Friday, 21 May 2010
REVIEW: The Go-Between
Read for the Spotlight On... Series focusing on the New York Review Books.
In the summer of 1900 Leo Colston, a young schoolboy, is invited to spend the holidays at Brandham Hall, the country house of his friend Marcus' family, the Maudleys. Having never been out of his home for such a long time Leo, of a lower class than his hosts, soon becomes entangled with the lives of the adults in Norfolk: he gets infatuated with Marcus' older sister, Marian, and by chance becomes the messenger between the girl and a nearby farmer, Ted Burguess, who is in love with her. Marian and Ted use Leo to carry letters from one to another without the rest of the family knowing - since they have different social status their affair would not be looked upon kindly and needs to be kept a secret.
The danger of this secret relationship increases when Marian gets engaged to a neighbour Viscount, Lord Trimingham, and Leo tries to end his role as a messenger between the illicit lovers but Marian and Ted put too much pressure on him. It all ends tragically when the lovers are discovered, resulting in Ted's suicide.
This is all narrated by Leo in his sixties, upon finding a box containing his old diaries. Traumatized by the events at Brandham that summer, Leo becomes a damaged and detached adult, incapable of intimacy with others.
The Go-Between is a novel about childhood innocence disturbed and lost, and the cruelty of adults towards children, the glimpses that children catch of the adult world and the interactions between the two. Those on the surface it might not seem like a complicated novel the book is a formal masterpiece; for a start the narrator is an old man recalling his childhood days but he puts himself so much in the mind of his past self that the impression of a truly childish narrator emerges, and at the same time the narrator's knowledge of events to come (and what they will do to him as a boy) undercuts the whole story with a feeling of uneasiness and impending doom. The tone sets the reader for a tragedy, but never makes it so explicit that we know what the writing is doing to us.
Despite the scorching-hot summer it is set in The Go-Between is a curiously cold novel. Cold-blooded and cold-headed. Hartley is quite pitiless towards the lovers in the story; rather than the affair the book considerates what it does to Leo, the consequences of two adults selfishly using a child for their own purposes, and while the story critizices the hypocritical society that doesn't let Marian and Ted be together because of class differences, it never excuses the couple for their actions. Everything is told from Leo's point of view so we never see the lovers unless he does, and we have no way of knowing what they are thinking or feeling. This is a clever technical decision that never draws attention to itself, the novel becomes a very disciplinate affair through it. It is contained, almost prude, seen through the eyes of a boy who disapproves of the relationship, in his own peculiar and naive set of values. Despite Leo's obssession with the thermometer and the all-encompassing heat of that summer, the narrative remains cool, rather like a wet rope before it finally snaps -too much pressure on the poor boy- and brings about the anticipated tragedy.
I confess the very own virtues that make me admire Hartley's approach were also what detached me from the story and a more emotional involment with the characters. Childhood feelings and thoughts are recalled with overwhelming detail and at times I think they slow down the story in an undesired way. I loved the portray of conflicting emotions, because like Leo we idolize Marian and Ted at first but unlike the boy we are aware of their manipulation and the nature of their relationship from the start. It's one of the formal joys of the story-telling here, how the reader knows more about the world Leo is entering than he does, but not because we are told but because we are older and wiser and can hint at the truth behind the events that Leo witnesses but does not fully comprehend. But at the same time our knowledge of just how appalling the grown-ups' behaviour towards Leo is makes it hard for us to connect with any of the characters. We are so aware of the narrator's disapproval (as a boy and as an old man scarred by the book's events) of the lovers' actions that we feel guilty for finding their passion alluring at first.
The book's most famous quote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.", can also be applied to childhood. We are imersed in the narrator's boy-ish psyche so complete that we can't help but feel it as a state of otherness, almost alien. This novel has often been compared to one of my favourite books, Ian McEwan's Atonement (McEwan himself has talked about his admiration for it) and while there are many things in common -thematically, and in plot- in both stories the novels are also absolutely contrary: The Go-Between tells us about the cruelty with which two lovers treat a child for their affair's benefit, Atonement show us the other way around: how a child's cruelty can destroy the most beautiful of love stories.
After I finished the book I watched the film adaptation by Harold Pinter, directed by Joseph Losey. It's an amazing work: largely faithful to the book and at the same time a very Losey film. While it is clear that the film is more sympathetic to the love between Ted and Maria like the book the story is told with wonderful restrain. The formality of its shots and camera movements, far from making it seem dated and stuffy, helps make the whole point of the story. If anything, I think the film improves on the original, or at least I found it even more enjoyable, being as it is a completely different medium.