My attention span has shrunk to the size of a gnat. Toiling at the Scut Factory will do that. I’m also only up to about half of what I’d set out to earn: There’s a kind of refractory period associated with toiling at the Scut Factory, and try as I might, I can’t do anything about that
. I mean, I could
– but it would require access to pharmaceuticals.
Three more days in this earning cycle.
I’ll be happy when this week is through.
The BBC did a very bad
remake of The Go-Between
, which is one of my favorite all-time novels and one of my two absolute favorite all-time films. (The other is Fellini’s La Strada
The bad remake did inspire me to revisit the source materials.
###One remembers things at different levels
, writes L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between
. The novel, which is about the unreliability of memory, takes the form of an almost prosaic Bildungsroman
. It's a series of Chinese boxes fitted so tightly into one another that only Hartley’s amazing adeptness with subtextual symbolism allows you to unpack them. Think a much-easier-to-read James Joyce or a less self-reflexive Marcel Proust.
Thus, the red cardboard box itself, filled with old trinkets like the two rusty magnets “which had almost lost their magnetism,” in which Leo Colston, now a man of 65, stumbles across the old diary chronicling his 12th year. Thus, the poisonous Atropa belladonna
growing in Brandham Hall’s ancient kitchen garden, which is also Marian Maudsley, the rich young beauty who impels Ted Burgess’s suicide. Lord Trimingham, half of whose face has been blown off in the Boer War, is Janus, the two-faced gatekeeper who looks both into the past and future. Mercury is both the winged messenger of the gods – the conduit between the living and the dead – and the rising mercury in the thermometer marking the hottest English summer in memory.
Hartley wrote the novel very quickly; reportedly, in just five months. It begins with what is perhaps the most perfect opening line in all of English literature: The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.
The prose throughout is marvelous. Deceptively simple, but filled with the most marvelous, sensual details: …the heat was a medium which made this change of outlook possible. As a liberating power with its own laws, it was outside my experience. In the heat, the commonest objects changed their nature. Walls, trees, the very ground one trod on, instead of being cool were warm to the touch: and the sense of touch is the most transfiguring of all the senses.
The 1971 film, on the other hand, was not simple at all. It was really difficult to understand. Deliberately so.
The credits roll over a window splashed with rain.
And yet the opening scene is of two boys in a carriage drawn by horses through a sunny and riotously vertiginous English spring. One of the boys, very blond, is wearing the Eton uniform of the upper classes – straw boater, blue jacket and tie – and looks careless; the other boy, who is dressed in a kind of heavy brown worsted with the wrong kind of hat and a bow tie, is trying but not quite succeeding in looking careless. He is Leo Colston who is about to embark upon a summertime adventure that will cripple him emotionally for life.
The rainy windows, we discover in a series of quick, confusing flash forwards, are the windows of the train on which Leo, now a shriveled, unappealing man in his 60s, is traveling on some sort of errand.
The boys are on their way to Brandham Hall, which belongs to the family of the careless boy, Marcus. The time is the summer of 1900. Quick series of Big House place setters – lots and lots and lots
of staircases, uniformed housemaids, ancestral portraits, Ming vases in places where they could easily get smashed, a dining room set out with a king’s ransom of solid silver chafers.
Marcus does not like Leo very much but requires amusement over the school holiday. “This is Tritoast,” he announces to Leo, introducing his spaniel.
“Hello, Tritoast,” Leo says uncertainly.
As the boys tussle on one of the many balconies, Leo espies a woman lying in a hammock. And is stopped dead in his tracks.
The woman is being read to. By someone with an insufferably plummy drone. “The rank and fortune of the lady, her pretensions to beauty as well as talent…”
Then the boys run off to the ancient kitchen garden where the belladonna runs rampant.
“My sister is very beautiful,” Marcus announces.
“Yes,” says Leo, convinced.
The scriptwriter here is the remarkable Harold Pinter whose ability to spin ordinary language with its pauses and stutters and repetitions into brilliant dialog is unparalleled and unrivaled even now.
Film was directed by Joseph Losey, an unrepentant Commie who was blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities.
The very beautiful sister is Julie Christie, whom I personally think was the most appealing of all the celebrated late 20th century screen beauties. A great actress, too.
of the film is the way it actualizes Leo’s own ignorance of the implications of his role as Mercury, carrying messages between the beautiful Lady Marian and her low class lover, the farmer Ted Burgess. It’s an immensely difficult feat to pull off because, of course, any viewer brings his or her own level of knowledge to the events and can quickly connect the dots. Leo remains quite innocent, however, up until the very end, and we are so firmly rooted in Leo’s point-of-view that we
remain innocent, too.
So that the final revelation – on Leo’s 13th birthday when the mad Mrs. Maudsley forces Leo to “show” her the lovers’ assignation place, the hut in the old kitchen garden (which, of course, she already knows about) – comes as a horrible, horrible shock.
In the novel, Leo describes it thus:Not a sound came from the forlorn row of huts, only the rain pattering on their battered roofs. I could not bear to aid her in her search and shrank back, crying. “No, you shall come,” she said, and seized my hand, and it was then that we saw them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs. Maudsley’s repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella.
We get it all in the film, from the unraveling of Mrs. Maudsley – another brilliant performance, this time from the elegant Margaret Leighton – to the ominous detail of the umbrella-like shadow.
And we’re as traumatized as Leo.
The flash forwards, it turns out, pertain to a summons Leo has received out of the blue from the still-imperious Marian. She's an old woman living in genteel poverty in a few rooms of Branson Hall, most of which, drafty and leaking, has been cordoned off. She wants Leo to intercede on her behalf with her grandson – quite obviously a scion of the dead Ted Burgess and not Lord Trimingham who Marian eventually wedded. It was a beautiful love story
, she informs Leo. And you were lucky to be part of it.
More-or-less what the upper classes have been telling the lower classes in the U.K. and elsewhere for several millennia, no?
I would love to write more about The Go-Between
, but the Scut Factory is calling my name.