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James Hanley: The Closed Harbour

This may well be Hanley’s best novel. It is certainly his most Conradian. In a theme reminiscent of Conrad, it tells the tale of a sea captain who has lost a ship and is now out of the conventional sailing business and struggling with his demons. In Conrad, the demons tend to include the sea and other people. In this novel, the captain’s major demons are in himself.

Captain Marius was the captain of a naval ship during World War II, just before the fall of France. He had a chequered career, sailing on a variety of foreign ships of dubious provenance and quality. He clearly was not, as his mother constantly reminds him, his father, who was a worthy captain and who went down on his battleship in World War I. Marius’ ship also goes down, like his father’s. However, unlike his father, there is good reason to think that he is, at least in part, to blame. Moreover, he is only one of three survivors. In other words, he did not go down with his ship. This fact haunts him, and also haunts his mother and sister.

At the start of the book, he is living in Marseilles with his mother and sister (they are originally from Nantes.) For a variety of reasons – the loss of his ship in the war, the lack of opportunities during the post-war period and his reputation as being unlucky – he is unable to find a position on a ship. He insists that he is a captain and won’t accept anything less, which makes matters worse. During the day, he makes the rounds of the shipping companies, looking for work, but is always turned away. In particular, he tries at the Heros company, where he asks to see the man in charge, Mr. Follet. He is always rebuffed by Mr. Philippe, who won’t let him see Mr. Follet (at the latter’s request). When Mr. Follet finally relents, it is too late. There is one sympathetic person at Heros – the clerk Labiche (and, before you jump to conclusions, Labiche is the French for The Doe). Labiche is the secretary of the local St Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity that helps those in need. Labiche is totally committed to helping those in distress and he recognises Captain Marius as someone needing the Society’s help.

Once he has made the rounds of the shipping companies, Marius either goes down to the local brothel, where is enamoured of Lucy and where he often makes trouble or he makes the round of the bars of Marseilles, where he makes a fool of himself, as he gets drunk. Labiche follows him around (Marius thinks he is the police) and partially through the eyes of Labiche but partially through Marius’ own eyes, we watch Marius sinking further down into desperation and insanity. It is this portrait of a man gradually becoming mad that is the strength of this book. The realisation of his failure and the guilt over the loss of his ship make him more and more desperate. The two people that should be able to help – his mother and sister – do not. Indeed, when he most needs their help, they flee to a nunnery. In the end, it is Labiche who finds him in a church, raving, thinking that he is on the bridge of his ship. From that point, there is no help for him and Hanley leaves him to us in an almost catatonic state.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Macdonald