The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Tags:  general-fiction, favorite-fiction,

Bob, a waiter at a London saloon called The Midnight Bell, leads a relatively simple life. He works the lunch shift from 11 to 3 and the evening shift from 5 till 10. In between, he reads in his room, wanders the streets, goes to movies. The son of an American man and an Irish woman, he has no living family, no clear path ahead, and only the vaguest of dreams.

The time is 1929 or thereabouts. After years of working at sea, Bob, now twenty-six, has landed in this saloon that serves an odd assortment of down-and-out regulars.

The saloon’s rotund proprietor, known as The Governor, wears a waistcoat “the same shape as the world, but a little smaller. The Governor, as he walked about, was a kind of original Atlas. He took the burden not on the shoulders, like the mythological figure, but in the middle. You could positively find yourself trying to find the continents on the Governor’s waistcoat.”

The regulars include the insufferable, self-important bore, Mr. Sounder, who imagines himself a major literary figure, though his only published pieces are letters to newspaper editors lamenting the current state of women’s hairstyles.

Sounder’s nemesis, Mr. Wall, is another regular whose childish, lowbrow puns are funny precisely because they’re so irritating to the pretentious Sounder.

The Dickensian cast also includes Mr. Loame:

He was tall, with a bowler hat and yellow gloves, and a silver-knobbed black stick. He wore an expensive shapely grey overcoat–rather too shapely; and he had large, handsome features–rather too large and handsome. His eyes were blue and fine. His voice was rich, deep, patrician–authentically beautiful. With all this, there was an elusive shabbiness and meretriciousness about the man. In a word–an actor.

Rounding out the regulars is The Illegal Operation.

The young man’s actual name was MacDonald. But this was transcended by his reputation. As an Illegal Operation (and as nothing else) he drank his whiskies, leered across his bar, and inhaled endless cigarettes before the world. For he never told you his name, but when he had had more whiskey than was good for him he invariably began to swagger confidentially about his Illegal Operation. By performing one of these (successfully), it appeared, he had abruptly terminated his career as a medical student, and served six months in prison. This was his tragedy, and he was famous for it in The Midnight Bell. He was now about thirty-two, and wore old grey flannel trousers, a sports coat, rather dirty shirts and knitted ties. He had sandy hair, rather closely cropped… and grey eyes. He had enormous ears, and a long nose with a rather bashed-in appearance–an illegal nose, in fact–and a full mouth and large chin. Every now and again he tried to commit suicide, but could never manage to bring it off.

The affable Bob is a favorite among his clientele. They compete to buy him drinks during and after his shifts. When we first meet him in his bare room above the bar, he’s shaking off the effects of lunchtime gin, readying himself for the evening shift.

With a good heart and an idealistic imagination, his dream is to be a writer. He keeps this to himself, fearful that others will mock him. A man without an education who has to work six days a week just to keep himself clothed and fed has no business imagining himself in the immortal ranks of Dickens and Shakespeare.

But he’s been quietly preparing himself for the life he wants, reading anything and everything he can, saving every penny he can scrape from his meagre earnings. When the story opens, he’s amassed eighty pounds through disciplined thrift and frugality, the equivalent of about five thousand pounds in today’s money. That was quite a sum for a struggling young man in interwar London.

Bob’s coworker, the barmaid Ella, seems to be in love with him. She’s intelligent, perceptive, and thoughtful. They have a natural, easy rapport. “From love and kindness her good soul was constructed.” But to Bob, she’s plain, “sexless.” He isn’t interested.

He is interested in Jenny, the pretty young prostitute who stops in for a drink one winter afternoon. Why?

Having endured a life of hardship, Bob is deeply empathetic toward the suffering of others. He is accepting and understanding rather than judgemental, even to a fault. His reaction upon meeting Jenny’s friend, Prunella, is typical:

Prunella was a dark, handsome, flashy girl, who looked as though she had seen the inside of jails. And, indeed, had. Bob rather liked her.

The barflies are drawn to Bob because of his nearly unconditional acceptance, but this is also his fatal flaw.

Though the sensible Ella warns him not to get involved with Jenny, the prostitute has fired the young author’s imagination. She has potential, just like me, he thinks. She was dealt a bad hand in life, just like me. No education, no money, no family, not a single break. She’s so far down, she can’t see her way up. But I can. Someday, I’m going to be somebody, and I’m going to bring her with me.

So his thinking goes.

Like Ella watching from the sidelines, the reader can see the trainwreck coming. Bob is in love with a woman who has given up on love. He wants to save the soul of a human being who has no interest in salvation. All Jenny wants is to earn enough to pay her rent and get drunk.

