Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)

“How does that Fabian fellow live, then?”

“On show. He’d go without food to buy you a cigar for three shillings. Actually, he lives on a woman. He thinks nobody knows. Everybody knows. And he’s always running, and hurrying….He works harder doing nothing than I do, getting my living.”

The film Night and the City is one of my  favourite noirs. Max reviewed the book Night and the City just over a year ago, and I knew I had to read it. As soon as I finished it, I picked it back up & reread it. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed it, but it goes beyond enjoyment into the realm of fascination. I’m going to add that the film (actually I can think of two versions) bears only a marginal resemblance to the book. Director Jules Dassin, a former member of the communist party, was sent to Britain to make the film in a vain attempt to avoid Hollywood blacklisting, and he was advised at the time by studio executive Zanuck that this would probably be the last film he would be able to make for Hollywood. Dassin never had time to read the book before making the film. Author Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was, apparently angry about the Jules Dassin film adaptation, but he did quip that he was the highest paid writer as he was paid 40,000 pounds for the rights to the book, and that translated, he argued, to 10,000 per word for the title.

It’s London, Coronation year, 1937. Harry Fabian, a London pimp  with a shady connection to the white slave trade, lives off prostitute Zoë. Fabian is a real piece of work. While the film shows Harry Fabian as a not-entirely-unsympathetic American (played with extraordinary skill by Richard Widmark), Kersh’s Fabian is a cheap, nasty cockney who is so imbued with American gangster lore, that he sports a fake American accent, dresses like an American and pretends he’s an affluent songwriter who has spent most of his life “in the states.” He fools no one except himself and a couple of women who seem to fall for his dubious charms. Fabian is flashy rather than good-looking: 

He was a little man, no more than thirty years old, excessively small-boned and narrow between the shoulders. He had a large head, perched on a neck no thicker than a big man’s forearm, and a great deal of fine hair dressed in the style affected by Johnny Weissmuller. His face was pale; too wide between the ears and too narrow at the chin–a face like a wedge. He looked a man with a good capacity for hatred. His eyes did not match. The left was large and watery, and it continually wavered and blinked with a flickering of whitish lashes; but the right was smaller, harder, steadier, and more of a concentrated blue. Out of this eye he watched you. When he wanted to look dangerous, he simply closed his left eye, slamming the eyelid down like a shutter with an effort that twisted up the whole left-had side of his face. He had a nose like the beak of a sparrow: that, together with his upper lip, which was pressed out of sight, and his lower jaw, which protruded like the head of a chopper, gave him an air of insolence, spite and malevolent calculation. He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes–hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat–his whole body snarled with vindictive triumph over the memory of many dead years of shabbiness.

So we learn about Fabian’s character through his clothes. Is Fabian a dangerous character? No, not really, unless you are weaker, gullible, or happen to believe in him on one level or another. The first part of the book concentrates on establishing Fabian’s character as he gets a haircut and wanders into the London netherworld–wasting time with a penny slot peep show and a rifle range before he goes looking for Figler. Figler is one of the book’s many great characters–a wheeler-dealer who survives by constant business deals that net relatively little but still manage to keep him afloat on a life raft of constant, but meagre, cash flow. Figler will never be a rich man, while Fabian, who has visions of Monte Carlo dancing in his head, longs for the sort of riches that he will never get and the sort of glamorous high-society world that would reject him even if he got his foot in the door.

Fabian has a plan to promote all-in wrestling and wants to open a gym. Lacking the necessary money, he goes to Figler for the bankroll, but Figler, a savvy businessman tells Fabian that he’ll go 50-50 which translates to a 100 pounds a piece. One incredible section of the book details Figler’s frantic, yet determined efforts to stockpile his share of the money by juggling various business transactions. Fabian, however, the man with the big plans, and an active imagination in all the wrong ways, returns home to his goose that lays the golden egg–prostitute Zoë.

It’s a bold move on Kersh’s part to make such a repulsive creature as Harry Fabian, “born in a slum, bred in the gutters, versed in the tortuous geography of the night world and familiar with every rathole in West one and West Central,” his protagonist, and as the book continues Fabian, who is vile from the beginning of the book, sinks to even lower depths by the time the last page is turned. Everything about Fabian is twisted: he has great ideas but lacks the ambition to carry them through. Any effort he puts forth into achieving his plans is executed in the most corrupted fashion, so when he wants 100 pounds to start his gym, he looks no further than Zoë, and it’s through his relationship with Zoë that Fabian is his most repulsive.

