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The Go-Between (2002)

The Go-Between (2002)

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3.9 of 5 Votes: 1
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0940322994 (ISBN13: 9780940322998)
nyrb classics

About book The Go-Between (2002)

[4.5] Not the chap from the Yellow Pages ad. That was J.R. Hartley.The Go-Between is a book of high summer, set in a hot July (in the year 1900) - but which I was prompted to read now, a little late in the season, after noticing a basic similarity with The Line of Beauty. (Also having decided to read some of the unread 1001 Books novels I own.) I loved the Hollinghurst so much I wanted to read bits of it again straight away, but knowing this is usually just a good way of making myself bored of anything, I took some tangents instead. The parallel between the two books would not have occurred to me if I hadn't already seen the wonderful film of The Go-Between and if I hadn't read that Alan Hollinghurst's PhD thesis was about L.P. Hartley (as well as Ronald Firbank and E.M. Forster). In both stories, a middle-class boy - one aged 12, the other 21 - goes to stay with the family of an upper-class friend - here from prep school, in LoB from Oxford - in their grand house. In both cases the boy's sister is a significant character and there is quite a bit of entertaining at the house. There are characters - very different though, opposite even - both named Leo C, with seven letter surnames. Whilst plenty of details f the stories are not the same (as they would be, given that the respective protagonists are an innocent Victorian child, and a late twentieth-century gay man) there are a few other similarities. Also, this glorious quote (and the paragraphs which come after it in Hartley's prologue) seem the essence of both stories: the people there were much larger than life... They were, in fact, the substance of my dreams, the realization of my hopes; they were the incarnated glory of the twentieth century; I could no more have been indifferent to them after fifty years than the steel could be indifferent to the magnets in my collar-box. The Go-Between is a good solid novel; it has the reflective tone which at least one book blog has made me realise often separates substantial-seeming older or foreign books from modern realist litfic and its mere recounting of mundane actions. It's a story of the Victorian era of similar vintage to The Leopard, and though not quite so majestic, still very good indeed. But another feature of the story is very typical of contemporary fiction (one not shared by LoB). Whilst probably not so ubiquitous in the 1950s (meaning that for me the book suffered a little by being read after inferior works it influenced) it has the now-common framing device of an older character looking back on an event which had reverberations adversely affecting the rest of their life. Atonement is another recent book with notable similarities to The Go-Between: the looking back, and the motifs of a pre-teen child, transgressive lovers less than ten years older, and secret letters. (The sex and class issues in both this & McEwan draw on Lady Chatterley; in all three cases the woman is upper class, the man lower. And apparently the messenger role in The Go-Between has similarities with Troilus & Criseyde, which I've not read.)I probably should not watch a film and read a book of the same story within about five years of one another (let alone within one year). Whilst my spontaneous recall without looking things up isn't great now, once I'm within the story again, it can be so familiar as to be boring. The Go-Between is a narrative with all the magic of a seemingly endless heat-haze summer, with darkness hanging over it like the knowledge that this must break to an almighty thunderstorm sooner or later. But similarities to later, IMO worse, books (including Atonement), the fact I wanted to be reading a different book I'd left behind somewhere, and knowing what was going to happen meant I wasn't always that involved although I could see this was good writing. For me, the thing about seeing a really good film of a book before reading is that the film makes the book seem like a mass of superfluous words whose essence has been distilled elsewhere. Much of The Go-Between was this way. (The film is a lovely creature: he visual beauty of an English costume drama, yet plot and scriptwise stripped of fluff, instead a sort of emotional starkness closer to European films. It doesn't have the coldness of some Pinter scripts and it's not quite as sinister as the also-wonderful Pinter/Losey collaboration The Servant; it's simply affecting and striking and incredibly atmospheric, mixing beauty and buttoned-up repression and flashes of primal wildness in the way that a bustling, gossipy Andrew Davies adaptation or a prim Merchant Ivory just couldn't. No wonder that Losey went on to work in France and is better regarded there.) There was still something to be gained in reading the book. The ending, especially - which contained enough different and new to feel entirely worthwhile and to give me a sense of the power and atmosphere the whole story may have if one came to the book completely fresh. Leo's conversations with his schoolfriend, in which they sometimes talk like Wodehouse characters – and completely in earnest about it which took me aback, whilst seeming entirely genuine. And Leo's inner life: a character who is both quite ordinary (not precocious) yet unusual. His geekiness about temperatures and planets (a few decades later he'd have had a lot more to indulge this side of himself with); his experiments with magick (anyone else who's ever had the experience of a couple of things, frighteningly, dizzyingly, seeming to work, will surely understand his thought processes: seeking rational explanation, worries about having done terrible things, the feelings of boldness and frustration not unlike a gambler trying to get back on to an early winning streak. N.B. I have steered scrupulously clear of roulette ever since one evening-long encounter with it at a university event.) And Leo has some thoughts about people which I found startlingly close to my own. There is an otherness to his characters that makes me perhaps too quick to relate him to being the work of a gay writer (one who lived mostly whilst sex between men was still illegal): he doesn't seem to expect to become part of the world he witnesses; he has such emphasis on beauty and feeling; the way his fascination with the physicality of Ted seems almost equal to his chaste idealisation of Marian. Colm Toibin's introduction to the NYRB edition (which is also available in a PDF linked here) explains far more eloquently than I can about the nature of the narrative: The book’s power arises from the boy’s rich way of noticing, his desperate attempt to become a reliable narrator, absorbing and recounting detail and episode and sweet sensation. He is especially alert to the prospect of humiliation, on the lookout for mockery or attack. - and goes on to describe the book as a struggle between sensuality and orderliness, one which I feel the film does equally well. This cover does look a bit too much as if it was designed by the ubiquitous Cath Kidston, but I still can't help but like the way it's also a wrapped present, complete with a card on the back.

