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Love, Betrayal, Humiliation: A Coming Of Age Affair

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 22, 2011

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That is the famous first line of the Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. The first time I read it, it cleared a haunting little spot in my memory, sort of like an embassy to my own foreign country.

The book was published in 1953, though it reads more like a Victorian novel than a modern one. When we first meet Leo Colston, he is a man in his mid-60s, discovering a diary he kept the cataclysmic summer he turned 13. Though he claims complete disconnection from the memory, the journal transports him, and as our narrator, he recounts that hot season with immense feeling and fullness.

It was the summer of 1900 when Leo, the impoverished only child of a widowed mother, went to stay with the rich family of a school friend. And it was at their rented country estate, Brandham, where he became enthralled with his friend’s older sister Marian, who was engaged to Viscount Trimingham, the likable lord of Brandham, a man of “stable nature” who was disfigured in the Boer War.

But when Marian engages young Leo as her messenger to fix assignations with her true lover, the tempestuous Ted, a robust but lowly farmer, Leo ends up walking miles in the heat carrying their letters and wearing away his innocence. Eager to be needed, Leo guilelessly works his way to the center of the scandalous affair and the betrayal of an honorable man. I don’t want to spoil the suspense of a well-made plot, because you must read this, but let’s just say it goes really badly and the messenger (shockingly) gets blamed. Or he blames himself anyway. And here the mirror cracks; the boy who leaves Brandham is not the one who came. Indeed the narrator converses with his old self as though he were two people. That was the powerful gonging left by my first read: what, if anything, bundles us through time into a single person?

The epilogue brings us back to present Leo in his 60s returning to a Norfolk he can barely recognize. “The angle of vision makes a difference: I was a foot taller than when I had seen it last,” he remembers. There he finds some version of the old players: Marian the dowager viscountess living by the river in a modest house nobody visits and her estranged grandson, also vanquished by the past. When grandson asks if there had been a telephone at Brandham in Leo’s time, Leo replies “It might have made a great difference if there had been.”

When I read the book again many years later, my angle of vision made a difference. The voice of Leo’s boyhood self, the mood of his memory, is so richly persuasive I end up with an impression that is perhaps the opposite of everything the narrator claims. His is not an identity cracked in two, but a remarkably continuous one. If anything he remains exactly that boy, stunted and fixed. If the past is a foreign country, Leo never left it. He’s still living there, speaking the language quite fluently, and that’s how he evokes it for us so beautifully.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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