Magical Thinking: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

I reckon I’ve had The Go-Between on my shelves for more than 20 years. Jacqui’s enthusiastic and thoughtful review finally spurred me to read it. (That plus I’ve taken a doubtless-brief-but-nonetheless-well-intentioned pledge to read books I already own rather than buy new ones.)

I can’t imagine matching Jacqui’s summary of the novel, so I direct you there for more details. I’ll just give a brief synopsis here. Leo Colston is a man in his middle sixties who, when the novel begins, finds a trunk full of old papers, including his diary from the year 1900.

As he remembers the dramatic events of that year—events we’re told have marked him forever, somehow left him unfit to participate in life—he tells us about his school days where he was first bullied and then later respected based on a strange incident I’ll say more about in a minute. When the school is suddenly closed for the year because of a measles outbreak, the almost-thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by his friend Marcus Maudsley to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Norfolk. The Maudsleys are richer than Leo and his widowed mother and he feels ill at ease and awkward in their home, not least because he has no proper summer clothes and the weather turns hotter than anyone can remember. Maudsley’s sister Marian (I think she’s about 19 or so) takes pity on Leo, buys him a new summer suit, and then, either as a result of a premeditated plan or, more likely, a readiness to seize the situation, for she knows Leo is ready to do anything for her, entices him into carrying secret letters to Ted Burgess, the hunky tenant farmer. Readers know long before Leo does that Marian and Ted are lovers; Leo is shocked when he finds out, not only because of the class difference, but also because she is engaged to be married to Viscount Trimingham, a fatally decent man who has been badly wounded in the Boer War.

(If the book sounds a bit melodramatic when I summarize it this way, I think I’m doing it justice.)

Anyway, Leo doesn’t want to be the lovers’ go-between anymore but Marian has ways of convincing him, ways just slightly more pleasant than those used by her rather demonic mother, the lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley, who forces the presumably unwitting Leo to reveal the affair. Things end pretty badly, though most of the drama happens off-stage. What’s really bad, it seems, is the hold the whole situation has had on Leo, as we see in a coda in which the now elderly Leo continues to be manipulated by a very old Marian all these years later.

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I read an old Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of the book, but in the US the book is published by New York Review Classics. Their edition has an excellent introduction by the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. Tóibín offers some background on Hartley, whose solicitor father made a fortune in the brick trade, moving the family up from the middle class. Hartley seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new world in which he moved (Harrow and then Oxford). Rather than rebelling against it, Hartley sought to become more a part of the establishment, trading the Methodism of his childhood for the Church of England, for example. In this regard, he seems rather like his protagonist Leo. Although it wasn’t much of a secret that Hartley was gay, there seems to have been something of the closet about him, a desire to blend in, but more to efface than to protect his difference.

Hartley doesn’t seem to have been much liked by the literary world. In 1923 Virginia Woolf recorded meeting “a dull fat man named Hartley” while visiting the socialite and patron of the arts Ottoline Morrell. One of the Sitwells called him “Bore Hartley.” I confess these descriptions make me more not less sympathetic to him, though Tóibín reports him as becoming increasingly conservative as he aged and always quarrelsome with servants (who certainly appear in a dim light in The Go-Between). I wonder, has anyone written his biography?

Tóibín’s most interesting point is that the novel isn’t really about either the foreignness or the persistence of the past—lots of people who have never read this novel know its first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—but rather about Leo’s self-division. He dislikes, even condemns Marian and Ted, yet he’s helplessly drawn towards them. Hartley professed to be surprised and dismayed when readers sympathized with the lovers. If that’s true, it’s a remarkable lack of insight that proves writers aren’t always good readers of their own work. Tóibín interestingly links Hartley to writers like D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster (all these sets of initials, aren’t their real names good enough for them?), other writers of the period who extolled the value of the senses in hide-bound English society.

I’m not really buying this comparison, because I don’t think Forster and Lawrence have much in common. Hartley is like Forester, I grant, in that both are writers who are at best ambivalent about the power of sensuality. Lawrence, by contrast, had no ambivalence there. Where the Hartley – Forster comparison comes up short, in my opinion, is in their differing use of narrative voice. Forester never wrote in first person, as far as I know; he certainly wasn’t compelled to trace the modulations of a distinctive first-person narrative voice the way Hartley does here. Forster’s concern with the unreliability of perception attaches itself to skepticism about third-person omniscience.

No, the writer Hartley really reminded me of is Kazuo Ishiguro. Now that I think of it, I rarely hear critics placing Ishiguro in any kind of literary tradition or continuum. (Not that I know the Ishiguro criticism particularly well; correct me if I’m wrong.) If anything he’s discussed as part of that flowering of new English writing in the 1980s, the Granta writers, the young Turks who are now the old guard of English literature (Rushdie, Amis, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson, McEwan, etc). Hartley seems like an important model and precursor for Ishiguro, although I think Ishiguro is more sophisticated in his use of unreliability, more unreliably unreliable if I could put it that way, and a better writer all around. But I’ve only read one novel by Hartley, and most of Ishiguro’s, so I ought to read more of the former to be sure. Looking around my shelves, I find I’ve got six other Hartley novels lying around—he’s apparently one of those writers I’m highly invested in even though I hardly know anything about them—so I certainly could find out.

