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Friday, 15 March 2013


Some postcard portraits

“We are all potentially characters in a novel--with the difference that characters in a novel really get to live their lives to the full.” 
Georges Simenon

 All of these photos could have come from the same novel; something by Simenon perhaps, where sailors, chorus girls and boxers resided on the top floor of a seedy doss house. Or one by a more obscure Hungarian author; a study of the characters in a struggling nightclub during the months before the outbreak of World War 2. The blurb on the back would describe it as a dark comedy though three quarters through you’d still be waiting for just a glint of humour. It could be American, but at a pinch. The country was still too optimistic in the 1930s to match the British when it came to urban despair. Nathanael West, maybe – these two look could have minor roles in The Day of the Locust - but most of the others still thought America was almost great and an angry writer could iron out the flaws. The English on the other hand had given up hope, as if unrelieved bitterness was the only thing getting them out of bed every day. This comes from the International Settlement, San Francisco’s innocuous name for its red light district in the 1940s. Post-war America had a handle on sleaze by then. 

A Parisian prostitute, C1910. How many featured in French novels of the era? Or to put it another way; if your novel didn’t have a prostitute, presumably you were writing for very young children. 19th century French novelists did something for prostitutes last seen in the New Testament; they wrote openly about them and while this sounds far more preferable to the British way, which was to hint that a woman had a sullied occupation, they also romanticised them to a wearisome degree (Most of France’s literary talent of the era died from the pox before hitting middle age). Postcards like this one were readily available, advertised in the classified ads of magazines, but if a novelist couldn’t afford the francs, they were pasted to boards outside brothels in the Pigalle. This meant that C1910, a budding Flaubert no longer needed actual experience to emulate the great man. He could skulk around the doorways of brothels pretending to be a prospective customer then hurry back to the garret to write about Lou Lou with her coarse laugh and gentle hands.  

The French might have been writing about her earlier but no one captured the shabby little chorine so well as Patrick Hamilton. The Midnight Bell, the first novel in his 1930s London trilogy 20 000 Streets Under the Sky, sees Bob fall for Jenny and sacrifice everything for her even though we the reader can see that he’s not going to get a skerrick for his efforts. Quite obviously, she’s a tough piece of work. Not nasty, mind you, for if Bob manned up she was willing to give. At first we see a decent but pathetic man make some human mistakes for the sake of a smart, cheap girl who clearly has her own interests at heart. By the end we’re shaking our heads the way we would if we watched a drunk try and cross a busy highway. I look at this photo and I see Jenny. Whatever loyalty she has goes to the girls she works with, and she would care about their happiness, though not for long.

The moment you see the lines; “She was sitting at a table, talking to a sailor” or, “The bar was empty save a couple of sailors down the far end” you know the action is about to pick up. Sailors are the wood lice of 20th century fiction. Any book that shines a light into the darkness sees them scuttling away. A sailor is never far away from a seedy bar, tacky bordello or a motel room where something indescribably sordid is going down. Read enough true crime accounts and you begin to wonder why the chief suspect in every boarding house murder appears to have worked in the merchant navy at some point. There’s no information on this postcard that gives a precise date but it’s an uncommonly good example of hand-colouring and an excellent portrait of a sailor with a smile that suggests he knows places where you won’t be bothered by normal society.

At first glance I thought she was indulging in a bit of cross-dressing, in which case she is a shoo-in for any German novel written between 1929 and ten years later, but especially one about a pallid young man with philosophical leanings and nothing remotely like a sympathetic character. However, the lettering on her cap reads “Marynarka Wojenna” or Polish Navy and I’m inclined to think that’s her job. What makes it ambiguous is the backdrop. What makes it special is the casual way the backdrop hangs over the floorboards. She could be the girlfriend who goes off to the navy but, frankly, she looks too self-possessed to bother with a pallid philosophical type.  

There are two types of boxers in European novels. One is the thug who works for the local gangster. He usually has a minor role, glowers from a car, cracks his knuckles as his boss explains the situation, that sort of thing. The other is the decent but simple man who pays the price for protecting the woman. He has what you might call a speaking part and is invariably tough and dependable but naïve. It’s a common flaw among novelists to confuse slow wittedness and naïveté. I think they like to imagine they can’t ‘do’ stupid. Our fighter might not be the quickest off the mark but for authenticity’s sake he’s probably seen more than most people in the room. This man definitely belongs to that second category. I’m actually not sure if he is a boxer. He has the physique but this looks as if it could also be a portrait from a medical examination. It’s by P. Kodatschenko of Riga, but it could easily be by A. Sander of Cologne. 

In fiction, sailors, prostitutes and circus performers inhabit the same world. They are marginal, transient and tend to emerge around twilight. In Simenon’s novels they are involved in the crime but rarely central to it. In Hamilton’s, the sailor and the acrobat might be the only two men the prostitute calls friends. Even then it isn’t certain that she actually likes them. In German novels, when the circus arrives in town it’s a sign that moral decay has set in. The residents rush off to the fairground heedless of the dark clouds gathering above. When the circus exits stage left, we know the Nazis are about to arrive stage right. This circus performer is actually from Quebec but he could be from anywhere and he has the small wiry frame of someone who could climb into difficult places, steal things or spy on people.


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