Thursday, November 22, 2018

the last book I read

The Go-Between by LP Hartley.

No, it's the old stripy orange Penguin version. Yes, that's right, went for three-and-a-half bob back in the day. Line drawing on the front, yes. You do? Oh, that's wonderful. And the name? Yes, it's LP Hartley.

Good old Electric Halibut. Not just here for the nasty things in life, like Brexit or murder, but also lame jokes based on 1980s Yellow Pages adverts. Though I can't say that the surname coincidence my joke turns on is as funny as this scurrilous re-voiced version. I will just mention in passing also that JR Hartley appears to be committing the cardinal sin that most people on TV and film commit, which is hanging up the phone without saying goodbye. How rude.

Now no-one likes a good laugh more than I do, except perhaps my wife, and some of her friends, but none of this tomfoolery actually gets us to the content of the book, so let's knuckle down and focus.

So. Leo Colston is a man in probably his mid-sixties, single and mildly disappointed with life, rummaging (in the novel's nominal "now", which would be the early 1950s) through an attic full of old stuff from his childhood and finding a diary whose origin and purpose is at first a mystery. It's only when he finds that he can operate the combination lock by touch and almost without thinking that some long-suppressed memories come roaring back and we're ready to drop out of this obvious framing device, have the screen go all wibbly-wobbly for a few seconds and to be landed in the actual story.

The actual story takes place in the summer of 1900 when Leo is approaching his thirteenth birthday. He's been required, as many middle-class boys would have been, to endure the hell of boarding school with all its strict hierarchies, unwritten rules, bullying and all the other petty atrocities that small boys inflict on each other every day. But the summer holidays are approaching and Leo has been invited to spend a good chunk of them at the house of Marcus Maudsley, a boy he is friendly with at school. This "house" turns out to be Brandham Hall in Norfolk, a proper country house with the columns and the servants and the grounds and the various exciting outbuildings.

So it's immediately obvious that Marcus' family are considerably higher on the class scale than Leo's. They're nice enough people, but intimidating in that way that terribly posh people are, since there are various unspoken rituals and rules of etiquette that us proles are unaware of: how to dress for dinner, which order to use the forks in, no shitting on the carpets, that sort of thing. Mrs. Maudsley is kind but slightly fierce and Mr. Maudsley doesn't say much but is aloof and mysterious in a stereotypical Victorian Dad kind of way.

Obviously Marcus is slightly more human, and he and Leo have various adventures inside and outside the house while exchanging some slightly Jennings & Darbishire-esque banter. But then Marcus is struck down with measles, leaving Leo rattling around the house at a bit of a loose end. He is partly taken under the wing of Marcus' elder sister Marian, who is old enough to be intoxicatingly adult and mysterious but not old enough to be intimidatingly adult and mysterious, and on whom Leo develops a bit of a crush.

He still has plenty of free time, though, and spends some of it exploring the surrounding grounds, including those parts maintained by tenant farmer Ted Burgess. After Ted catches Leo sliding down a haystack on the farm, and tends to the knee he wounded in the descent, they strike up a conversation about the folks back at the big house, and Ted entrusts Leo with a secret mission: deliver a letter to Miss Marian.

So you can see what's happening here, I'm sure. These days this sort of thing would be a lot simpler - it's not just that communications technology has moved on, so that Ted could just WhatsApp Marian some dick pics if he chose to, it's more that the class barriers that made a relationship between a farmer and the daughter of a posh family impossible no longer exist. Impossibility schmimpossibility, though, as far as Marian is concerned, and when Leo's mission is accomplished and Marian has her letter she decides that Leo will be the postman who can occupy himself taking a series of letters back and forth without anyone else in the house knowing about it; doubly important because the local squire, Lord Trimingham, has his eye on Marian and an engagement is rumoured to be in the offing.

The exchange of letters (and we are invited to assume, actual meetings facilitated and scheduled by the letters) continues for the next few weeks, as does a spell of exceptionally hot weather (July 1900 really was exceptionally hot). There is a nobs v. village folk cricket match in the grounds of the big house where various charged glances are exchanged between Marian and Ted, and where it's clear that Marian is impressed by Ted's repeated smiting of the ball with his large bit of wood, and wouldn't mind getting her googlies entangled with his middle stump, not to mention stroked expertly through the covers etc. etc., and wherein Leo also makes a bit of a name for himself by taking a spectacular catch to dismiss Ted and win the match for the nobs.

