Saturday, 30 August 2008

The Go-Between. . .

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

I've heard the phrase many times - now I've finally finished the novel, The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley that begins with this famous line. First published in 1953, it's set in the hot and almost continually sunny summer of 1900, a "Golden Age". Leo Colston is approaching thirteen and is staying with a rich schoolmate at his stately home for a few weeks. Insecure and naive, he starts taking messages between his friend's older sister and her secret lover - a farmer, handsome and virile, but of course of the wrong class. Tragedy ensues.

I was hooked right from the prologue as Leo, now an elderly man in his sixties ruminates on that summer and how it shaped (for the worst) his entire life. He imagines a conversation with his 12 year old self who reproaches him:

"But you have had half a century to get over it! Half a century, half the twentieth century, that glorious epoch, that golden age I bequeathed to you!".

And his answer breaks your heart:

"Has the twentieth century," I should ask, "done so much better than I have? When you leave this room, which I admit is dull and cheerless, and take the last bus to your home in the past, if you haven't missed it - ask yourself whether you found everything so radiant as you imagined it. Ask yourself whether it has fulfilled your hopes. You were vanquished, Colston, you were vanquished, and so was your century, your precious century that you hoped so much of."

That almost sums up the core questions of this novel - can one ever really make that last bus to the past? And do we want to? Colston's recollections of the boy he was - his innocence and vanity, coupled with his awkward insecurities are so beautifully and delicately portrayed. Hartley has vividly captured the constant heat of the summer, the tension of a village cricket match (the only British novel I know which prefaces the description of the match with a helpful summary of the rules of the game), and the complicated relationships within a family and among the different classes. A strong sense of the supernatural (as experienced in a child's imagination) and an elegy for the historical dead, both past and future (several of the characters will die in the First World War) permeates this lovely novel. A completely absorbing and thoughtful reading experience.

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