Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Go-BetweenThe Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to be a voracious reader when I was a teenager. Each July and August, while on vacations from high school, I spent most of my time reading. I must have been 13, 14 or 15 when I read L.P. Hartley's "The Go-Between" for the first time (in translation into my native language). It was about 48 years ago. It is an amazing coincidence because "The Go-Between" is about a 60-year old man who remembers events that happened 48 years earlier. In 1966 or so the novel did not make much impression on me. No wonder, how could this particular novel impress a teenager? Today, 48 years later, as I have finished reading the English original, I am stunned by the greatness of Mr. Hartley's work. Not only is it flawlessly structured and beautifully written, but it is also full of wisdom about people, the nature of relationships between them, and it presents a brilliant, vivid portrayal of the time.

It is 1900. Leo Colston is almost 13 years old. The mother of his friend from school invites Leo to spend some time in the imposing Georgian mansion in Norfolk, which belongs to the ninth Viscount Trimingham. Leo arrives there on July 8th (another coincidence - this is my birthday) and serves as a go-between who carries messages, mainly between his friend's adult sister and a young farmer who lives nearby. Leo does not know what the messages are about. The pace of the story is leisurely but steady and the plot that moves to the inevitable dramatic resolution is more captivating than in 99% of mystery novels.

So much has been written over the years about this 1953 book that any attempts of mine to analyze it would be ridiculous. Obviously, the loss of innocence and the coming of age are some of the main themes. Leo makes his transition from a child's world to the grown-up world. Yet it is amazing how much more one can find in "The Go-Between"; the author is a gifted observer of human psychology, his portrayal of the rigid English class system is superb, and the richness of details in description of everyday behaviors of, mostly, the upper class has made me feel that I was actually there, that I participated in the cricket game and in the post-game party. Even the Second Boer War casts its shadow onto the plot.

Being a perfect novel, "The Go-Between" is not devoid of humor: Leo's skill of casting spells to further his goals, his adroit analysis of a love triangle while not really knowing what "love" is, and, of course, the wicked business of "spooning" are so funny. But to me, the most hilarious is one of his guesses about what the letters he carries might contain.

The unforgettable first sentence of the novel is one of the most famous in the entire world literature: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." I find the first clause a stunning metaphor, yet it is the second one that delivers the punch. Note the word "they": we are different people in different times. Because of that, 48 years ago, he (Lukasz Pruski in 1966) read a different book.

Five enthusiastic stars.

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