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The Undertaker's Art, Exhumed | The Nation

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The Undertaker's Art, Exhumed

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"It's a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance," a rich, disfigured spinster advises a frail, well-mannered boy in The Shrimp and the Anemone, the first novel in L.P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The boy has won a hand of piquet, and the spinster has noticed that he has difficulty
enjoying triumphs. Miss Fothergill (like many of Hartley's characters, the spinster has an outlandishly characteristic name) foresees that her 10-year-old friend may not have ahead of him many occasions of pleasure to waste.

Rather than disobey Miss Fothergill, I will readily admit that I have felt pleased while reading Eustace and Hilda, and very pleased while reading Hartley's masterpiece, The Go-Between. It was a spice to my pleasure that even though the Eustace and Hilda trilogy was first published between 1944 and 1947, and The Go-Between in 1953, I had not even heard of L.P. Hartley before the novels were reissued recently as New York Review Books Classics.

I blame my ignorance on an academic education. Hartley is not the sort of author discussed in schools. He is in no way postmodern. He is modern only in his frugality with sentiment and his somewhat sheepish awareness that the ideas of Marx and Freud are abroad in the world, rendering it slightly more tricky than it used to be to write unself-consciously about unathletic middle-class English boys who have been led by their fantasies and spontaneously refined tastes into the country homes of the aristocracy. If Hartley belongs to any academic canon, it would be to the gay novel, whose true history must remain unwritten until the theorists have been driven from the temple and pleasure-loving empiricists loosed upon the literary critical world.

Hartley belongs with Denton Welch and J.R. Ackerley. The three have different strengths: Welch is sensuous, Ackerley is funny and Hartley is a delicate observer of social machinery. But all are sly and precise writers, challenged by a subject inconvenient for novelizing: the emotional life of gay men.

They met the challenge with unassuming resourcefulness, writing what might be called fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen was their pioneer, as the first modern writer to discover that emotions considered freakish and repellent in adults could win sympathy when expressed by animals and children. Andersen also discovered that a plain style was the best disguise for this kind of trickery and that the disgust of even the most intolerant readers could be charmed away by an invitation to learn how queer characters came to be the way they are. Thus in Ackerley, Welch and Hartley one finds gentle transpositions--from human to animal, from adulthood to childhood, from health to illness--disarmingly exact language and just-so stories about strange desires. Once upon a time, a man fell in love with another man's dog. Once upon a time, a boy on a bicycle was hit by a car and could not find pleasure again except in broken things. Once upon a time, a boy was made to have tea with a crooked-faced, dying woman, and to his surprise he liked her. The effect is a mood of tenderness; the stories are sweet and a bit mournful.

Hartley loved Hans Christian Andersen, but it was another writer who provided him with a defense of gentle transposition as a novelistic practice: Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daguerreotype by Mathew Brady is the disconcertingly austere frontispiece of The Novelist's Responsibility, Hartley's 1967 collection of literary criticism. In the preface to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne had described the novelist's need for a "Faery Land, so like the real world, that in a suitable remoteness one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own." Hartley quoted the passage with approval.

Lost time was Hartley's fairyland. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," he wrote in the first, and most famous, sentence of The Go-Between. (He may have been echoing the first sentence of A Sentimental Journey, where Laurence Sterne had written, "They order...this matter better in France," which was Sterne's fairyland.) The remembered world could be as rich and vivid as the real one and yet would always stand at a remove. One could visit but not live there. As Hawthorne explained in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, in another passage quoted by Hartley, there is something romantic about "the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present which is flitting away from us."

The Go-Between opens with such an attempt. Leo Colston, a bachelor librarian in his 60s, has begun to sort his papers--apparently in preparation for his death, since he seems to have nothing else to look forward to. He starts by opening "a rather battered red cardboard collar-box." It is full of childhood treasures: "two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to." At the bottom of the box is a diary, and at first Colston cannot remember what the diary contains. Then he remembers why he does not want to remember it.

My secret--the explanation of me--lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy, I had come to terms with life...

A secret naturally arouses the reader's curiosity, but Colston's attitude toward his secret is a further provocation. The events in the diary, he implies, were both inconsequential and traumatic. He preferred a lifelong effort of forgetting over any attempt to come to terms; only by burying "the explanation of me" could he find a way to live. "Was it true...that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter?" An unacknowledged wound, a buried definition of the self... The penumbra around Colston's secret is typical of a closeted homosexual, and yet what follows is neither a same-sex love story nor a coming-out narrative.

