Depersonalization is a psychological symptom in which the sufferer's sense of self is affected. The world suddenly feels remote and unreal. According to Wikipedia, it is the third most common psychological symptom, after anxiety and feelings of depression; it can be an indication of many underlying conditions, or induced by drugs, sleeplessness, shock, or even voluntarily, for example by meditation. If involuntary, it can be an unpleasant, alarming experience: I have suffered from it myself. So, undoubtedly, had Patrick Hamilton, who in his novel Hangover Square, gives a series of brilliant descriptions of it:
Like a camera. but instead of an exposure having been made the opposite had happened - an inclosure - a shutting down, a locking in. A moment before his head, his brain, were out in the world, seeing, hearing, sensing objects directly; now they were enclosed behind glass (like Crown jewels, like Victorian wax fruit), behind a film - the film of the camera, perhaps, to continue the photographic analogy - a film behind which all things and people moved eerily, without colour, vivacity or meaning, grimly, puppet-like, without motive or conscious volition of their own...George Harvey Bone is a big, clumsy, unprepossessing man, living on a small inheritance in Earl's Court. His life revolves around two obsessions, the unpleasant Netta, whom he loves and despises at the same time, and the drink which is his only consolation for her rejection of him, as well as the main interest the two have in common. Netta is at the centre of a small group of hard-drinking, idle friends who exploit Bone for his comparative prosperity while mocking him to his face. It is just after the Munich agreement; Netta and the friends are supporters of Chamberlain, admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, another reason Bone has for hating them. But they continue their round of the London pubs, with a couple of trips to Brighton thrown in, endlessly engaged in the kind of mean-minded drunken smalltalk which is Hamilton's great contribution to fictional dialogue. From time to time Netta has a fling with someone, never with Bone. And from time to time also, he has what he calls one of his dead moods, his attacks of depersonalization. At such moments, he feels an overwhelming compulsion to kill Netta, a certainty that he will in fact eventually kill her. Then the mood passes and he cannot remember anything about it.
Hangover Square is the darkest of Hamilton's novels. Unlike his other masterpieces Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and The Slaves of Solitude, both of which I hope to blog about in the future, it has very little humour. But, for me, it's his greatest achievement, an unblinking examination of the alcoholic bohemian lifestyle he knew so well, and which eventually killed him. One reason for that is the use of depersonalization: has any other writer described this symptom so well? And yet I strongly suspect it's a common experience of writers, of creative people generally. To write really effectively, you have to be able to drain the emotion from a scene, to look at it as if you weren't really feeling it. That way it becomes strange and new. The term used in literary criticism is defamiliarization - but that's only the literary manifestation of depersonalization. Hamilton gives us a defamiliarized Earl's Court through the eyes of a depersonalized George Harvey Bone. He takes the emotion out so that it will be all the more effective when it rushes back in again:
It almost knocked him down. It made him reel. It was as though he had been hit by something. And yet he knew what it was. It was only his head, cracking back. And with the crack everything came flooding, rushing, roaring back - noise, colour, light, the fury of the real, everyday world.Hamilton was a successful writer in his lifetime; his plays Gaslight and Rope were both made into films, and made him a wealthy man. But after his death, in 1962 at the age of 58, his reputation went into eclipse. Since then there have been sporadic attempts to revive it, and the current one seems, finally, to have taken off. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky was dramatized on BBC Television a few years ago, and his major works are all in print, including the Gorse trilogy, which I haven't read, and which is less highly regarded than the other novels I've mentioned. I hope he is now back for good where he belongs, among the major British novelists of his era.
Next time, a surreal story about dreaming by a unique US fantasy novelist.