I’ve grown fond of that phrase, “a zodiacal sign without portfolio.” Pure Terry Pratchett, or Douglas Adams maybe. And yet it comes from L.P.Hartley‘s The go-between (1953), the book that famously – even unto pub quizzes – kicks off with “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Hell, yes. Reading the damn thing – this month’s Book Group selection – certainly proves that. 1953 – check it out – was not a good year for the novel. It didn’t help I was reading it off the back of Alice Munro‘s remarkable The view from Castle Rock (2007) either.
Guaranteed to re-awaken the inner class warrior, The go-between, set deep in Downton territory, is a tale told by a 60-something-year old virgin looking back on events that led to the ‘tragic’ happenings occurring on his 13th birthday back in the year 1900. Leo, an in-awe country house summer guest of the much richer family of a public school chum, finds himself being useful/used – oh the delights, the moral agonies with the prospect of a new green bicycle involved – as a messenger, helping facilitate secret liaisons between the only two half-decent recognisably twentieth century human beings in the vicinity: Marian, the daughter of the house, soon to be wed to the local Boer War-damaged Earl, and Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer. Initially our naive Mercury hasn’t a clue what’s going on; Leo allows the denouement to scar him for life. (Not that they weren’t happening before he appeared on the scene).
This is a rite of passage tale where basically the narrator fails; other readers have, it must be admitted, had more sympathy, but he remains a snob with no sense of outrage at what Ted feels he has to do, nor, more generally, at what such a strict reading of the social order can do all, wherever in it they reside. (For what it’s worth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was being written pretty much half way between the events related in The go-between and its publication in 1953, though it wasn’t widely available until 1960).
I feel obligated to add here, in italics, a couple of days on, that at the Book Group meeting earlier today The Go-between was described as “a devastating critique of the class system”. This is not unreasonable; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to read. I’ll admit to feeling – a minority of one – something of an unfeeling clod some of the time, though I still think if that’s the case then for all the subtlety of its presentation, through the eyes of a sensitive, insecure 12-year old, there had to be some anger from the older man rather than it having to be brought to the party by the reader. It was a good meeting.
The go-between has its moments – the progress of the cricket match is nicely done, the boys’ exchanged franglais insults are a delight, there’s a wonderful description of a fully grown deadly nightshade bush – it flows, but it’s so Downton grand and precious, and Leo the adult narrator is beyond the pale (no, is so incredibly pale): “It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up …”; “Anyhow I do not like pubs and had rarely been inside one“. And as for a sex life – or, um, “spooning” – as he rather dramatically puts it, ‘shown’ here in the quote that follows not exactly being a fair description of what happened: “Ted hadn’t told me what it was, but he had shown me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it.”
In the matter of class, Leo is intelligent enough to recognise favourably certain elements in Ted’s behaviour, but just cannot transcend his sense of the social order to draw any critical conclusions: “Oddly enough I didn’t mind him doing this; I had an instinct that, unlike people of my own class, he wouldn’t think the worse of me for crying“.
That is just the sort of observation that sings out – though presented more economically – in an Alice Munro story. For her I find myself abandoning hyperbole; it’s just that she is such a good writer. Her vivid prose manages to deliver objectivity and intimacy simultaneously. You observe with her, you feel what her characters are learning, how their lives are coming along. The prose is precise, unspectacular yet never spare. The lack of sentimentality is crucial to just how moving the stories – most of her work is short stories – can be. I’m gripped by the stuff – physical description, the weather, journey details – I skimp over with others too. I usually take a few notes when I read; I can’t do it with her. It doesn’t work like that. The results are extraordinary.
The view from Castle Rock (2007) brings together two strands of stories. The first – No advantages – developed out of her interest in family history, going back to the early nineteenth century on the Scottish borders – a place of ‘no advantages’ as a source of the time has it – and their emigrating to and hard times in North America; America is first ‘seen’ from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock. She draws on letters and journals and other documentation but the families are made flesh in a way no straight non-fiction treatment could do. The second strand of stories – Home – is, she says, more in the nature of memoir, or at least they start from staging posts of emotional development and social awareness in her life, but somehow as short story, with that conceptual remove, they become so much more. It’s an extraordinary reading experience.
Out and about
The continuing effects of a virus is are still limiting cultural ventures beyond the telly, but no way were we going to miss the local panto. (The couple in front of us at the end of their row was also strategically placed to make an easy exit if the cough took hold – it didn’t). The Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of Alice in Stonyland ay York House was a delight. Developed from a script by Danni Kushner, who also charmed in the role of Dinah the Cat, this was a panto full of local references but refreshingly devoid of the traditional double entendres. Great cast, great fun, great music, ovations galore.
Stonyland is in your heart
Its music will keep you strong
You don’t need to stamp your feet
You don’t need to shout
You just need to find your voice
Stand up, speak up, speak out!