Night and the City, by Gerald Kersh
There’s been a Patrick Hamilton revival in recent years. It’s well deserved. For many years Hamilton and his stories of life among the English working and lower-middle classes were forgotten. Now Hamilton’s back and while he’s still not as widely known as George Orwell there’s a new appreciation of his work and talent.
When I think of the great London writers I think of authors like Orwell and Hamilton. I think of Julian Maclaren-Ross too of course. Until recently though I wouldn’t have thought of authors like Gerald Kersh or Alexander Baron.
Kersh, like Hamilton until recently, is not well remembered. Probably his most famous book is Night and the City. That’s because it was made into two films – one directed by Jules Dassin and highly regarded and the other a 1992 US remake starring De Niro which I know little about. The films depart from the book though and the book is fascinating.
Night and the City is the tale of Harry Fabian. Fabian is a small time crook. More precisely, he’s a ponce – what today we’d call a pimp. He lives off the earnings made by his girlfriend Zoe on the streets. He’s not just a ponce though. He’s also a small time hustler and chancer. Harry has big dreams and models himself on Bogart and other Hollywood stars. He likes to pass himself off as a big-time songwriter over from the US. He fantasises about breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. If he only has a shilling in his pocket he’d rather give it away to look flush than save it to eat that night.
The irony with Harry is that he’s bright and capable of being charming. If he was prepared to do an honest job he’d probably do very well. It’s his desire for a shortcut to the big time which keeps him small time. Like many lazy men, he works harder at avoiding work than he’d ever have had to in an actual job.
As Night and the City opens Harry has come up with a new scheme. He plans to become a wrestling promoter. He figures it’s an easy racket and one that will see his name in lights. He needs a partner and investment. He finds that partner in a man called Figler who makes money buying and selling whatever there is to be bought and sold but Figler insists that Harry contributes £100 himself to the start-up costs. That’s a lot of money. Fortunately Harry overheard one of Zoe’s clients, a married man, talking about how he had some money put by and Harry’s not above a little extortion if needs must…
Harry isn’t the only character here. There’s a rich cast of them. What Kersh is painting is a portrait of nighttime Soho. There’s Vi, a girl who makes her money by spending time with men in nightclubs and getting them to buy her drinks. Phil Nosseros, owner of the Silver Fox club where Vi works. Bert, a costermonger. Figler. Assorted wrestlers (the Black Strangler, Ali the Turk). This is a book filled with bar and club owners, thugs, ex-cons, gamblers and lowlife. It’s Soho in all its seedy 1930s glory.
Kersh has an ear for the language of Soho. This is a book filled with chat. Most of it is too lengthy to easily quote, but here’s an excerpt to give the flavour:
‘Hallo, Duke,’ said Fabian.
‘Ah-hah!’ said the man called Duke. He was short and heavy, with the ashen complexion of the man who never sees daylight, and a heavy face knocked out of shape in some forgotten back-alley skirmish; thin purplish lips, compressed to a line like a dried-up pin-scratch; quite expressionless. The vague light of the street-lamp filled his eye-sockets with shadows, and he spoke to Fabian without moving his lips, in the hurried undertone of the old convict. Force of habit caused him to hide his cigarette in the palm of his hand as he smoked it. Smoke came out of the nostrils, but the glow of the cigarette was invisible.
‘How’s life, Duke?’
‘On the ribs.’
‘Catch hold of this,’ said Fabian, passing two half-crowns.
‘Thanks: I won’t forget yer, Harry.’
‘You been up the club?’
‘Just been there. You know what they done? They put the bar on me.’
‘Is that a fact?’ asked Fabian, with sympathy. ‘Well, you should worry. Did you notice Figler up there?’
‘No. One o’these days I’m gonna do that gaff. I’ll smash the bloody place up.’
‘Don’t you be such a mug, Duke. You don’t want to trouble with that mob. If they bar you, let ‘em. Don’t you care. Stick around: I may have something in your line in a day or two.’
‘Thanks, Harry, I won’t forget yer.’
The dialogue is colloquial and slangy. Some characters are almost hard to follow (for a non-Londoner one in particular, Bert, could be near impossible as he makes heavy use of Cockney rhyming slang – “ball o’ chalk” for walk for example). There’s a real sense here of how people spoke. Reading the novel I felt like I had entered Harry’s world. It’s easy to see why it got made into a film by Dassin.
Kersh’s talent is more mixed when it comes to description. At times he’s excellent. At other times he gets too enthusiastic and carried away. At least once the words “purple prose” leapt to mind. The balance is on the right side: he’s good much more often than he’s bad. He’s just not always good.
