The Undertaker’s Art, Exhumed


A review by Caleb Crain of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Originally published in The Nation, 274.16 (29 April 2002): 29-31.


“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 ten-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 unselfconsciously 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 Matthew 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 fairy land. “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 that “They order . . . this matter better in France,” which was Sterne’s fairy land.) 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 had 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 sixties, 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 thirteen-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 fianc…, 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 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 off-stage, 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 thirteen and the realization at sixty-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.

Boot lace aesthetics

On the subway home this afternoon, I observed a teenager carefully touching up the arrangement of the laces of his Timberlands. Loops of the laces had been deliberately pulled forward from the eyelets and then pinched at the corners, to form double triangles, two sets on each boot, that pointed toward the toe. The laces were thus rendered utterly nonfunctional. In fact, the integrity of the double-triangles design was at the mercy of any flexing of the boots, which would tug it into disarray. It looked like a quixotically high-maintenance fashion. But the teenager didn’t look like a dandy otherwise, so I’m guessing it’s a new style rather than just a quirk.

Seize the Day

i-do-heart-ny:
Last night I went to a strategy meeting on gay marriage at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center. During the open discussion period, one person asked whether pushing too hard might turn gay marriage into the “Ralph Nader of this election year.”

It’s a fear that no reasonable person would dismiss out of hand. But I think we should take the risk of not yielding to it. With the marriages in San Francisco and New Paltz, and the impending marriages in Massachusetts, the issue has a momentum unprecedented in American history, and to let it dissipate would be a foolish prudence. If gay marriages stay on the books even in just one municipality, the gain will be enormous. At last night’s meeting, Lawrence Moss explained that New York City is actually in a better legal position to certify gay marriages than San Francisco. A recent popular referendum limited California marriages to heterosexuals, but New York State law is gender-neutral on marriage. In upstate New York, clerks must consult with the health department in Albany before issuing marriage licenses, but the New York City clerk has the authority to issue them on his own. In other words, if the clerk of New York City chose to, he could marry lesbians and gays with 100% legality tomorrow. Bloomberg could ask the clerk to do it; so could the city council. Giuliani famously moved in with a gay couple following his divorce, and I can’t help but wonder whether, if he were still mayor, the clerk would already have been asked to issue them.

There will be a backlash, but right now it looks as if the Republicans are at least as demoralized and at sea on the issue as the Democrats. In fact, some early signs suggest that Americans will see Bush’s proposal to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage for the bigoted and hateful act that it is. Supporters of Bush’s amendment say things like “Homosexuals are disillusioned by lies from Satan.” Most Americans are not so blinded by hate that they cherish any illusions about Satan, homosexuals, or tolerance in the first place. The Republican National Convention will take place in New York City, where it is difficult to dodge either homosexuals or humanity. I doubt that political pressure on the issue will have abated by then.

On the other hand, the Democratic National Convention will take place in Boston, a city somewhat further along in the struggle over gay marriage, and one is not terrifically cheered by the positions that the Democratic presidential candidates have taken on the issue. In The New Republic of 23 February 2004, Noam Scheiber made this analysis of John Kerry and gay marriage: “The question . . . , I guess, is whether he’d rather be defined as a hopeless liberal or a hopeless panderer. Not a choice I’d want to make.” The analysis was probably written a couple of weeks ago; the cynicism of it already seems dated. But even when I read it last week, I thought to myself, well, if you do face two choices that seem equally “hopeless” as short-term political strategies, why not turn the impasse to your advantage by choosing to do what is right? So far, neither Kerry nor Edwards has, unfortunately. (Among the candidates, the best line on the issue to date belongs to Al Sharpton: “The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you have a job when you get up in the morning.”)

But although the presidential candidates have been unhelpful, less stratospheric politicians have become heroes of gay marriage: Gavin Newsom, Jason West, and now Eliot Spitzer, who has declined Pataki’s request that he halt the marriages in New Paltz. The lesbian and gay movement has allies in the straight community now that weren’t available in the 1980s and even the 1990s (voters under thirty, for example, overwhelmingly support gay marriage). We will need styles of activism that take advantage of their support, and we may not have discovered yet what they are.

Leander visits Columbia, 1786

Columbia University is celebrating its 250th anniversary, in honor of which, here’s how the college looked to a visitor on Wednesday, 16 August 1786, when it was just thirty-two. (The visitor was a graduate of Nassau Hall, today known as Princeton, and the comparisons of Columbia to his alma mater are a little invidious.)

. . . Went to view the bathing-houses — like them exceedingly & propose to go in tomorrow if the day is suitable —— from thence took a direction for the college & after passing thro some stragling [sic] ill-built streets came to it — It stands on a very elevated situation & makes a good appearance — I wished to see the inside but having no acquaintance with any of the professors I was somewhat at a loss — at length concluded to enquire for Mr Schuyler (son to the General) upon the strength of my acquaintance with his brother John — The building has four doors & (I think) sixteen windows in width — I enter’d the first door which lead [sic] to one of the professor’s appartments [sic] & was directed to the second to enquire for Mr Scuyler’s [sic] room — I found the College was like many New York houses, more in appearance than reality — it was very ill-contrived & but one room & two studies deep — very narrow passages & shabby staircases — & upon the whole nothing to compare to Nassau Hall either in airiness or convenience — when I entered the second door some blowsy headed man who was very much like the picture of Peter the Wild Boy, an usher I supposed, came out into the entry — he pointed for me to go up stairs & dodged in again — I went up, & a desolate castle it appeared to be for I peep’d into the third story without seeing or hearing a creature — In the third story I rattled at a study door which was locked when a sudden voice bawl’d out “who’s there” — I answerd [sic] “a friend” & rattled again before it was opened, when a trio of blades were discovered who seemd [sic] to drop their ears all at once on seeing a sort of person whom they so little expected — They were however very civil chums & showed me into the next room for Mr Schuyler’s while one of them went down to call him — he was not to be found but his room-mate (I took him to be) appeared — an awkward gangling young man about twenty — I told him I wanted to see the college & had called on Mr Schuyler for that purpose — Whether it was thro’ indolence or confusion or that things really were as he described them I cannot tell, but he gave such a woeful account of things that my curiosity was quite satisfied — that their apparatus was broken, their library destroyed, that there were no good rooms, & in short that there was nothing in it worth a stranger’s notice — How different thought I is this from the emulation of Nassau, & gave him a hint of it which did not seem to touch his pride much, so after enquiring the number of students (of whom he said there were thirty) & a few more questions I left my compliments for Mr. S & bid him good morning — the chums at the door (of whom a party had gathered in the mean time) all making their obeisance to me as I passed —I returned by the Oswego market & made a bargain with a fruit woman for some temptingly fine large plums . . .

The description is from pages 97 to 99 of the first volume of the diary of Leander, a.k.a. John Fishbourne Mifflin, discussed in chapter 1 of my book, American Sympathy.