The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell’s best-known book is The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, he wrote about the effect of World War I, especially trench warfare, on British writers. Wartime is Fussell’s similar book about World War II. This one isn’t mainly concerned with the war’s effect on writers, however. It has a much broader scope. There are discussions, for example, of the myth of “precision” bombing; the frequency of military foul-ups; rumors; rationing; stereotypes; accentuating the positive; casualty rates; popular songs; swearing; hunger; and sexual frustration. There is even a whole chapter devoted to “chickenshit” – the petty crap that superiors inflict on subordinates.

Fussell wrote from experience. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as an infantry officer in France. His goal in Wartime was to capture the reality of World War II as it was endured by American and British soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those who actually saw combat (a small minority of those who served). He often does this by contrasting military reality with the sanitized version presented to the people back home. If you were in the service but not in combat, your main emotions were boredom and anger. If you were in combat, it was fear and horror.

According to Fussell, the authorities eventually realized that engaging in more than 240 days of combat (not consecutive days, but total days) would drive anyone insane. That sums up World War II for the men who did the actual fighting.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of the young, independent and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene (what a name!) and three very different men. Gabriel Oak is a thoughtful, competent young shepherd who meets her and quickly proposes marriage. Mr. Boldwood is an older, gentleman farmer who has no experience with women and falls in love with her too. Francis Troy is a semi-aristocratic soldier who has experience with women and is not to be trusted. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Bathsheba chose the right one right away.

The novel is set in the region of southern England that Hardy called “Wessex”. There are many fine descriptions of the countryside and country life. The downside is that there are a few too many discussions between the local rustics, who speak in dialect and serve as a rural Greek chorus.

The title is from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The characters in Hardy’s first popular novel do live far from the crowds, but don’t always avoid madness. They might get under your skin a little bit (it’s remarkable how fictional people can affect us).

One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the novel:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

George Smiley appears again in John le Carré’s second novel. This time he does a favor for an old friend and travels to a private school that sounds like Eton. The wife of a faculty member has written a letter stating that her husband plans to kill her. By the time Smiley arrives, she’s already dead. It’s not an espionage story, just a typical English murder mystery.

A Murder of Quality is worth reading for le Carre’s excellent prose and for his depiction of the mostly upper-class inhabitants of the school. My favorite part, however, was being able to spend time with the wonderful character of George Smiley. Whenever he spoke, I could almost hear the voice of Alec Guinness. 

Call For the Dead by John le Carré

Call For the Dead was John le Carré’s first novel. He wrote it while still an employee of MI6, the British version of the CIA. It’s an entertaining mystery story about spies and murder that introduces the character of George Smiley, the “little fat man, rather gloomy,” who is the hero of Le Carre’s later novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

We also meet other characters who will return in later novels: the younger, suave Peter Guillam; the police officer Mendel; and the high-level civil servant Maston, later known as Lacon. Unfortunately, we don’t meet Smiley’s ex-wife Ann, although her words do appear a few times.

It’s a short novel, but quite good. My only problem was wondering how Smiley survived several blows to the head with a lead pipe, and why the police weren’t immediately summoned at a climactic moment. But if Smiley had died, or the police had been called, Call For the Dead would have been even shorter.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a great novel. Daniel Deronda isn’t.

I read Daniel Deronda because I enjoyed Middlemarch so much. This seemed like a good idea for a while, because the early chapters of Daniel Deronda focus on Gwendolen Harleth. She is a self-centered, lively young woman with a gift for repartee and a strong desire to be independent. Unfortunately, the focus eventually moves to the title character, a serious young gentleman who never knew his parents and is unsure of his life’s purpose.

Gwendolen isn’t a saint. Daniel is. He rescues a saintly Jewish woman named Mirah, whose saintly brother is a scholar and passionate Zionist. Gwendolen marries an unpleasant, controlling aristocrat, to her regret. In her misery, she seeks advice from Daniel and falls in love with him. But Daniel has fallen in love with Mirah. 

Daniel, with the help of Mirah’s brother, does find his life’s purpose. But I didn’t care about Daniel, Mirah or her brother. I was rooting for Gwendolen.

The novel is saved somewhat by Eliot’s beautiful language and her frequent commentary. For example:

And Gwendolen? She was thinking of Deronda much more than he was thinking of her — often wondering what were his ideas ‘about things’, and how his life was occupied. 

But … it was as far from Gwendolen’s conception that Deronda’s life could be determined by the historical destiny of the Jews, as that he could rise into the air on a brazen horse, and so vanish from her horizon in the form of a twinkling star.

… it was inevitable that she should imagine a larger place for herself in his thoughts than she actually possessed.

They must be rather old and wise persons who are not apt to see their own anxiety or elation about themselves reflected in other minds.

But it probably would have been better to read Middlemarch again.

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse

Reading The Emigrants is a strange experience. It is fiction that reads like non-fiction. The novel tells the story of four unrelated people who emigrated from Germany during the 20th century, but it is written in the first person, as if the narrator is recounting these people’s experiences based on his own research. In addition, there are photographs scattered throughout the book that seem to represent the characters and settings that Sebald describes in an apparently realistic way.  

The paperback edition of the book indicates that many early reviewers considered the novel to be a masterpiece. I enjoyed Sebald’s later novel The Rings of Saturn more. I didn’t find the characters in The Emigrants especially interesting. Perhaps the reviewers were influenced by the newness of Sebald’s technique. They must have been impressed by his prose. The English translation is spare and often matter-of-fact but always beautiful. (6/30/12)