Sunday, May 11, 2008


At the NYRB, Francine Prose on the novels of Patrick Hamilton:
Hamilton's novels are unlike anyone else's, though at moments you catch glints of other writers: Charles Dickens, William Trevor, Henry Green, Patricia Highsmith. In their simultaneously purposeful and almost giddy malevolence, some of his characters recall the principals in Jacobean tragedy, which seems fitting since, in addition to his novels, Hamilton was also the author of two popular melodramas, Rope and Gaslight.

The latter may be one of the few literary titles to have become a verb. "To gaslight" is now commonly used to mean the willful undermining of someone's sense of reality in order to drive that person mad, a malign scenario often enacted in Hamilton's fiction. Along with alcohol, loneliness, and romantic obsession, the abuse of power—the small but all-important degrees of dominance conferred by class, gender, status, and beauty—is Hamilton's great subject. For Hamilton's heroes, falling in love entails surrendering their autonomy to undeserving women who mistreat their abject suitors, partly because it is the only power these women will ever have, and partly because they enjoy it.

At the start of The Siege of Pleasure, the second novel in the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy, Jenny Maples has just finished breaking Bob's heart and blowing the last of his savings. Now she looks back on the social and moral descent that began when—poor, alone, dependent on her so-called betters—she worked in the suburbs as a live-in servant, entombed with two ancient sisters and their gaga brother. How little she would have sold her soul for, or, for that matter, her body. A car ride seemed exciting. Tea in a tea shop! A movie! A drink! Especially a drink. Jenny blames her downfall on a single glass of port, which led to another glass of port. Here is how Patrick Hamilton describes alcohol's seductive and ultimately successful assault on her virtue:
A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around—together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, and a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news.
Much of Patrick Hamilton's fiction was loosely based on personal experience, a biography that involved considerably more alcohol than good news.
What I want: the fullest possible list of other literary titles that became verbs!

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