This book was published in 1938. It's Gerald Kersh's best-known work, a memorable 20th century novel of the London netherworld and one of the better examples of British noir.
It depicted the fall of a small-time crook who'd do anything for money and the rise of an artist who struggled to protect his creativity. It blended a concern with depravity and morality with an exuberant style. It's been called a cross between Graham Greene and the American hard-boiled school.
The most memorable character was the crook, Harry Fabian, obsessed with his own reputation and desires, dreaming of the big time, needing always to impress. Linked to him were a number of other characters, with problems of their own. The book was set in the West End and depicted parts of the London netherworld with which Kersh was clearly familiar: a nightclub, a wrestling hall, prostitution, blackmail, seedy bars, middlemen working on the edge of fraud. This was where the writing seemed especially strong.
The author must have delighted in showing all the voices he could do: West End, Cockney, educated crook, middle-class suburbanite, Jewish businessman and working women -- and Fabian himself, a London native who liked speaking American. In one segment, the author even wrote from the point of view of a cat. Other sections excelled in showing the psychology of the morally flawed: a compulsive liar, a compulsive buyer, a gambler, and in describing assorted other bizarre characters. Great set-pieces included Fabian's search across the West End for a mark, a nightclub owner's explanation of a club's operation, a wholesaler's scramble to raise cash, two traders negotiating a deal, a shopping spree, a crazed visit to a club -- including a drunken shift forward to the morning -- a wrestling match, a desperate gambling match. This book showed me where Hubert Selby and many others must've drawn some inspiration.
In the second half of the book, the author seemed to rely increasingly on characters talking back and forth at each other, with less psychological insight and at times a bit more purple prose. The focus was shifted more frequently away from Fabian and over to the noble artist, which was necessary to complete the morality tale but diminished the thrill of the writing for me -- the author's skill lay so much more in depicting the bad than the good. And by the end, given the main character's grim trajectory through much of the book, it felt like the author had spared him the worst of what he deserved.
"He had highly developed intuitions, proceeding from long and cumulative experience of the customs of the City. I have mentioned how he could appraise a footstep. He could, by a similar method of spontaneous reasoning, read a face, interpret an expression, calculate how much money you were in the habit of spending, or even decide by the look of you which restaurant or café you would probably frequent. He saw London as a kind of Inferno--a series of concentric areas with Picadilly Circus as the ultimate center."
"Bagrag's Cellar is a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night life continually filters. It is choked with low organisms, pallid and distorted, unknown to the light of day, and not to be tolerated in healthy society . . . . Half-exhausted people throw up spasms of febrile energy: they rise in groups without purpose, move round, then sink back again, like stirred-up filth on the bottom of a pond . . . . To take a deep breath in Bagrag's Cellar, now, is like inhaling the combined vapors of a distillery, a dosshouse, and a burning tobacco factory."
"This woman had something about her that was indescribably terrifying. Imagine the death mask of Julius Caesar, plastered with rouge, and stuck with a pair of eyes as small, as flat, and as bright as newly cut cross sections of .38-caliber bullets; marked with eyebrows that ran together in a straight black bar: and surmounted by a million diabolical black hairs that sprang in a nightmarish cascade up out of her skull, like a dark fountain of accumulated wickedness squeezed out by the pressure of her corsets."
"Now, my precious; people love to see other people behaving like idiots, but not seeing themselves doing the same thing. No mirrors except in the lavatories, and there we're going to have pink mirrors, see? . . . . They mustn't see 'emselves in their true colors, my love. When they go out to be sick, let 'em look as if they're having a good time."
"Vi yawned, and from between her pale, painted lips there proceeded a breath such as might come from a pathological specimen in a jar, when the alcohol is evaporating . . . . Her head against the pillow was a study in all the indefinable pale colors of debauch. The pillow case was gray, but Vi's face was grayer, tinged with the chlorotic greeny-yellow of anemia. Rubbed smears of yesterday's rouge gave emphasis to this pallor. Under the laid-on red, her lips were pale pink, and her teeth appeared yellow in the daylight. The penciled lines of her eyebrows had been rubbed off on to the blanket; the metallic green paint with which she colored her eyelids had become mixed with the blue mascara of her lashes, in an unearthly and poisonous bruise color picked out with flecks of silver. This was trickling down into the hollows of her eyes. One of her false eyelashes had come loose, and swung precariously against her cheek as she blinked. She seemed to be liquefying, falling to pieces."
"Every film he had ever seen, and every book he had ever read, rushed together in his brain to form one blazing and magnificent composite, in which he, Fabian, fantastically enlarged, fantastically dressed, leaned backwards in a wild photomontage of champagne bubbles, limousines, diamonds, galloping horses, baize tables, and beautiful women; all whirling and weaving in a deluge of white and yellow chips, and large bank notes; an eternal reduplication of breasts and legs of very conceivable shape, size, and color."
"What was it? Was it that, for the first time in his life, he had become aware of the appalling burden of accumulating lies with which he loaded his soul from hour to hour--the closing coils of deceit which he spun about himself day after day? There passed through his mind a vision of life free from vanity, fiction, and subterfuge. . . a bygone period in his life when black was black and white was white; when one sinned, and confessed, and breathed again. 'Why do I always have to start these tales? They aren't necessary!' he said to himself."