While Night and the City explores Fabian’s ambition to become a wrestling promoter, the novel also follows the moral trajectory of two other characters, Helen and Adam. Helen is  an unemployed typist who is unable to pay the rent when she’s persuaded by Vi to begin some dubious employment at The Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub in a Soho cellar. The Silver Fox is run by 60-year-old Phil Nosseross “hard as nails, slippery as a wagonload of eels; an extraordinarily tough and wily little man who looked as if he had got away with things for which other men would have gone to prison for life.” His Achilles’ heel is his twenty-year-old wife, Mary, a former prostitute “with stupid blue eyes as large as walnuts.” The girls at The Silver Fox are paid on commission with the goal of fleecing the male customers through the purchase of overpriced booze, cigarettes and flowers. If they want to make more money, they can privately prostitute themselves and collect even more. One of the incredible aspects of this incredible book is the dizzying flow of money: some people can hang on to it, and for some people, it’s like holding mercury in their hands. Both Fabian and Vi cannot possess money without spending it. Vi’s money supply swells from a night at The Silver Fox, but disappears by day as her vanity drives her to buy shoes that don’t fit and with any money left over she raids the local Woolworths for useless trinkets. Fabian also has this affliction to blow any money in his pocket. Several marvellous passages follow the frenetic flow of money from those who cannot hold it to those who hoard it. But just as Vi and Fabian cannot allow a pound to rest quietly in their pockets, both Helen and Adam can save. The Silver Fox becomes a crucible for morality–you either leave throughly corrupted or run screaming for fresh air.

Night and the City is an incredibly atmospheric novel replete with unforgettable descriptions of the dives & characters of 30s Soho. There’s Bagrag’s Cellar “a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night life continually filters” and whose customers are “addicts to all known crimes and vices … enslaved by appetites so vile that even textbooks never mention them” and here’s minor character, Anna Siberia:

Imagine the death mask of Julius Caesar, plastered with rouge, and stuck with a pair of eyes as small, as flat, and as bright as newly cut cross sections of .38 caliber bullets; marked with eyebrows that ran together in a straight black bar: and surmounted by a million diabolical black hairs that sprang in a nightmarish cascade up out of her skull, like a dark fountain of accumulated wickedness squeezed out by the pressure of her corsets.

In this brilliantly dark noir, Kersh takes the reader on a sordid journey through the grubby underbelly of 1930s Soho. Fabian, one of the rats who pours out from the sewers, is poised on the brink of self-destruction, but believes he’s about to hit the big time…finally. Are there good people here? Yes, and we get a glimpse of a few as they wallow in the mire–some, like Adam, try to escape, and some, like Helen are just sucked down even further….


Filed under Fiction, Kersh Gerald

25 responses to “Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)

  1. I think I saw the movie but I’m not sure. De Niro was in it. I accidentally bought a dubbed version which spoilt the movie a bit.
    Strong on character and atmosphere sounds good, 30s London as well.

  2. Yes the De Niro version was the remake. This isn’t for everyone, but I think you’d like it. Kersh goes with Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren Ross well.

    • That’s good to know. I got two Patrick Hamilton novels and I think the very first book I bought after one of your posts was Maclaren…

      • All three of those authors offer a non-mainstream look at 30s London. You know how people always refer to the ‘good old days’ well these authors argue that those days were tough too.

  3. He absolutely goes with Hamilton and Maclaren-Ross, though I admit for me he’s the weakest of the three. I thought Adam here a bit moralistic, and enjoyed the parts with Fabian far more.

    Still, it definitely has some tremendous scenes. I loved when Fabian went to the Silver Fox, flashing his money and enjoying the adulation of girls who make more the more he spends, a truth he does not or will not see. Fabian generally is an extremely well drawn character. A marvel of unsympathetic portraiture. Greeneian in a way.

    I’m delighted you enjoyed it so much Guy. When I got this I noted some other London noir novels, some of which might interest you. I’ll see if I can dig out the titles in case you don’t already know them all.

    • Remember those lights in The Silver Fox deliberately designed to disorient the customer. It made me think of the casinos in Vegas that are set up so that the customers lose track of time. Then there’s the breakfast connection too–the Silver Fox serves an overpriced breakfast whereas breakfasts for casino players in Vegas as usually quite reasonable, but the point here is that Nosseross knew what he was doing when it came to fleecing the customers. Kersh (who sounds like an incredible character, btw) created the fantastic scene of Fabian at the club with a frantic quality as the money flies out of his pocket.

      I had some doubts about Adam. At first I thought he was the only really principled person in the book. After all he bypasses a few opportunties to rip off customers as he believes in leaving a bit of money in their pockets. I wondered if he was a foil to Fabian, and it’s possible to argue that position. But then again, he’s someone else with dreams. His dreams don’t involve Monte Carlo or Rolls Royces but is he also flawed since he’s driven by dreams? I argued both ways on this one.

      I went to the London book site after finishing the book and bought some of their titles. I didn’t see a way to sign up for notification of new releases, so I e-mailed them and asked about it. They replied and said that I was added to their mailing list.

  4. I love that film (the original) too, and the novel sounds great!

    I thought of ‘Alfie’, which I just watched this weekend. Not that they are the same, but I was struck by the uncompromising stance of the movie towards its protaganist – a complete narcisist and cad. It doesn’t buff him up at all, though it does show him to be more complex than we might think at first. And he doesn’t change, despite getting some of his own medicine and having a few jolting experiences. That’s what I liked best. That and Michael Caine, of course.

