Innocence, sex and war: Geoff Dyer on why the Go-Between is a novel for our time | Books

“The past is a foreign country” has finally become part of my present. I’ve just read LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between for the first time, a book everyone else my age read at least 45 years ago. I’d seen the film and that seemed to be enough. And then, a few weeks ago, I came across a seductive Penguin edition in a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh and became curious to find out what I’d been missing.

A book about a boy becoming initiated into the mysteries of adult life (sex and its frequent thematic partner, betrayal), it is itself the kind of novel that introduces youngish readers into the mysteries and subtleties of fiction. Reading the novel is part of the process of learning how to read novels. But there was something appropriate, also, about the long delay in my getting round to it. I was reading The Go‑Between at the same age as the “60-odd” narrator when he looks back at the momentous summer of 1900. As a result, my experience of the book became inflected with the reading that had come between the age when I might or should have read it and the advanced age when I eventually did.

The narrator, Leo, starts looking through his old diaries in the early 1950s. They take him back to the kind of blazing summer we associate with the heatwave of 1914. From his friend Marcus, Leo learns that the local toff, Viscount Trimingham, “was wounded in the war and his face hasn’t got right”. A few pages later Leo gets his first glimpse of Trimingham: “On the side of his face turned to me was a sickle-shaped scar that ran from his eye to the corner of his mouth; it pulled the eye down, exposing a tract of glistening red under-lid, and the mouth up, so that you could see the gums above his teeth.” Such sights, such faces, were an all-too-common aspect of life in the aftermath of the first world war. When Harold Abrahams goes up to Cambridge in 1919, in Chariots of Fire, he is greeted at the station by railway staff wearing various masks and using surgical appliances to help hide and make good their injuries. The larger point is that the country itself has been maimed.

A phrase, just two words, snagged me the way that barbed wire can snag a sweater 

Now, “the war” in which Trimingham has been wounded is the Boer war, which is still unfolding while the action of the novel plays out. But that war becomes deliberately interwoven with the one still to come, both of which, from the perspective of 1950 – five years after the end of the second world war – let alone 2022, have become part of the deep (and ever-present) past. That Hartley intended something like this is made explicit in the epilogue when the 60-odd Leo visits Marian, the lovely, free-spirited young woman from that blazing summer, now an elderly and lonely grandmother. Both of Marian’s brothers, including Leo’s friend Marcus, died in the first world war. And her son was killed in the second.

Even before then, as the narrative coaxes and nudges the reader forward, the first world war becomes, as it were, part of a past that has yet to occur. Various elements of a shared literary heritage contribute to this blurring of the strict sequential ordering of social or military history. Ted Burgess, the farmer with whom Marian has a love affair, seems an emanation from the sunburned world of Thomas Hardy, with the pastoral skies of Norfolk replacing Wessex, thereby taking us deeper into an already mythic past. The class-defying affair itself – upper-class young woman, soon to be the viscount’s wife, passionately involved with one of his tenant farmers – inevitably recalls that of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley, whose husband, Clifford, has been left crippled by the first world war. (A related example of the kind of temporal elisions that determine the atmosphere of The Go-Between: privately printed in 1928, Lawrence’s novel did not become widely available until 1960, seven years after Hartley’s.) All of this seems deliberate and consciously done by Hartley. Here I want to mention something else, a tiny point about a book whose plot turns on tiny things – the glimpse of a letter, a small alteration in the timing of an assignation – that Hartley can’t have intended. It’s akin to Roland Barthes’s famous notion of the punctum: something that is there in the text (or photograph in Barthes’s case) but which is also something I have brought to it.

The Go-Between by LP Hartley

Shortly after we have learned of Trimingham’s disfigured face, residents and guests from the great house of Brandham Hall go swimming. There might be an echo – or, since it’s 1900, a pre-echo – of Rupert Brooke’s line about embracing war “like “swimmers into cleanness leaping”: a silly idea, albeit one Hartley (born eight years after Brooke, in 1895) would, at some point, have had splashing around his head. But it’s another phrase, just two words, that snagged me the way that strands of barbed wire can snag a sweater as one attempts to clamber awkwardly through them. The girls of the bathing party, Leo remembers, were in shallow water “where it was only waist-deep; their feet showed softly white on the shining gold gravel, as they waded about with long, uneven steps, plunging into unsuspected holes, splashing each other, shrieking and giggling and laughing”.

Leaving aside Brooke’s imagery, does anyone else feel the latency or gravitational tug of the first world war in this innocent passage? If so, it derives, surely, from Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV, which opens with the poet contemplating a photo of “Those long uneven lines” of young men queueing up to enlist in 1914 “as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark”. The poem is a memorial to what has happened, remembered entirely in terms of what is to come, culminating in “The thousands of marriages, / Lasting a little while longer”.

The villagers, who regard Ted as a ladies’ man, perhaps think of him as larking about, but the affair with Marian has tragic, deadly and lasting consequences. Leo’s innocence itself becomes culpable. For half a century the story he now remembers has had to be forgotten; although on the face of it he has lived a normal life, internally he is left as damaged as Trimingham. MCMXIV, with its famous last line, “Never such innocence again”, was completed in 1960 and published in The Whitsun Weddings (1964), so Hartley can’t have got this little phrase from Larkin. Did Larkin perhaps come across it in Hartley and, like the novel’s narrator, innocently retain it while forgetting he had done so? Even if he didn’t – if it’s just the kind of “frail” coincidence witnessed and recorded in the book’s title poem – the past becomes for a moment so pervasive as to encompass the whole novel, distinctly localised and unforeign. They do things the same there.

Geoff Dyer’s latest book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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