Monday, 24 November 2014

Ill in bed; time for LP Hartley. Four novels should see me through a bad cold, as they often have before, those robust paperbacks with the densely lettered covers, early modernity chez Faber and Faber, their spines now permanently slanted in the direction of my reading.

The Eustace and Hilda trilogy and The Go-Between, written in the 1940s/1950s, relate to an earlier era when people travel by landau and barouche, by train and bicycle, when men return from the Boer War with scarred faces, large houses have many servants and people spend three months at a time in Venice in order to be with others doing the same thing.

Since I've known Joseph Losey's film of The Go-Between I read the novel with images behind it; I open doors onto known rural vistas, walk back from church, watch the cricket match, slide down straw stacks, see Julie Christie lolling with parasol in a hammock, Alan Bates in his kitchen tending the cut knee of their overheated young postman, our narrator; I hear the voice of Edward Fox, draw the scar on his face, skirt with caution the poisonous atropa belladonna.

The engine of The Go-Between is embarrassment: a boy visiting an Edwardian country house,  not knowing what to say, what to wear, getting it right, getting it wrong. Wanting to please. To learn, but not too much at a time. Things were either rather wrong or very wrong, according to his mother, a widow in humbler circumstances. Then, according to Julie Christie's mother, you just had to charge in on the unthinkable scene and cause everyone to scatter, even die.

Do not make love in an outhouse guarded by a large specimen of atropa belladonna.

LP Hartley is a nostalgist; to read these books you'd think nostalgia construed the entire task of the writer. Sick people tend towards nostalgia, and there's plenty of sickness in his novels, plenty of cripples and bath chairs as well as cures and midnight spells. The eponymous Eustace is often faint, if not worse, and even his robust sister Hilda is literally paralysed by a disappointment in love.

Reading about Eustace in Venice makes me start paragraphs in my head that I have not the energy to set down, the drift so seductive, like Eustace not arriving at the church he intended to visit, or not from the direction he'd imagined.

When I first read the trilogy I related intensely to the narrator's state of being, his dreamy bloodlessness while all around him drives on, his passionate distance from all that befalls.
Back at Anchorstone, Eustace's thoughts began to busy themselves with the coming birthday party. He would have been going there, of course, only Lady Nelly had made a special point of his coming out to Venice in time for the Feast of the Redeemer. He couldn't do both; the dates, it seemed, clashed. Perhaps it was just as well; events never moved while you were watching them, and his own particular scrutiny, he sometimes felt, had a peculiarly arresting effect. He becalmed things. 
I relate both to the novel and to the person I was when I first read it: the faint one who is ill after a week in the shifting sands of London, and the other one I may or may not be ready to revert to.

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