Noncombatants

Two novels about the war at home
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  April 10, 2007
070413_inside_hamilton
BATTLE LINES: Hamilton’s middle-class Briton who suspected fascism might not be such a bad thing is the type of blowhard who exists in every era.

‘I’ve been at home for six months and the war still goes on . . . We have our dead here, too.’
Cesare Pavese, The House on the Hill

It’s perhaps understandable that what we think of as “the war novel” has become synonymous with stories set in the midst of combat. But it fails to take into account the fact that often the people irreversibly marked by war are those who are nowhere near the fighting, resulting in strange exclusions. For instance, James Jones’s The Thin Red Line would qualify as a war novel, but his From Here to Eternity, which climaxes with the attack on Pearl Harbor, would not. Equating war novels with combat novels would also rule out Alberto Moravia’s Two Women — for my money, one of the half-dozen greatest World War II novels.

Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 The Slaves of Solitude, set in London during the Blitz, and Alfred Hayes’s 1949 The Girl on the Via Flaminia, set in liberated Rome while the war continues elsewhere, are two of the ongoing series of fiction reissues that has been a boon for contemporary readers (and made much contemporary fiction pale in comparison). They are both war novels without a single combat scene. Hamilton’s book is set in a shabbily respectable boarding house on the outskirts of London, Hayes’s in a not-so-respectable boarding house (the owner has turned it into a place for prostitutes to lodge or bring their regulars) frequented by the Allied liberators.

Even without American GIs figuring in the plots of both books, without the air raids and rationing Hamilton writes of, and the resentment of the defeated Italian soldier in Hayes, the war would be present in the very fiber of these novels. The combat novel gives us soldiers who do things that would have previously been unthinkable for them. The women in these two novels don’t face such drastic moral choices, such slim chances of survival. But in the way that war has narrowed their choices, has made life feel small and dingy and besotted with the grey reality of the combat taking place elsewhere, each finds herself in situations that are unthinkable enough.

Patrick Hamilton is best known for writing the plays that were the basis of the films Gaslight and Rope, and for the terrifying hardboiled novel of London in the ’30s Hangover Square (recently republished by Europa Editions). The Slaves of Solitude isn’t as dark a book as Hangover Square (almost no novels are). It has wit and bite and you’re never put in the position of fearing that disaster awaits the heroine, Miss Roach (that is how she is known throughout). The genre Hamilton is writing in desperately needs those qualities because English novels about the small undignified familiarities of boarding house life can suck the life out of you even when (as in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont) they’re good. (Anita Brookner’s tales of pinched drab lives can have you reaching for the straight razor.)

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