This is a book that will live long in my memory. Ironically, LP Hartley's narrative thrust revolves around the recollection of a man's childhood summer retreat to his school friend's estate, Brandham Hall in Norfolk, so in one sense, the idea of the nature of memory itself is key to the book's appeal. Like Marcel Proust, Hartley is interested in the idea of recollections of an involuntary nature, and the novel serves as a looking glass through which the author examines themes also familiar to Proust (unrequited love, obsession, the mysteries of romance and sex, war and the inception of the modern era). The main character Leo's memories of the hot summer spent away from home are triggered by 'essences' of the past, for example, the scenery of the Countryside, a particular item of clothing or the weather. Leo is inducted into the world of the Maudsley's, an upper class family. Like Marcel and his associations with the world of the Duchess de Guermantes throughout 'In search of lost time' ,the Maudsley's represent a magical otherness rooted in the old Edwardian aristocracy of 19th Century England. The theme of class and it's limiting nature run through the book, not only in Leo's reverence for the Maudsley's (who are of a higher social strata than himself, and part of a world that for Leo will never be accessible unless via invitation) but also through the love affair between Ted, the farmer at Brandham, and Marian, the young woman living at the hall, which forms the basis of the novel's main narrative. Leo is drawn into becoming a messenger between the two lovers, an activity that at first he is too young to comprehend, but grows to understand as the story progresses. Marian is expected by her family to marry Lord Trimingham, house guest of the Maudsleys, veteran of the Boer war and likely suitor to Marian. Trimingham represents the England fighting in a phyrric war, based on the folly of colonialism and his war scars seem to indicate that for Hartley, the days of battles for territory thousands of miles away are coming to an end in the face of the endless onslaught of the forces of modernity (economic superiority over military and territorial might and as such the end of the traditional idea of 'empire') The Trimingham's of the world are a dying breed and their stock is on the decline. The transgressive relationship between Ted and Marian is a vehicle for Hartley to explore the class conventions of Edwardian England, and the superseding of Trimingham and all he represents. Hartley seems to be suggesting that their relationship was an indicator that this era was coming to an end and that the boundaries enforced on people because of class are starting to deteriorate. The other main theme, Leo's progress into puberty and the inevitable big reveal about the facts of life run through the book, and this, allied with the development of Ted and Marian's clandestine arrangements imbue the prose with a creeping sense of tension which kept me interested throughout. The novel carries with it a distinctly English sense of 'otherness', brought out via Leo's schoolboy obsession with the dark arts (he casts spells to 'vanquish' school bully's and to attempt to expose Marian and Ted's relationship). Nature and sexuality are interlinked here, represented by Leo's fixation with a deadly nightshade plant he finds in an outhouse at Brandham. He grinds some of the root down to concoct a potion by which he intends to cast a spell on the affair between Ted and Marian in the hope of exposing it to the wider world so he is no longer needed to act as messenger between them. The plant for me is symbolic of the relationship - poisonous by nature, but also oddly and beguilingly beautiful and powerful. I was reminded of classic British horror movie 'The Wicker Man' in some of the passages about the natural environment, whereby Hartley brilliantly links the natural world to sexual and societal class transgression in a sort of pagan English gothic manner. Leo eventually works out why his being asked to carry the messages and things come to a head when Ted and Marian are exposed making love in the outhouse where the nightshade lived. This not only serves to signal Leo's awakening to the facts of life, but also brings the main plot to a crescendo. There is so much going on in this book, some of which I've attempted to summarise, but I would really recommend it. For me, Hartley is a kindred spirit of DH Lawrence and Marcel Proust, the former because of his expose of the limits of love in a class based society and his eye for documenting of the passing of a dying era / the onset of modernity, and the latter for his evocative examination of the nature of memory and the seductive charms of the old aristocracy. Anyone who can in my opinion stand shoulder to shoulder with these literary heavyweights is worthy of serious consideration. I should like to read this again in the future and more of Hartley's work, as well as seeing the film of the novel. A great book, worthy of it's revered status in the canon, which one really appreciates in the light of works by similar authors.