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I just want to say two other things about The Go-Between:

I couldn’t decide how clueless Leo is supposed to be. Or, rather, I couldn’t quite decide whether the events of that summer are supposed to be told by Leo at the time or by Leo in retrospect. Sometimes we are clearly dealing with a child’s voice:

She was silent and I felt for the first time that she was unhappy. This was a revelation to me. I knew that grown-up people were unhappy—when a relation died, for instance, or went bankrupt. At such times they were sure to be unhappy: they had no option: it was the rule, like mourning after a death, like a black margin around the writer paper. (My mother still used it for my father.) They were unhappy to order. But that they should be unhappy in the way that I was sometimes, because something in my private life, to which perhaps I couldn’t give a name, had gone wrong—that hadn’t occurred to me.

Here we’re in that Jamesian world of innocence ruined, though James famously set himself tougher challenges than writing about a teenager, as when he sought to narrate from a child’s perception though not in a child’s language in his novel about a five-year-old buffeted by a nasty divorce, the magisterial What Maisie Knew. Plus, the parenthetical sentence could only be narrated within the present of the narrated events.

But at other times it’s harder to pin down the voice. Here the narrator has accompanied the family and the other house guests to church:

Again Lord Trimingham was the last to leave. I thought Marian would wait for him, but she didn’t, so I did. Most of my shyness with him had worn off, and I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. But I did not want to broach at once the subject that was uppermost in my mind.

I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. By this point in the novel, Leo has had two great successes. He’s made a splendid catch in an important cricket match and then sung two songs to great success at the party afterwards. And he’s meditated a lot on how extraordinary the attention made him feel, and how uncomfortable too. But that complex and complexly phrased sentiment, of being disposed to think one’s words and actions become one, with its quality of self-deprecation and irony that undermines the ostensible meaning of the words—that seems an attitude that only the older Leo, looking back on himself, would be in a position to note. And yet the story really only works if the older Leo is kept in abeyance. If retrospection governed the narrative too completely there would be no suspense, and our sense of how children and adults can work at cross-purposes, in which ignorance tragically shades into malevolence, would be much reduced.

One way to read the end of the book is that it shows Leo never really learns anything, but that would challenge even further the sense that the older man can make sense of his younger self. Perhaps it is just this uncertainty—that the older man thinks he knows more than the younger, yet proves to be just as or maybe even more clueless—is what Hartley wants to get at in a passage like the one I’ve cited. That would be pretty sophisticated; I suppose I wasn’t convinced that novel is quite that sophisticated, but maybe I’m under-selling it. (And it’s an awfully good book, don’t get me wrong.)

So that’s one thing. The other is about the supernatural. Young Leo, we learn, is fascinated by the zodiac and by the idea that events can be determined by spells. The way he moves from being bullied to being respected at school is that he puts a curse on two boys who have been tormenting him; soon afterwards they fall off the roof during a nighttime escapade and hurt themselves badly. When word of the spell gets around—I can’t remember if Leo puts it out himself or if it’s found out in some other way—Leo’s stock rises dramatically and he is soon being asked by his classmates to create imprecations and spells to order. Towards the end of the book he again has recourse to magic and again succeeds, though less clearly than the first time.

What is this material doing in this book? My sense is that the general way this book gets talked about (hot summer, lost innocence, boy becoming man, elegy for forgotten way of life) ignores this supernatural material. But it’s pretty important to the book; we hear a lot about it, especially in the first quarter or so. These weren’t the most evocative bits of the book, by any means (that would be the languorous descriptions of the heat, and the landscape, and the rituals of English life that someone like Ishiguro would later so profitably explore as strange performances). They seemed awkward, kind of clunky, something that belonged more in a Roald Dahl story, or some minor Greene work, than in the kind of book this seemed to want to be.

This lack of fit interested me, and I wonder if anyone has any ideas about it. One thought I had was that the spells are meant ironically, a way to emphasize how little control Leo (like all children) has over the world, and even to disparage him in our eyes, since he thinks he has control when he doesn’t. But I’m unconvinced because the book rather seems to believe in the spells. In that case, their efficacy would suggest Leo knows more than he thinks, if not more than he lets on. (This would be a peculiarly unconscious certainty.) But does Leo’s magic run out when he exchanges school for the adult world? Or are we to take him as more responsible for his actions towards Marian and Ted than it at first seems? Are Leo’s spells magical thinking—or are they really magic? I’m not sure the book knows how to answer that question. And that uncertainty makes me like it all the more.

 

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Friedrich Glauser & Patrick Leigh Fermor, Together at Last

Last month two short pieces of mine went live.

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In the most recent issue of The Scofield, dedicated to the Swiss writer Max Frisch, I recommend his compatriot, the wonderful crime writer Friedrich Glauser, as someone to check out once you’ve made your way through Frisch. Glauser had a pretty intense life and he wrote some terrific crime novels.

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And in last month’s Open Letters Monthly, I wrote about my favourite travel books, the trilogy Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote describing his travels across Europe on foot in the early 1930s. I’m in good company here: there are lots of great suggestions for you to consider. If you’ve got favourite travel writing, I’d love to hear about it.

The two never met, as far as I know, but I bet they’d have got alone like gangbusters.

How I Spent My Summer Holidays

Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)

This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.

But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.

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So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?

Well, a few things:

Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)

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Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.

Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)

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Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)

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Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.

Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:

Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.

Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)

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Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)

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These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)

As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)

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Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.

But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.

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So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…

What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?