    • Good point about Alfie. I recently watched the Jude Law remake and then the original. Funny how they prettied up the remake. Have you seen it? I sent you an e-mail about the noir site so we can get you posting.

  5. leroyhunter

    I liked the sound of this after Max’s review, and he very kindly sent me his copy – which I haven’t read yet. Sounds like a mistake on my part. I’ll dig it out.

    My copy of Henry Sutton arrived last week btw – hope to get to that soon.

  6. It sounds excellent, I’m glad you enjoyed it. (not too many bad books this year so far, no?)

    Strange, I don’t remember reading Max’s review.

    I see it’s published by Gallimard in the Serie Noire collection, which is a good sign.
    I have a language problem with that kind of books. According to the quotes, I can’t read it in English. Too difficult, too many words I don’t know. But when I see the excerpts in French, it sounds fake, the tone is off, I can’t explain this properly. It’s just that having Londoners or New-Yorkers speaking French argot is weird. And at the same time, not translating it with argot would be a mistake too.

    • I thought of you as I read this as there are a couple of spots of rhyming cockney slang which probably wouldn’t make a great deal of sense. I think I understand what you mean about the translation issue.

  7. Richard Widmark … that sounds interesting. Thanks for a great review, as usual, Guy. Probably won’t ever get to this but I love reading about books I had never heard of and probably wouldn’t ever hear of except through bloggers like you.

  8. Oh, and I meant to say that I love the description of Fabian near the beginning of your post. Wonderfully evocative …

  9. I do remember the lights and the breakfast from the club scene. That whole episode is just marvellous.

    The original Alfie is a tremendous film. It has some great performances of course, but it’s also its honesty and its unsympathetic portrait of Alfie himself, who as noted learns nothing much even when his lifestyle starts to unravel. I skipped the remake, the trailers made it pretty apparent that the whole thing would be much more aspirational than the original (which may seem aspirational briefly at first, but really isn’t).

  10. Just thirty-pages into this book: This guy is a fantastic writer! He makes you complicit, and his descriptions of the faces! His prose is so fresh, so lively! And right from the start, we are revolted by Fabian, but fascinated.

    On Mr. Clark:

    He was freezing point made articulate…the discreet, tight mouth of a family lawyer-a burglar-proof safe, for locking -up of secrets, double -bolted by the muscles of his long square jaw.

    Tweaking Fabian, and society:
    “Thank God for that!”, said Fabian, who was not devoid of religious principles.

    Yeah, I dare you to try this:
    In order to reproduce the way Figler spoke, put your tongue between your teeth, stop up your nose, half fill your mouth with saliva, and try to say: “This is the end of the matter.”

  11. Glad you’re having fun with it. London books recently reprinted The Angel and The Cuckoo and they will be republishing Prelude to a Certain Midnight.

  12. Wonderful book! I loved the philosophical discussions the characters had, and, of course, those descriptions! A traffic jam in which cars nuzzle each other’s rear ends like dogs!! He takes the Olympian view, like Balzac, and is not shy about introducing himself and his own grand conception of the action on the stage he sets for us.

    Interesting how the film rearranged the characters – but most interesting was the comparatively anti-climactic ending of the book, compared to the melodrama of the movie. He simply is carted off to jail! Love them both, and thanks again for the tip!

  13. Just bought the film of this at the weekend. I doubt I’ll get to it for a while but it should be good when I do. Jules Dassin!

    I’m not expecting much link to the book. Still, it does remind me that I should read more Kersh.

    • Does your copy have an extra feature which shows the deleted scenes?

      • It doesn’t. Are they interesting on this one? I tend to find deleted scenes were deleted with good reason…

        • Yes they are interesting. I know they are on the Criterion issue. The original British version has a few extra scenes that give a slightly more sympathetic view of Harry. In your version, I expect you first see Harry running from a debt collector and then landing in Helen’s room. There’s a big domestic scene (deleted for the American version which seems to prevail) in which she describes/lists his various get quick schemes. This gives, I think, a better picture of Harry outside of crime and also Helen’s exhaustive attempts to tolerate him.

          There’s also a scene where a hotel manager arrives at Fabian’s gym and tells him that he’s about to be evicted from a hotel for an unpaid bill. Plus there are two slightly different endings (only slight). The British version had a different score too, but I’m guessing that you probably have the American version as that’s the one that is out there. It’s interesting to contrast the different touches to the film.

  14. Very interesting article – I’ve just read the book, as I wanted to write a piece of my website about the book and the (1950) film: – I’ve mentioned your article in my piece, hope that’s OK. I particularly like your points about clothes and money, also the mention of Figler’s amazing wheeler-dealing, which reminded me very much of the film The Small World of Sammy Lee, which I’ve also written about.

    • I couldn’t see where to add comments on your site, but re: sympathy for Fabian, it’s worth getting your hands on some of the deleted scenes/scenes for the British version. The American version prevails these days, but the Criterion edition includes deleted scenes which portray a slightly more sympathetic Fabian.

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