Do You like book The Go-Between (2002)?

This English modern classic was written in 1953 by Hartley who was born in 1895. He would thus have been a 6 year old at the time of the story’s setting at the turn of the century in 1900. I mention this because the novel centres on, and is narrated by an innocent 13 year old boy being the messenger between to lovers; the novel however starts with the boy, now in his fifties, discovering his old diary.The boy, Lionel (preferring Leo), is a boarder at public school, his widow mother doesn’t have a lot of money so they leap at the chance when the opportunity arises to spend the summer at the wealthy, aristocratic, lordly manor in Norfolk, with his mate Markus. Markus’ sister Karian Maudsley is betrothed to Lord Hugh Trimingham, who is facially scared from the Boar war. The farmer, bit of rough but probably a better match, that Karian actually fancies is Ted Burgess.Leo, despite any peer education at school, is yet to know anything about sex, but finds himself passing letters between the lovers. The degree to which Leo is the catalyst for the doomed relationship is one aspect of the story, who’ll really pay the price in the end is the key though. What will he learn returning to the manor as an old man?This is old style, very English, clever narrative. The period setting with the upper class is there but it is Leo’s childhood that takes centre stage. His summer life, the garden, his passion for the Zodiac, his fondness for the family, his sympathy for Hugh and love for Karian, his dread of murder, his wanting to understand, the family’s suspicions and the heat produce an excellent, strangely claustrophobic story.This is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, without the sex or bad language with a dash of Wasp factory and Atonement. As an aside what I really disliked about LCL was the really unfair depiction of the war-hero husband, fortunately Hugh is altogether a far more sympathetic character.

This may be just one of the most perfect novels I have ever read. In conception and execution, it is absolutely first class; in tone it is pitch-perfect from first word to last; its range covers the intimate and general with utmost confidence; every character rings true. In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston spends the holidays with the family of his friend at their stately pile in Norfolk. His innocence allows him to be manipulated by the adults into carrying messages to abet a cross-class affair. Like the glorious summer weather, there is feeling throughout the novel that it cannot last. From his point of view fifty years later, Hartley knows the halcyon days do not last. Rain, discovery, the idle rich, two world wars. Change and tragedy approach on all sides.