In the course of the novel, Colston does discover the facts of life and has at least an intuition of his oblique relation to them, but in The Go-Between Hartley was most intensely concerned with his hero's first experiences of sin and grace. This second, more surprising parallel with Hawthorne is the crucial one. Hartley once wrote that "Hawthorne thought that human nature was good, but was convinced in his heart that it was evil." Hartley was in a similar predicament.

Who would have guessed that the Edwardian sexual awakening of a delicate, precociously snobbish 13-year-old would have anything in common with the Puritan crimes and penitence that fascinated Hawthorne? Yet for Hartley, as for Hawthorne, the awareness of sin is a vital stage of education and a condition of maturity. At first young Leo Colston resists it. "It was like a cricket match played in a drizzle, where everyone had an excuse--and what a dull excuse!--for playing badly."

His moral code at the outset is the pagan one of schoolboys; he believes in curses and spells, and in triumphing over enemies by any means except adult intervention. But at the invitation of a classmate, Leo spends his summer vacation at Brandham Hall, a well-appointed Georgian mansion in Norfolk, and there his world is softened by love, in the person of the classmate's older sister, Marian. She is beautiful, musical and headstrong. Leo brings her messages from her fiancé, Hugh Winlove, Lord Trimingham, and billets from her lover, a local farmer named Ted Burgess. With her love comes sin--not because sexuality is evil, though it may be, but because after he has felt its touch, Leo can no longer think of the people he struggles with as enemies. The lovers make a terrible use of him, but he cares most about those who use him worst. In their triangle, he is incapable of taking a side; he is, after all, their go-between.

If you map Hartley onto Hawthorne too methodically, you arrive at the odd conclusion that Leo is part Chillingworth, part Pearl. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. Like them, Leo is jealous of the lovers he observes and is trapped in their orbit; nothing is lost on him, and he is unable to make emotional sense of what he knows. (His apprehension without comprehension is a boon for the reader, who through him sees the social fabric in fine focus.) But unlike Hawthorne's characters, Leo is a boy starting his adolescence, and that process, which he fears will defeat him, is at the heart of The Go-Between. Leo knows that the end of his childhood ought to be "like a death, but with a resurrection in prospect." His resurrection, however, is in doubt.

Like most fairy tales, the tale of how Leo becomes a fairy will not be fully credible to worldly readers. The Oedipal struggle will seem too bald, the catastrophe too absolute. Hartley was aware of this shortcoming. He knew that he found sexuality more awful than other people did, and in The Novelist's Responsibility, he wrote about his attempt to compensate for it while writing the Eustace and Hilda trilogy: "I remember telling a woman novelist, a friend of mine, about a story I was writing, and I said, perhaps with too much awe in my voice, 'Hilda is going to be seduced,' and I inferred that this would be a tragedy. I shall never forget how my friend laughed. She laughed and laughed and could not stop: and I decided that my heroine must be not only seduced, but paralysed into the bargain, if she was to expect any sympathy from the public."

Hartley's friend would probably have laughed at Hilda's paralysis, too. In the trilogy, Hilda is the older, stronger-willed sister of the exquisitely polite Eustace, who grows up in her shadow, a little too fond of its darkness. Their symbiosis in the first volume is brilliant and chilling, but her paralysis in the third is unconvincing. It is implausible that the demise of a love affair would literally immobilize an adult woman. Fortunately, it happens offstage, and a few of the book's characters do wonder if she is malingering.

However, the lack of perspective may be inextricable from Hartley's gifts. His writing is so mournful and sweet because he is willing to consider seriously terrors that only children ought to have, and perhaps only a man who never quite figured manhood out could still consider them that way. The second and third volumes of Eustace and Hilda are as elegant as the first, but not as satisfying, because Eustace's life becomes too vicarious to hold the reader's attention--and because the characters have grown up. Hartley's understanding of children is sophisticated, but he seems to have imagined adults as emotionally limited versions of them--as children who have become skilled at not thinking unpleasant thoughts. As a writer, his best moments are in describing terror at age 13 and the realization at 60-odd that one need not have been so terrified after all. In The Go-Between, artfully, the intervening years are compressed into the act of recollection, and the novel's structure fits the novelist's talents like a glove.

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