It is not often that one meets anyone who has read Hamilton's books, although it is moderately well known that he Died of Drink. His life offers the vicarious appeal of self-destruction in our time of self-regard, as prevalent in the caring Nineties as in the uncaring Eighties, and with Eighties vulgarity the word 'failure' is applied to him, prefaced perhaps by a caring 'tragic'. This view of Hamilton was originally fostered by his brother Bruce's memoir The Light Went Out; one of the virtues of Sean French's biography is that he exposes that book for the rubbish it is.
Hamilton was born in 1904, the third child of middle-aged parents, both of whom wrote. He did not enjoy his childhood, although in later life he said that it was as pleasant as could be expected. Indifferent nursemaids and a father rendered inscrutably sinister by drink brought about a sense of instability and anxiety, the beginnings of the 'malady of doubt' which shadowed all his life.
To look at the photograph of the adult Hamilton on the book jacket is at once to recall Housman's 'I a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made'. Tentative, diffident, almost disengaged, he seems poised for flight. But the family, father excluded, remained remarkably close, 'united', said Bruce, 'in love and understanding', and even the father's monstrosities eventually became merely comic, significant to his sons only for the dread possibility that they might one day resemble him.
All three children were devoted to their mother. Patrick liked to address her in the extravagant language of the novels she wrote - 'my exquisite', 'my angel' - signing himself 'your infatuated Patrick'. When, old and ill, she chose to commit suicide, her children were her passive accomplices. Odds and ends of jobs and studies succeeded school, which Hamilton managed to leave at the early age of 15. He wanted at first to become a poet. But, after working in the theatre and touring the provinces with his actress sister, he focused instead on the novel, where he was able to use the dramatic techniques he had absorbed.
He had no romantic illusions about writing, describing it as 'hard labour in solitary - something to which even illness is preferable'. The most fascinating parts of this book contain Hamilton's thoughts on his trade and how to conduct it. He believed that it required utter dedication, 'a-life-of-labour-from-day-to-day-gospel . . . expecting nothing from life, but using oneself unremittingly and fighting with endless courage a winning or losing battle.' In the matter of discipline he distinguished between mild self-control and 'something partially fanatical', backed by his faculty for 'stored observation', which enabled him to transform his glum choice of subject matter - run-down boarding-houses, squalid pubs, the unrelenting extinction of hope - into masterpieces of atmosphere and detail.
Sean French quotes from The Plains of Cement, where a man searching for his card has 'bent his head down, not unlike a parrot diving into its feathers, to rummage more deeply', and from Hangover Square he cites the evil and mindless Netta, described as 'something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly towards its object or veering sideways without fully conscious motivation'. Netta was the sort of cheap manipulator Hamilton detested, and he domiciled her by the crossroads in Earl's Court where he had been hit by a car, a hideous accident which ripped off his nose and left him mended but maimed mentally as much as physically.
His relations with women were uneasy. He drifted back and forth between two dutiful and devoted wives, but his mother and his sister were his enduring loves - they both provided a safe haven from the sado-masochism which he saw in all other adult relationships. He did not drink when he was writing, and he evolved a number of strategies to outwit the demon. Gathering depression at last overwhelmed him; the deaths of family and friends, the demands of the Inland Revenue and the hostile reception for Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, which is now seen as one of his finest books, brought him to a state of suicidal apathy. After ECT treatment he felt better but wrote no more. He continued to drink, funded as always by the great success of his earlier work, especially his plays. His liver failed and he died, cheerful in a negative, numb sort of way, at the age of 58.
Sean French's rather colourless biography relies on lengthy quotations from Hamilton's letters and work, and these, far more than the text, give one a real sense of the man. He turned an odd but unremarkable life into remarkable literature, and he maintained his own rigorous standards. He won his battle. He was a writer who drank, not a drunk who wrote.