Note: This review is from October 2nd 2007 when the reviewer was a spotty man-boy of twenty. Excuse the gaucheness herein.Hugh Might Enjoy ThisLord up on high, save me from the woeful sound of old people having sex.It was March 4th 1996 and the occasion was a brief stopover in a B&B during an enthralling coach trip from Dunbartonshire and Clydebank. Those are cities in Scotland, kind reader—of little import to this brief introduction—so we need not trouble ourselves with them at this juncture. The owners were a couple of energetic septuagenarians with a predilection for serious physical activity—jogging, fell-walking, hiking and suchlike—intent on proving to the Grim Reaper they had a good twenty years jump left in them at least. After much protest, I was placed into an airless box room beside the master bedroom where the Bonking Brutes came to rest and do the business. Be warned—the following paragraph might induce retching or suicidal urges in some readers.It was around 12:23AM I heard the first noise. It sounded awfully as though the old man was in the throes of an asthmatic attack, the initial sound a hybrid of someone underwater attempting to breathe through a respirator coupled with the manic panting of a breathless child unable to “hold it in” before collapsing in a pool of their own widdle. I soon realised, with some revulsion and despair, what I believed to be a heave of distress was one of pleasure. The horror. Images of the apocalypse started flashing into my head in various forms. Visions of waves rising up and washing over cities, long before The Day After Tomorrow had ever been conceived, consumed me as I pondered the easiest way to snuff my lid. As the ungodly thwacks of flaccid old-person flesh merged together in a heap of lumpy custard skin and cobblestoned flesh, I started weeping until I passed out. Relief came to me at last, and I was out cold before the climax.It is with the experience of this trauma that I approached The Go-Between, the fifth novel from Cambridgeshire author Leslie Poles Hartley, a much-vaunted writer fortunate to attain both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Heinemann Foundation Prize. Trust me—those are hard babies to attain. I’ve only won them four or five times this month. The latter award was for this work, a first-person account of a well-to-do thirteen-year-old boy named Leo living in late 19th century Oxfordshire. Spending the summer with his schoolfriend at Brandham Hall (a large country estate where the higher orders reside), it concerns itself with the nostalgia of his experience and the taboo relationship he becomes embroiled in.The text details the events of the traumatic summer in which Leo spends his time as the guests of the esteemed Maudsley folks; one of the finest depictions of a repressed Victorian family set to text. The focus of novel shifts from the internal experience of the naive narrator, bursting with curiosity to near breaking point, and the fascination he finds in delivering a series of clandestine letters between live-in Victorian doormat Marian Maudsley and the local farmer Ted Burgess. From the beginning of the text, the stuffiness of the Victorian setting is cranked up to eleven and holes are blasted in all taboos of the era, the rigmarole of pointless decorum, the pressure cooker of class distinction, the obligation of ennobled status and the inevitable gloom of aristocratic society. All of these topics have been chartered before in Bronte, Woolf or Austen, however this text can hold its head just as high for combining the scathing erudition with a passionate eye for character detail which builds the tragic denouement to naturalistic perfection.The Go-Between is steeped in classical references to both Greek myth and literature which helps establish the almost smothering atmosphere of intelligence and forced development that permeates the entire text. It becomes clear that within the values of such a hypocritical society, proper education is the most important asset of existence and that which sets the higher orders apart from the lower classes. Such a belief is instantly slammed through all notions of sexuality which creep through the book and the lack of empathy the reader has towards both the more disciplinarian women and the nice-but-dim men of nobility. It is difficult to view these men as little more than trapped fools, or just unfortunate souls whose fates were sealed at birth.So much can be taken from this book, but what will remain with me is the most powerful sense I had of the historical foolishness of the time, at the basic fact a nation cannot prosper when walls are built around people and barricades of snobbery, repression and ignorance and left in place. It is not a way of life to be envied, but more a chilling snapshot into an era where people were almost sent mad with repressed desires and emotions; even just uttering a word out of place would result in a frosty reprisal.Although the dullness of Victorian life here is depicted with a critical eye, it is not without a certain fondness, which is the weakest point of this novel. The minutiae of Leo’s emotional inner life is also often without interest, since it is thorough to the point of excessive. The well-rounded characters help to pave over the tedium of protracted scenes of cricket, excessive tea-and-scone sessions and arguments in French with precocious brats. The final scene where Marian and Ted are caught in flagrante delicto comes upon the reader like such a freight train, I was almost back in the nightmare of that B&B for a fleeting second. No one take me back there ever again, please…The Go-Between is dated but it remains something of a classic recommended to those with a fondness for Victorian literature with a more modern spin.
—MJ Nicholls

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