Jenny is elusive, sometimes appearing for their dates, sometimes not. Bob often walks the streets to find her. When he catches up with her, she’s evasive. He asks where she was, why she missed their date, she says, “I was busy, that’s all.”

Does she love him? “Sure, if you like.”

Though he can’t see it, Bob is as infatuated with the narrative of their love–the airy romance spun entirely from imagination–as he is with Jenny herself.

She lies, she stands him up, she takes his money. He can’t deal with the anger he feels, the sense of betrayal, so he makes up stories to justify her behavior, stories that inevitably lead to him think, My God, what horrors she must have endured to make her behave in such a way! She needs saving, and I must save her!

His self-deception makes him a co-conspirator in his long, spiraling descent.

At one point, when he’s hunted her down among the crowd of West End prostitutes, he takes her to a bar, buys her a drink, and asks why she didn’t meet him the other day, as she promised.

“Didn’t want to, I suppose, dear,” she said, and took another sip.

In the infinite perversity of human nature, his dejection was immediate. He loved her. He looked at her and her beauty and knew he could not bear her disfavor.

To her credit, Jenny warns him repeatedly to stay away. You can’t love me, she says, I’m a prostitute. She’s telling him clearly that she’s not capable of reciprocating his feelings, but what he hears is that she’s internalized society’s judgment of her as worthless, and he wants to show her otherwise. He’s going to be the hero who makes her see own beauty. They’re speaking two different languages.

One evening while visiting her house, Bob listens to another prostitute tell the story of a high school boy she picked up on the street. The boy did not want to have sex. He bought her a drink, said he felt sorry for “her lot” and wanted to help her. She berated him for wasting her time, took all his money, returning just enough for his train fare back to school, and sent him off with a warning not to try to save prostitutes' souls because “we haven’t got any.”

Bob sees the parallel right away. He is the idealistic boy.

Why had he pitted himself against all the perceived facts? Any fledgeling could have told him from the first what he was now learning with such cost and pain–that women of the streets were of and for the streets, and that love of such was inconceivable–unnegotiable–mere despair and degredation. She had even told him so herself when he first knew her. And yet, like a child of eighteen, he had thought that in his own case it would be different.

In Jenny, the hope and idealism that have seen Bob through years of hardship come up at last against a reality that will not yield. For all his love and earnestness, the brightness of his dreams cannot illuminate a soul that has given up on itself, “this dreadful flower of the underworld.”

The strength of The Midnight Bell lies in Hamilton’s sharp, darkly comic writing, and in his extraordinary ability to describe the psychological tricks we play on ourselves to avoid feelings we don’t want to accept.

For all his altruism, Bob’s love is not entirely selfless. He wants to be the hero of a long-shot romance. He needs to see himself as the rescuer and redeemer, the one who bravely descended into the depths to pull a fellow sufferer, someone worse off than himself, back to safety. He wants to bask forever after in her gratitude.

The episodes that most upset Bob are the ones that threaten his internal narrative of himself as rescuer. He understands that Jenny is with other men. That’s her job, and he excuses it with the fantasy that, once they are together, she will be faithful. But he rages internally when he hears she’s with “a gentleman,” who can take her on vacation, put her up in hotels, educate her, and provide her with things Bob can’t give.

He thinks and feels what every person who’s ever been in love thinks and feels, but as the story progresses, the reader sees what Jenny implicitly understood from the beginning, and what Bob can’t bring himself to admit: that this love is more about him than about her. He can’t break it off because too much of his identity, too much of who he wants to be, how he wants to perceive himself, is wrapped up in his dream of restoring this fallen angel to her former brightness. As the affair becomes more desperate, Bob’s rationalizations for continuing it become more convoluted, tortured, and cringeworthy.

Ultimately, he must come to a reckoning in his own heart, and ultimately, he does. But, like any true idealist, he has to learn the hard way.

Hamilton’s writing rings true because it’s so close to his own life. At Bob’s age, he too was a poor waiter in London, a drifting, empathetic outcast hopelessly in love with a dissolute prostitute.

The Midnight Bell is the first in Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Book two picks up the story from Jenny’s perspective, which I look forward to reading because in The Midnight Bell, we never truly know what she thinks or how she perceives the world. We have only her evasive words and an outward description of her actions distorted by Bob’s idealism and desire.

The third and final book shows us London from Ella’s perspective. She’s the most sensible of the lot: plain, kind, and overlooked–like the bulk of humanity. My guess is, if she’s not the most tragic of the three, she’ll be the most enduring.

I’ll review the other titles as I read them.

Book Two: The Siege of Pleasure

Book Three: The Plains of Cement