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The Go-Between

by L P Hartley (1953; NYRB, 2002)

L P Hartley's The Go-Between projects the memories of a man in his sixties, looking back on the summer of 1900, when he turned thirteen at a grand country house in Norfolk. Rented by the family of a prep-school chum, Brandham Hall is Leo Colston's dream of England not least because it actually belongs to a viscount. An intelligent boy, highly attentive, as English prep school boys will be, to matters of rank, Leo notices a great deal, including many things that he doesn't understand, chief among them the lusty amour that he himself facilitates by playing postman to his friend's beautiful sister, Marian, and a neighboring farmer, Ted. There is reason to believe that Hartley didn't understand it himself. In his introduction to the NYRB reprint, Colm Tóibín tells us that the homosexual author was not sympathetic toward the bucolic Tristan and Isolde who figure so powerfully in the uncomprehending Leo's world.

It is clear from letters and articles that Hartley disapproved of [the love] affair and expected the reader to do so as well. He set out, he wrote, to produce "a story of innocence betrayed, and not only betrayed but corrupted." When he gave a talk at Leicester a few month's after the book's publication, he was surprised to discover that his audience had sympathy with Marian and Ted. "I wonder," he wrote to his publisher, "what the Midlands are coming to."

Although Leo initially idealizes both Marian and Ted, each of them is eventually rather nasty to him. He is especially shocked when Marian, who has made him her protégé and taken him to nearby Norwich to kit him out with decent summer clothes, turns on him. That he's surprised by her outburst tells us more about him than it does about her: he has just refused to deliver a note to Ted. This is his reasoning: now that she is all but officially engaged to Viscount Trimingham (the impoverished owner of the great house), surely she cannot wish to have further correspondence of the "darling darling darling" sort with Ted!

He's wrong about that.

"You come into this house, our guest," she stormed, "we take you in, we know nothing about you, we make a great fuss of you — I suppose you wouldn't deny that? — I know I have — and then I ask you to do a simple thing which a child in the street that I'd never spoken to would do for the asking — and you have the infernal cheek to say that you won't! We've spoilt you. I'll never ask you to do anything for me again, never! I won't speak to you again!"

Marian goes on to insult Leo by claiming that he's after some sort of compensation: "You want paying, that's what you want." He snatches the note and takes it to Ted, where has has a correspondingly unpleasant encounter. The spell is broken: Leo wants to leave Brandham Hall at once, despite the big birthday party planned in his honor. He is more offended by the lovers' indiscretion (which is as much of their conduct as he can imagine) than the sternest dowager would be, because he invests the code of good conduct with a romantic chivalry that would never trouble a doughty, sharp-eyed battleaxe. Although I doubt very much that Hartley intended any references to Wagner's opera, he has made a heartbroken King Marke of Leo: "innocence betrayed."

We register Leo's dismay, of course, but at the forefront of our concern is risk discovery that Marian and Ted continue to court — discovery of which we've been heavily forewarned. Doubly kept in the dark — not only can't we see what Leo can't see, but we're shut out by his lack of interest in Marian and Ted. In a less blessed novel, we should curse the novelist for ignoring the very matter that keeps us turning the pages, but we are too busy turning the pages of The Go-Between to spare any attention for curses.

Curses, as it happens, are Leo's specialty. With the lightest touch in the world, Leo tells us about a "success" that he has had at school: shortly after he places a curse on two bullying tormenters, they fall off a roof, suffering many broken bones. In a move that we ought to find queerer than we do, Leo contrives to inform his victims of the curse before it takes effect, so that the whole school knows about it when they torment the would-be "avenger." Leo's standing is considerably enhanced. Among other developments, he becomes friends with Marcus, Marian's brother. When Leo arrives at Brandham, Marcus's mother quizzes Leo jocularly about his special powers.

Some readers, I suppose, will be taken by the occult angle of Leo's story; the elderly narrator does not disavow it as clearly as a more bloody-minded man might. To me, however, Leo's supernatural skills are just a schoolboy fantasy, the warp to the weft of his acute social consciousness. What I draw from it is not the whiff of magic but the intensity of a boy's imagination. The occult angle of The Go-Between is the author's mysterious, and presumably unintended ability to tell, by the literary equivalent of cire-perdu, one of fiction's great love stories.

For The Go-Between is a triumph of passionate indirection. Hartley bends so ardently to the task of recreating Leo's outlook that he recreates the world that Leo sees as well, and, with it, the intense magnetism felt by the lovers. As Leo goes about his last days at Brandham Hall, we are never unconscious that the lovers are either together or thinking of being together: their love becomes one with the intense heat that fascinates the thermometer-obsessed Leo. When the hot, golden days are ruptured by thunder and lightning, we know that the romantic attachment must be broken along with it.

Equally unwilled is the tremendous formal satisfaction of this novel, which is composed with an almost liturgical completeness. A prodigious reader (and book reviewer), Hartley seems to have known just where to place every reference, whether pitched forward or back. Reading The Go-Between is a celebration of the sacrament of the novel. (August 2008)

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