First-Page Review: Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Patrick Hamilton, as many contemporary readers and reviewers are discovering, was a hugely under-appreciated writer during his own lifetime. The Guardian even went so far as to say that Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky was an ‘Authentic Lost Classic’, and the world-renowned author Doris Lessing once wrote that ‘Hamilton was a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected’.

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Composed of three seperate, and yet inexorably linked, semi-autobiographical novels, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is regarded as one of Hamilton’s finest works.

When I picked up my very own copy of Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, I was unaware of the ‘hubbub’, if you will, that has arisen around Hamilton in recent years. I read the back, thought it might be interesting and then read the first page of the narrative proper, skipping past the introduction written by Michael Holroyd – a bad habit of mine I seem unable to shake in bookstores.

Of course, I immediately had some inkling as to Hamilton’s reputation, as the above quote by Lessing is written above the blurb on the back page, but, still, it was the first page that convinced me to buy the book. It didn’t leap out and grab me, like so many authors attempt to do, but it seemed that it slipped from between the pages and coiled around my hands, that it crept up my sleeves and, somewhere along my arm, burrowed into me like the memory of a Dystopian dream. I knew, right from the start, that this would be a novel I would enjoy reading, even if I had no reaction to the characters.

Sleeping, just before five, on a dark October’s afternoon, he had a singularly vivid and audible dream.’ Immediately I was attracted to the style, to the retrospective language and tone – I reasoned that this first sentence was poetry without the form. Even so, I find it difficult to explain what attraction, exactly, this sentence so possesses that I was already convinced I was going to purchase the novel; I was hooked, but in a subtle way.

Perhaps it is, simply, that adjectives have fallen out of favour with many writers; particularly those who follow the Hemmingway method – either the writer’s or that of the repulsive little App, which is designed to remove originality, style and attitude from any sentence in its desire to include everyone’s reading capabilities into a text. Hamilton was writing at a time when literature was still, ostensibly, an inclusive kind of community. The simplicity of a text to read did not hold domination over the style or the language of its composition.

A strong wind was blowing, buffeting his ears, roaring over the green waves, and rendering utterly silent and unreal the land he had just left.’ A dream of the ocean takes pride of place on this page, a dream which is summarily crushed down into an urban scene; immediately we know the character has some experience with the ocean and that he is of the literary persuasion, whatever his current circumstance.

He awoke, with jarring abruptness, into the obliterating darkness of his own room.’ – Once again, we have an incredibly simple situation; a man wakes up in London, even if we are, as of yet, unaware of where the ‘obliterating darkness of his room is located’. It is not a huge event but, thanks to Hamilton’s style, it could rival the sacking of Troy or the assassination of an Arch-Duke in the early twentieth century.

My favourite sentence, however, of Hamilton’s incredible first-page, is the second to last of this print – ‘His dream sickness was a waking sickness.’ – It seems, to me, to suggest an incurable sensation of entrapment; he cannot escape into his dreams to avoid his life, the world, the society, within which he finds himself embedded can strike at him even through the filtration of his wakefulness.

In conclusion, Patrick Hamilton was, inarguably, a staggeringly talented writer; I am only sorry that I haven’t read him earlier and I am already picking out other novels of his to read.