Thursday, July 29, 2010

"No one is quite the same after a loud bang as before it."

That quotation is from L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between, which I bought on impulse a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Massachusetts. The novel fits into the "loss of childhood innocence/discovery of adult passion" genre and is set, like many such novels, at the turn of the twentieth century, in an English country house populated by beautiful young people whose lives will shortly be destroyed by the Great War. In fact, The Children's Book (the A. S. Byatt novel I've simultaneously been reading) is set at almost precisely the same time, a happenstance that would be more peculiar if such coincidences didn't seem to occur constantly in my reading life.

In these two books the adult/child theme is particularly specific: that familiar genre of "children's lives running parallel to adults' lives but never intersecting, except in the case of the lovely fraught teenagers whom everyone on both sides adores in one way or another." And as I read Hartley's novel, recognition of this theme took me immediately back to a book that I must have devoured a hundred times when I was young: Rumer Godden's 1957 short novel The Greengage Summer. In fact, I read it so often that my father asked if he could read it too, so that he could "get to know me better." As I recall, he wasn't delighted with it. This was no surprise.

I wonder if anyone else in the world was as infatuated with Godden's novel as I was. Not only did it suit my own fraught-teenager preoccupations with desire and the child-adult divide, but the primary male character was a compelling lover/murderer, an irresistibly melodramatic combination. Yet there was another element to this novel that was almost as important as sex: a family of English children accidentally ends up spending a summer at a small French hotel, without parental supervision, and they learn about French food.

When I first read this book, I knew nothing about French food. After I read it, I borrowed Julia Child's cookbook from the town library. That was a depressing day. For as soon as I examined that cookbook, I realized I could do nothing with those recipes. Clearly, my family did not possess a French larder. Yet in a way, both the novel and the cookbook presaged an adult future, a new way of thinking about the world, both thematically and viscerally. I grew up to care about desire, and to care about food.

So, with apologies to L. P. Hartley, I don't have too much to say about his novel The Go-Between, except that it's reminded me to reread The Greengage Summer. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Tomorrow we leave for Montreal. Home on Monday. Must share hotel room with boy. May have no chance to write to you till our return. Try to be patient, and I will try also.


Ruth said...

Yes, to Rumer Godden and to The Children's Book. I always felt like a strange child/teen, one with tastes unlike most of my so-called peers. I realized I was an "old soul" and at 40 finally figured out that my "peers" were finally approaching my long-time age!! Happy trip!

Maureen said...

Have a great time in Montreal.

charlotte gordon said...

Ruth, so well said!
I read everything I could find by Rumer Godden. What was her history? I haven't thought of her in years. i like thinking of you in Montreal with the sixteen year old.

charlotte gordon said...

Do you like The Children's Book?

Thomas said...

Enjoy the big show. Try to see the Walkmen if you can -- I've heard they are tremendous. And, of course, Sonic Youth should not be missed (I haven't seen them myself since the last century, but I'm certain they've aged well).

Dawn Potter said...

I liked "The Children's Book" but, as always, feel that Byatt has trouble balancing art with clutter. And look! We have a secret Rumer Godden society! Tom, thanks for the Walkmen recommendation. Somehow I never managed to see Sonic Youth, even in the last century, but our house is littered with their albums.