This is another one of the ‘lost’, i.e. out-of-print classics which have been republished in the nifty NYRB editions and thus made available to the reading public. “The Slaves of Solitude” was originally published in 1947 and its plot is set in 1940s London. The novel is, at 240 pages, a quick and enjoyable read, a novel as funny as it is moving. The protagonist, “this slave of her task-master, solitude”, a middle-aged former schoolmistress with “a healthy complexion –too healthy for beauty-“, by the name of Enid Roach, who is once, to her chagrin, referred to by her Christian name, but is usually known as “Miss Roach”. As she concedes herself, her former occupation has endowed her with certain character traits and being called “Miss Roach” seems to fit her character best. The novel charts a few weeks of her life in a boarding house by the river Thames, “some miles beyond Maidenhead on the Maidenhead line”, from her point of view (mostly, I’ll return to that) and containing her sarcastic, enraged, bitter and tentatively enthusiastic attitude towards her fellow boarders and her environment as a whole. It is so funny, you’ll laugh out loud often enough not to read this book in public and moving enough that you genuinely care about Miss Roach’s feud with two fellow boarders and quietly cheer her on.
However, despite all the hardships Miss Roach seems to be suffering, she does not appear to be in need of being cheered on. She is a stubborn person, trudging on and on through a blizzard of slights and insults, both real and (possibly) imagined. She reads her environment like a wayward book, looking for battle lines. Who is against her? Her arch enemy at the beginning is Mr. Thwaites (who reminds me of certain characters one meets on chat boards from time to time). He is a Daily Mail reader, which is saying quite enough about him. He adores, in a way, Hitler, nurses a diffuse hatred against communism or Russians; he disparages women unless he wants to get in their pants and he loves to hear himself talk. He considers himself to be supremely witty and at dinner he lets loose a barrage of phrases and words he considers witty and smart. He also considers himself to be quite suave and cosmopolitan (although he is a patriot of the most disgusting stripe) and toys with French phrases (that he barely understands) as well as with dialects, producing nuggets like this “”Yes…I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said – of Yore”.
There are other colorful characters, a historian named Miss. Steele, who sits at a separate table and from time to time throws in some partisan comments which Miss Roach usually takes to be supportive of her. There is also a former actor who sits at another separate table and barely says anything. Some lodgers, among them two American lieutenants, leave the establishment which used to be a tea-house. It is with one of them that Miss Roach tries to lighten her loneliness, but it is an attempt that is doomed from the start. His kisses merely confuse the former schoolmistress, as we the readers are apprised of her changing perception of the city around her which changes from blackness to darkness and back again. Incidentally, the use of colors and the naming of them is a fascinating part of this novel’s complex language. Confusion is Miss Roach’s main trouble, as she is constantly trying to sort other people’s comments into a black-and-white scheme, i.e. trying to find out who is against her and who is supportive of- of what? Of her opinions surely not, since she rarely vents her exuberantly worded rants. Her low mumbles at the dinner table are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Her rants and her confusion reach a high when her friend, a German called Vicky Kugelmann, called “Koogel” by Miss Roach’s landlady, whom Miss Roach had always considered to be somewhat ‘under her wing’, turns, so to say, against her by being suddenly, surprisingly, upbeat and popular. With men, mostly, including her lieutenant and the evil Mr. Thwaites. Suddenly, Vicky appears to be less of an Anglophile to Miss Roach and more of a covert Nazi. Her endearing use of outdated 1920’s English starts to be unnerving and almost unbearably obnoxious. There are whole pages of rants about vocabulary in the latter half of the novel which are among the most hysterically funny passages of the book. Although these suspicions and rants are indicative of a not very endearing character trait, a smallness of character, every line of the book proclaims Miss Roach’s generosity. This smallness is a way to defend herself, another way to cope with loneliness. Being a slave of solitude, she does not appear to have a choice. Her choices are made, larger and smaller ones. When a bomb destroyed her home and she left her school she ended up in her present lodgings in as unplanned a manner as her relationship with the lieutenant sours when Vicky intrudes upon it. It is only in the grand, cataclysmic finale that she starts to get ahold of herself and her choices and it makes quite a difference.
Mr. Thwaites’ game is domination, plain and simple. He attacks people by asking loaded questions, such as the very first question he poses our heroine when he inquires about “your friends”, the Russians. Miss Roach never said nor implied anything to justify that but every time that question is asked she is pushed into the defensive. As the novel proceeds he finds more and more ways to play his game. Questions of power are asked a few times in the “Slaves of Solitude”, the very title of which implies, well, servitude. This one may seem to be a servitude to one’s self, one’s loneliness, but the book demonstrates how often lonely people slip on the yokes of other people’s whims and opinions to escape solitude. Letting yourself kiss by some greasy American soldier, who may or may not take you to his home after the war, letting yourself be insulted and attacked by an odious Englishman rather than skipping dinner or tea time or spending it alone. She drinks quite a lot, although she knows when to stop and doesn’t usually enjoy drinking, but she drinks because she sometimes enjoys it. If you have once lifted the veil of solitude or if you have seen a way to go about lifting it, you will try again, and you will endure quite a lot. As London and the world fall apart, so does her former life and she becomes, by and by, conscious of her detrimental bonds with her ‘friends’.
As many other novels over which the dire shadow of alcoholism hangs, it is dominated both by humor and tragedy. Other outstanding novels in this vein are Jean Rhys’ electrifying masterpieces or the books of A.L. Kennedy, most notably Paradise. I wonder about Hamilton’s other novels. This one, enjoyable though it is, feels blunted. It’s rather nice, actually, which, subtly, changes the brand of humor we’re dealing with in this book. It is not the type of gallows humor we would expect with the ingredients we readers are served here and the good thing is, we notice this early on and relax. This novel relaxes its grip around the reader but it doesn’t do this for lack of focus or brawn. It allows us to laugh, laugh hard, to then, finally, freeze when we realize that this comedy, with tragic undertones, is set against the backdrop of last century’s huge tragedies.