But like all That Last Golden Summer stories, it can't last, and it all goes to shit in the end. Marcus recovers from the measles, which constrains Leo's free time somewhat, and Marian and Lord Trimingham announce their engagement. Leo assumes that will spell the end of Marian's desire to pass notes to Ted, and experiences some pangs of conscience when it becomes apparent that this isn't the case.

Things finally come to a head on Leo's thirteenth birthday: Marian's luck finally runs out as she is rumbled in the act of trying to give Leo a letter, she cooks up some nonsense story about visiting Granny as a cover, the weather finally breaks and it starts to rain (WOOP WOOP METAPHOR ALERT) and Mrs. Maudsley, who is clearly not an idiot, drags Leo off to take her to the outbuildings where they interrupt Ted giving Marian a practical farming tutorial, in particular a demonstration of some vigorous ploughing.

Everyone reacts in quintessential British style, once Marian has got her knickers back on anyway. Leo has an attack of the vapours and suppresses the memory of the events for the next fifty-odd years, Mrs. Maudsley never speaks of it again, Marian marries Lord Trimingham as planned and Ted pops off back to the farm to do the decent thing and shoot himself. The screen goes all wibbly-wobbly again at this point and we snap back to Leo at sixtysomething; now he has regained his memory of the events he takes himself back to Norfolk to see what has become of the Maudsley family. The answer seems to be that most of them have been killed off in various wars, but Marian is still alive and agrees to meet Leo. The meeting is facilitated by the current Lord Trimingham, Marian's grandson, who is aware that his grandfather is actually Ted Burgess rather than the last-but-one Lord Trimingham and consequently bears something of a grudge against his grandmother. Can Leo repeat his former role as go-between and smooth things over?

Rather like Pride And Prejudice, nothing I say about The Go-Between is likely to have any effect on the critical reverence in which it is held, not that I have anything especially critical to say about it. Structurally I can see the point of the framing device (more so than the one used in Birdsong, for instance), as it demonstrates how the events of 1900 killed off any desire for intimacy in Leo's later life; that said, the mini-adventure Leo goes on back to Brandham at the end of the book seemed neither especially convincing nor narratively necessary.

It's a sly and subtle book that can be read on various levels. The obvious surface reading tells you it's about the inflexibility of the old class system and the beginnings of its dismantling (echoes here of the two Isabel Colegate books on this list, though they were set a dozen or so years later), it's about childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence where you're expected to acquire a full understanding of certain matters without anyone having to explain them explicitly to you, and obviously it's about love and its blindness to barriers of class. I think this article by Ali Smith gets to the heart of some of its other subtleties quite well, firstly that it's a novel that sits oddly out of time - there's a frankness to some of the descriptions of Ted's physicality that seem quite modern, certainly compared to the period in which the book is set, and it's clear at the end that Ted and Marian are actually fucking, not doing any of the more innocent things that used to be included under the euphemistic banner of "making love". That said, compared to a lot of its 1950s contemporaries (it was published in 1953) it still seems quaintly innocent. Ali Smith also makes the point that it's not difficult to view Leo's reservations about intimacy as closeted homosexuality; whether this was intentional or not on Hartley's part I couldn't say.

Anyway, it's nice to read a book widely regarded as a 20th-century classic, and put it down saying: yes, I can see that. Just as it's nice in a different way to dispense hot piss over a book that doesn't (in my opinion, of course) live up to its hype.

The other thing to say about The Go-Between is that it was made into a celebrated film in 1971, starring Alan Bates and the lovely Julie Christie as Ted and Marian. I have the vaguest recollection of watching most of this back when I was quite young (probably closer to Leo's age than Marian's) and being quite riveted by it, though I probably had no more idea about "spooning" than Leo at the time. It's notable that the film's opening preserves the opening line of the novel, one of the most famous in literary history.

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