Night and the City
By Gerald Kersh
Introduction by John King
London Books, 11 October 2007
Somehow, Gerald Kersh is a writer that I’d never really got around to reading up until now – except for the odd short story (one was about a tailor, I remember). Despite, that is, reading high praise of him from the likes of Michael Moorcock, Mat Coward and others. Clearly, it has been my loss. Don’t make it yours too.
Night and the City has been made into two films. The first, directed by Jules Dassin and released in 1950, is a classic noir. The second came out in 1992 and starred Robert De Niro: it is rather so-so. How, though, does the novel stack-up? Very well, it has to be said.
The city in question is London, around about 1938, and the novel follows the fortunes of one Harry Fabian, a small-time ponce and wannabe big-shot. He will never make it because, although he lacks the least smidgeon of moral sense (at one point he prostitutes his girl and then tries to put a blackmail squeeze on one of her clients: a thoroughly nice cap, our Harry), he is a fantasist, vain and weak. Harry is prone to impulses and ‘dreams’; he has no stable centre. When he goes into partnership with a genuine tough nut called Figler, an operator who understands about money and the market (straight and illicit) and actual human wants and desires, Harry is just about swallowed alive. Some people try to save him, but Fabian is too loose-hinged to realise what his predicament is; his head is in the clouds, poor bugger.
There is a slightly old-fashioned feel to the novel in that the characters are described in detail once they are introduced, rather than there being a drip-drip or a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to disclosure. But it is alright, because Kersh is entertaining with it and has a gift for the startling metaphor or simile. So we are told that a woman’s sloppily rouged lips ‘made her look like a newly fed ghoul that has forgotten to wipe its mouth’. Or again, allowing for the conceit that the city is a character too: ‘Leicester Square burned red with neon; a flower of inflammation on a spangled stem.’
All those herein who place a value on something other than money (whether it be art or honour or graft or simply compassion) are safe from the dangerous predator in their midst; they will survive and may prosper. Those, like Harry, for whom money is the supreme value, end up using others for a while, but eventually they are used up in their turn. For such souls, Night and the City, together, make for a capricious kind of hell.
As a brief aside, I was struck by this passage, considering especially the fate of Woolies in the past two years or so:
She went in – not to buy anything, but only to look around. Nobody goes into Woolworth’s shops to buy anything: one visits Woolworth’s as a kind of museum, merely to look. And one comes out with… [to be fair to the store, an extensive list of miscellaneous items now follows] (94)
So this was the accepted thinking, even in 1938!
Night and the City is a fine novel, which covers the same psychic terrain as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Patrick Hamilton. It is another spiffing tale of the lost and the fallen and the damned.