Stenwjohnson's Reviews > The Go-Between

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
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Mar 04, 12

Read from February 29 to March 04, 2012

LP Hartley’s “The Go-between” (1952) is roughly contemporary with Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” and Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” cycle, and fans of “Downton Abbey” will see a timeworn blueprint in these school-and-country-house classics: Bullying, supercilious schoolboys who address other by last names, unexpected entrées to dying aristocratic worlds, and an ethereal longing for a past order.

The comparisons end quickly. “The Go-between” may offer some affinities in form and setting, but Hartley’s novel is, by the standards of the sub-genre, an unusually introspective and densely analytical exploration of memory itself. The tale begins with a famously aphoristic opening (“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”), but it is not the past that makes things alien; the vicissitudes of adult life will always remain inscrutable.

Now approaching old age, Leo Colston recalls a visit to the manor house of a classmate in the summer 1900. Standing at the edge of experience, aware of adult world but deliberately seeking comforting certainties of childhood, he delivers messages from his classmate’s sister to her lover, a tenant farmer. He does not read the letters but speculates, through his limited experience, what the relationship means, both carnally and to the social destiny of the aristocratic household.

Rhetorical, thoughtful, aware that the past is often irretrievable, the adult Leo reflects on the past with an unusual mixture of empiricism and ethereal self-examination. Inevitably, his secret is revealed but its true implications remain a mystery until a brilliant epilogue where he returns to the scene of the drama and seeks the surviving players.

Hartley was an excellent, prolific writer of literary ghost stories, a sub-genre that often evokes a sense of tragic, cosmic irresolution. “The Go-Between” proves that deeper mysteries lie in the world of human experience.
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