I adore Patrick Hamilton's "Hangover Square" (1941) - my favourite novel of all time; "The Slaves of Solitude" (1947) is superb; I also really enjoyed the first two Gorse novels - "The West Pier" (1952); and "Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse" (1953); and "Craven House" (1926). I felt Twopence Coloured was slightly less successful that these titles. All of these books benefit from a knowledge of Patrick Hamilton's life, and consequently I would also heartily recommend the biography of Patrick Hamilton, "Through A Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton" by Nigel Jones. Since reading "Hangover Square", I have been working my way through all of Patrick Hamilton's work and, with that in mind, have just completed "Impromptu in Moribundia".
"Impromptu in Moribundia" was published in 1939 and is something of an anomaly within the literary oeuvre of Patrick Hamilton. In common with his other novels he uses the book to comment on the 'cupidity, ignorance, complacence, meanness, ugliness, short-sightedness, cowardice, credulity, hysteria and, when the occasion called for it ... cruelty and blood-thirstiness' of contemporary society - in particular 'the sickening stench of the decaying genteels'. However, unlike his other books, which are firmly rooted in the "real world" (of early 20th century southern England), this satirical story takes place on the planet Moribundia. Moribundia is a thinly disguised, albeit comically exaggerated, version of the England of Hamilton's time. By reversing place names, people's names, and other labels, Patrick Hamilton comments on contemporary life. For example, Aldous Huxley becomes 'Yelxuh', Marxists are 'Stsixram', and so on. Life on Moribundia is predominantly split into two distinct classes - the 'Yenkcoc" and the bowler-hatted 'Little Men' who are the self-appointed guardians of the moral law of society (and it transpires based on a popular Daily Express cartoon of the era).
Moribundians are so conditioned by brand advertising that they frequently think and talk in the language of popular advertisements. This tendency is further exaggerated by people revealing some of their thoughts in comic book-style thought and speech bubbles. Moribundia is also populated by other stereotypes e.g. large women with their hen pecked husbands, and even bizarre visual images to represent illness e.g. a dripping tap instead of a nose.
The 1930s was the age of the political novel, and this book was Patrick Hamilton's experimental and innovative response. By using allegory and surrealism, and through the adventures of his nameless narrator's celebrated visit to the planet, Patrick Hamilton holds a mirror up to contemporary English pre-WW2 society. He wrote this book as a convinced Marxist (although he never became a member of the Communist Party) and these convictions are subtly revealed through the story.
Whilst the book was a relative flop, probably because it was too great a departure for Patrick Hamilton's reading public, it was written at the same time as one of his greatest successes, the play Gas Light. Despite its relative lack of commercial success, I enjoyed many aspects of this book: the naming inversions; the playful and funny deconstruction of consumer advertising; and the skewering of many moribund 'Little Englander' attitudes. The inclusion of an informative introduction, and useful notes on parts of the texts, by Peter Widdowson, editor and annotator of this edition, helped to explain and contextualise the story, and some of Patrick Hamilton's "targets".
"Impromptu in Moribundia" has much to enjoy for readers who have come to know and love Patrick Hamilton's work, however I recommend newcomers start with "Hangover Square" and "The Slaves of Solitude", and then work through the many other highlights of his bibliography before reading this book.