fiction made popular by H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and Elmer Rice’s later satirical science-fiction novel, A Voyage to Purilia (1931), which, Nigel Jones tells us, ‘Patrick had read and admired… [taking] from it the central situation of a man catapulted through space to a world that was a distorting mirror of the society he had left behind’.10 But this only takes up the first chapter, and the ‘Asteradio’ business is no more than an opening device to get the unnamed narrator onto the planet of ‘Moribundia’. Once there, Hamilton can proceed to expose the central, and often devastatingly portrayed, butt of his satire: the stagnancy and stupidity of the English middle-class way of life as fundamentally responsible for the sickness of contemporary society.
Hamilton’s main strategy is simply to make his fictive Moribundia a physical enactment of the stereotypes and myths of English middle-class culture and consciousness. Thus the visitor from ‘Earth’, on his arrival in Moribundia, finds himself actually watching the cricket-match from Henry Newbolt’s Edwardian poem, ‘Vitaï Lampada’ (1908). The apparently confused chronology is no accident, since the Edwardian ethos, for Hamilton, still informs English society in the 1930s and is central to its sickness: hence ‘Moribundia’. During the course of his visit, the narrator experiences most aspects of Moribundian life, continuously expressing his (dis)ingenuous ‘surprise’ at their difference from their English counterparts. Different they may appear — inasmuch as the images, preconceptions and tacit assumptions of the English middle class are here the palpable reality — but the trick is that they are in fact a literal enacting of its ‘mind’. This is ‘the land in which the ideals and ideas of our world, the striving and subconscious wishes of our time, the fictions and fragments of our imagination, are calm, cold actualities’.
Moribundians are so conditioned that they generally think and talk in the clichés of popular and mass cultural forms: hence the incidence of ‘ballooning’ — one of Hamilton’s finest comic inventions — which means that in the middle of a conversation a balloon will automatically appear out of the top of a Moribundian’s head on which are inscribed the words of an advertisement of the ‘Thinks’ variety. These, as the reader will discover, are physically depicted in the text in graphic typographical form. In addition, the citizens are often reified into the images of popular culture: people with colds walk down the road with dripping taps in place of noses, or, if suffering from indigestion, with little devils scrabbling round their waists poking them with forked instruments; husbands and wives out shopping become the amazonian viragos and diminutive hen-pecked males of the comic picture-postcard, just as drunken men are invariably in evening-dress, hiccough, cling to lamp-posts, have bright red noses, pronounce all their ‘s’s’ as ‘sh’s’, and are observed by amiable policemen.
More seriously, the vast mass of the population is composed of two groups which exist exactly in terms of their type image. First, there are the ‘Yenkcoc’ working classes who think and act just as the (English) middle class (through its tory press) believes they think and act:
… the Moribundian working man is utterly happy and contented, and this in spite of the fact that Moribundians admit, in fact insist, that he is ‘always grumbling.’… [But] this ‘grumbling’ is merely a charming affectation on the working man’s part, by which he attempts to screen, but actually reveals his inner feelings. He grumbles in the same way as one might growl at a child one loved, in excess of affection,
In this world, the working classes do indeed buy new grand pianos every week and smash them up for firewood; they do keep their coal in the bath; and they do know their place:
“It’s no good, there’s nothing to be done about us. We’re hopeless. We don’t even try. Things aren’t what they used to be. Why, in my grandfather’s day a man was proud to do a job of work…. You don’t get that nowadays. All we think of to-day is how we can avoid work — how we can scamp a job and get more money for it…. We’re thoroughly spoiled, that’s what the matter is. Look at all these modern luxuries….”
The second group are the ‘little men’, all identically little, bowler-hatted and be-suited, who are the self-appointed guardians of the moral law of society, and whose underlying ‘reality’ is revealed in a frightening scene towards the end of the novel in which a mob of ‘little men’ hounds the narrator out of Moribundia for contravening its small-minded, petit-bourgeois code:
Instead of the harmless, helpful, friendly, tolerant, duty-doing little business-men…. I saw cupidity, ignorance, complacence, meanness, ugliness, short-sightedness, cowardice, credulity, hysteria and, when the occasion called for it, … cruelty and blood-thirstiness. I saw the shrewd and despicable cash basis underlying that idiotic patriotism, and a deathly fear and hatred of innovation….
In addition to such grotesque expressions of the stereotypes of middle-class consciousness are deftly-handled exposures of the Moribundian ideology. The key concept here is ‘Unchange’. Morbundia (and by implication, it should never be forgotten, England in the inter-war period) ‘was ideal because it could not change: it could not change because it was ideal’. Its science, religion, politics and culture all reinforce this idea, and the sections on them are fine parodies of contemporary attitudes and developments. Politically, of course, this means that anything which envisages change is anathema: hence the ‘tsinummoc’ and the ‘tsixram’ are Moribundia’s sworn enemies, and ‘Ehtteivosnoinu’ is its Hell. There is also a mordant section on the Moribundian ability to emasculate its critics and opponents by corrupting then with its own values or by indulging them as spoilt and finally harmless ‘rebels’: ‘tsinummoc’ agitators, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells are variously implicated here. The final cumulative image is that of a society which is literally acting out the world-view of the English middle class, an ideal society in which ‘Unchange’ — mental and physical — is its diagnostic, and in which the narrator feels an ‘insidious sort of despair … the feeling as that of being half-dead’.
Hamilton’s remarks quoted earlier on the self-regarding obsessiveness of the inward-turned art of Modernism suggest that the fable/fantasy of Impromptu in Moribundia presented itself as an outward-turned form through which to explore public issues fictionally rather than as direct polemic. It was a useful strategy because the ostensibly comic and ‘unreal’ modality was a way of controlling and objectifying what otherwise might have come across merely as subjective loathing. Furthermore, the discrete system of the fabular world could synthesise all the essential abuses under attack without the diffusion of effect that situating them in a more obviously realistic location might bring. Here, Hamilton identifies and exposes the enemy by denuding it of its mundane specificities; and in this respect it seems to represent a clearing of the decks for the writing of what is generally held to be his most achieved novel of ‘synthetic realism’, Hangover Square. Nevertheless, in a world now characterised as ‘postmodern’ — where the past is merely recycled images and the future unimaginable, where (a)political apathy and a rampant consumerism driven by ubiquitous advertising and media-imaging seem to be its defining features, and where simulacra displace the reality they deceptively resemble — Hamilton’s vision of Moribundian ‘Unchange’, and of the consumerised reification represented by ‘ballooning’, may not appear so ‘impossibly dated’ after all.
I should finally like to acknowledge a number of debts of gratitude, incurred in the process of bringing Impr
1. Parts of the present introduction were first published in my essay, ‘The Saloon-Bar Society: Patrick Hamilton’s Fiction in the 1930s’, Renaissance and Modern Studies, Special Number: The 1930s, XX, 1976, 81–101; and then in John Lucas (ed.), The 1930s: A Challenge to Othodoxy, Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1978, pp. 117–37.
2. Nigel Jones, Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton, London: Scribners, 1991, p. 215.
3. Gaslight became The Murder in Thornton Square (MGM; 1943), directed by George Cukor, and starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Angela Lansbury; Rope (Warner Brothers; 1948) was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and starred James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Cedric Hardwicke and Constance Collier. For further discussion of these films, see Jones, op. cit., chapter 24, ‘Hollywood and Hitchcock’.
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