Loathe others, loathe yourself: the Gerald Kersh school of characterisation

Gerald Kersh does not like other people. Or himself. (Or cats.) Let us consider his classic novel of low-life London, Night and the City (1938).

Night-in-the-City-bookFirst, the grotesquerie of people glimpsed in passing. Harry Fabian, a ponce (i.e., pimp) living off the immoral earnings of a woman, Zoë, trails one of her blackmail-able gentleman callers to the Turkish baths. Looking around, he sees

An old gentleman, abominably naked, looking like a Surrealist vision of pumpkins, marrows and varicose veins, turned the steam on higher, and began to smack himself in the belly. Another man, young and exceedingly drunk, stood trembling under the cold shower and mumbled something about forgetting his umbrella. (57)

Kersh has a thing about booze – and about all of mankind:

Man spends the first half of his life trying to find himself, and the other half trying to lose himself. He runs in little circles, like a pup trying to nuzzle its own behind; he catches up with himself, sniffs, is disgusted, and runs away from his own smell. He fears life; he flies from it. … He can always kill himself, of course, but he never does. He lacks the courage to put his head in the gas-oven, so he says: ‘That’s the coward’s way out’ – and even thinks himself a hero for living on. … above all give him a drink. Stuff his howling mouth with the nipples of oblivion! … Anesthetise him: that is his greatest comfort – poor simulacrum; soft white maggot still unformed! (104-5)

Later, heartbroken night club owner Phil Nosseros will pour

out the brandy with the grim concentration of one who believed that truth, happiness and the consummation of human endeavour lie at the bottom of a bottle. (256)

Does Harry Fabian ever have any regrets about the life he has chosen for himself? Well, at one point he finds himself swearing to a woman ‘On my honour!’

As he said this, Fabian experienced a curious sensation of misery. 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 by day? There passed through his mind a vision of life free from vanity, fiction and subterfuge … But all this passed in the blink of an eye. (204)

As Greta, one of the novel’s several women working as prostitutes, says ‘philosophically’:

All men are marvelous till you find them out. (242)

Wait, there is more than one prostitute in the novel? Yes. This is how Kersh introduces Vi, a B-girl who sometimes goes a little farther. It initially seems like she will just be a bit of background colour but later she becomes one of the viewpoint characters

She was a tall, slender, red-haired girl in a black lace evening gown. Under her rouge, one could distinguish the papery greyish pallor of the night-bird – the dead opacity born of dark dance-halls, where, in thick blue smoke and the exhalations of steamy bodies, the crude, raw rhythms of red-hot gut-bucket jazz seem to shake the blood out of women. … 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. (77, 87-8)

Kersh even has a low opinion of her wallpaper

It was lined with brownish paper – mottled, sickening brown paper with stripes like the tracks of balloon-tyres in rose-pink, and wide bands dotted with circles, crosses and things like broken fans in pale green. You can get such wallpaper for sixpence a roll in the region of Somers Town; but who can sit down at a drawing-board and actually design it? (89)

The virginal and financially struggling shorthand-typist Helen lives in the same boarding house as Vi, who eventually persuades her to make a quick buck as a B-girl, just until her situation improves a little… Helen falls for Adam, the nearest to a consistently decent person in the book, but by the time they finally get it on they are both caught up in and deeply conflicted by the life, so when they make love

They appeared like enraged enemies, locked in a last desperate struggle. (154)

While Adam tries to get out, Helen finds ways to justify abandoning her sense of decency and embracing a life she previously saw as degrading. She quickly learns to use sex to manipulate all men, including the one she loves:

She kissed him, pressing her whole body against him; and in spite of the fact this kiss, and Adam’s immediate response to it, stirred up in her a veritable maelstrom of desire, she retained, deep in her consciousness, a little cold corner from which her critical faculties watched him. (177)

Later she will say,

It’s all very well talking about prostitution, but is sleeping with a man for money any worse than marrying him for money? (262-263)