The club Duke referred to above is the International Political Club. It’s a sober establishment by the standards of Soho with a bar festooned with notices warning against betting and bad language. Here’s a description of that bar:
At the end of the club-room stood the bar, with a glass case for sandwiches, some shelves full of bottles and a dozen huge Salami sausages hanging on strings; bound round, dried and blackened, marked with pallid patches of exuded grease – the corpses of wicked salamis, hanged and strung up as a warning to the rest.
I like that passage. I like the glass case and the shelves and the Salamis. It’s very easy to picture. I’m not absolutely sure though that with the corpses of wicked Salamis Kersh isn’t taking a good description and carrying on with it just a little too far. It’s a problem that recurs more than once.
I don’t want to overstate the issue with excessive description. Some of it is simply a point of period style. Contemporary fiction is often much lighter on descriptive detail than was common in the 19th Century or earlier twentieth (there are always exceptions of course in any period). Some of it is just that when so much is well judged that which isn’t stands out more.
Kersh intercuts Fabian’s story with that of Helen. She’s a flatmate of Vi’s and is persuaded by Vi to get into the nightclub hostess game. Helen has reservations, but she also has no money. Vi leads a twilight life in which she lives by night and sleeps by day, as do most in this novel, and it’s plainly taking its toll on her. Vi’s stupid though, and fritters her money as fast as she earns it. If Helen could do the same work but put the money aside she could get out of the life and do something better before too long.
Helen drew a deep breath – the deep breath of a diver about to plunge into dark water. ‘I’ll come!’ she said.
The greatest consolation of the degraded human being is the fact that there are others in the same mire. The lower you descend, the intenser grows your yearning for standardisation. The drunkard loves to see others get drunk; the prostitute would like to see all the women in the world on the streets. There is no satisfaction quite so deep and evil as that of the man who can say: ‘Aha, now we’re all in the same stew!’ With what joyous melancholy, with how delicious a thrill of self-pity the out-of-work man sees the unemployment figures rise! ‘Be exactly my size; no bigger, and no smaller,’ says the dwarf; ‘damn your eyes!’ whispers the blind man; ‘Comrades!’ yells the communist-
‘Oh, Goody-Goody!’ cried Vi, dancing with joy. ‘You stick with me. I’ll show you the ropes. I’ll learn you all you want to know …’
Whatever else goes to rot, the will to power persists, urgent but ineffectual, like an old man’s lust, even in the last flat tundras of life.
The trouble for Vi is that Helen’s good at the job. She’s pretty and she’s clever. In a bravura passage Phil Nosseros talks her through how the Silver Fox club parts customers with their cash through inflated bar prices, valueless toys they’re encouraged to buy for the girls and various other tricks and scams. Soon Helen is the best earner in the club. She even becomes a favourite of Harry Fabian when he decides to celebrate getting into the wrestling game with a night out.
Helen falls in love with a sculptor named Adam who also takes a job at the Silver Fox as a waiter to get some money so he can get a studio. She and Adam plan to give up the life as soon as possible. It’s just for the short-term. As Phil Nosseros remarks though ‘… Once you’re in night-life, you’re in.’
I’ve read no book that captures the world of late night dives, sticky-carpeted clubs, stale cigarette smoke and bleary-eyed punters better than Night and the City. At times it’s literary in tone, and at other times almost pulp. At all times though it’s merciless in holding its murky subject matter up to the light. Fabian is a great character, but he’s not the only one (Adam is the only one who’s a bit dull, being the one who’s least corrupt).
Kersh’s London is largely gone now. Soho today is still filled with clubs and bars, but they’re mostly clean and well run establishments catering to the gay scene or the reasonably well-heeled. There are still sex shops and drugs are still sold, but nowadays the traders and dealers nestle among pleasant cafes and restaurants. The traces of Fabian’s world stubbornly remain, but they are just traces.
I love Soho. It’s my favourite part of London. This is the quintessential Soho novel. It’s not flawless, but it deserved to be republished and I’m glad London Books chose to do so.
Night and the City. By way of caution this is a book written in the 1930s and it contains some explicitly racist language and a rather dubious depiction of the only significant Black character.
On a more positive note it’s also worth mentioning the excellent introduction by John King which puts Kersh in context and sheds some additional light on the period. It’s worth reading, not least because without the foreword I wouldn’t have realised that Fabian is Jewish (as was Kersh) which I think Kersh would have expected a contemporary reader to realise. Kersh wanted to show working class Jewish life in London, and though that’s not central to Night and the City it’s nice to know it’s part of it.
Finally, while writing this I found this review of the novel dating back to 1938. I couldn’t not include it.