Which might have passed as Kersh being insightful if he had not already made such pronouncements as

The prostitute is sentimental and unhappy. Why does she walk interminably, in utter degradation, and then give all her money to a man? Because he … is, in her consciousness, the last human being in the world to whom, by virtue of her self-sacrifice, she can feel superior, and therefore she loves him with a curious desperate love.
And now,’ thought Zoë, ‘he’s got hold of somebody else with my money.’
Rage, the hysterical rage of the prostitute rose within her. (244)

Kersh loves to elaborate upon the grotesquerie of his characters, and has a field day describing the wrestlers Fabian recruits for his newest venture as a fight promoter. There is the Cypriot, Kration, a deeply conflicted character at war with himself, as his physiognomy and follicles attest:

as soon as his mouth closed his face changed. Savagery came into it. He looked strong and ferocious enough to tear himself apart. His hair crouched low on his forehead, trying to obliterate his eyebrows; his eyebrows, colliding over his nose in a spray of black hair, endeavoured to smother his eyes; and only the flat, heavy prow of his nose kept his eyes apart – otherwise, they would have snapped at each other. Meanwhile they waited, smouldering, while his upper lip snarled in triumph over the lower, which, from time to time, jumped up and clamped down on it. Turkey, Greece and Africa waged war in his veins. Even his hair carried on ancient warfare. There was antagonism in his very follicles, and the hair writhed out, enormously thick, twisted, rebellious, kinked, frizzled and dried up. (211)

Actually, Kration has no inner conflict whatsoever. Though, thanks to Fabian’s manipulations, he does have a conflict with aged ex-champion Charlie Bamboo, the Black Strangler. Kersh’s description of this ‘colossus’ is even more racialised – but the hammer is a great touch, even if I cannot quite picture the sausages:

The man whom Fabian called Strangler was a colossus. You must imagine the Farnese Hercules in ebony, dressed in a nigger-brown suit with a yellow-chalk stripe, a sky-blue shirt and a crimson tie with a greenish domino motif. He had an extraordinary head. You could reproduce it by shaving the head of a Neanderthal man, polishing it with stove-polish and then smashing up the features with a hammer. The ears no longer resembled ears – they had been beaten and rubbed into indescribable shapelessness – while the nose, a dozen times broken and never repaired, spread in a two-inch width almost flush with the rest of the face. Beneath it a pair of vast pink lips, remarkably pale and prominent and as thick as beef sausages, sucked at the sodden remains of a dead cigar. (41-2)

So is there anybody or anything Kersh does not loathe? No. Not even the earth, the moon or the night sky:

Outside, the dull moon – little, fickle satellite – trails after the advancing earth like a prostitute at the heels of a batter soldier, marching on in blind obedience to incomprehensible orders, across the desert of the skies. (276)

Coda – some amusing stuff for the film buffs out there
At one point, Fabian goes into a gentleman’s outfitters and finds himself discarding the ‘little pale green hat which he had bought only a week before: the Fred MacMurray, for which he had yearned with all his soul’ in favour of the Cicero, ‘exactly as worn by Al Capone’. The sales assistant also tempts him with ‘the Humphrey Bogart shirt, exactly as worn in The Petrified Forest’, but has rather less success when he asks ‘would you care to see the Stepin Fetchit bowtie? … the Barrymore sock?’ (240-241)

Clive Brook. Swoon.
Clive Brook. Swoon.

In an early conversation, Helen protests that unlike Vi, she’s got ‘high standards’ when it comes to men:

‘Ah,’ said Vi, with an air of infinite experience, ‘I used to talk like that, too. I used to be crazy about Clive Brook–’ (96)

And later, when Zoë admires Harry, we learn that

Robert Taylor. What women want.
Robert Taylor. What women want.

There is nothing a woman loves more in a man than self-confidence. A man who appears to know precisely what he wants, and how to get it, can win more hearts than Robert Taylor. (237)