"I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all's well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War...The Boer War was a local affair, and so I was able to set my little private tragedy against a general background of security and happiness."Ostensibly this is a story about a thirteen-year-old private-school boy, Leo, at the turn of the twentieth century spending a month in the summer at the house of a wealthier school chum, Marcus. It is told from the perspective of that same boy, years later remembering back, and he hints at some dark and irremediable end that casts a shadow through the warm and carefree beginnings of that seminal summer.
This is a slow slide, told through innumerable details, into the deep end of the pool, but we hardly even struggle as the dim end comes. We are watching the process, the progress of our descent. Our boy Leo got a new set of clothes, fell helplessly in love with distant Marian, the older sister of Marcus, and had days of discovery on his own when Marcus came down sick and had to stay in bed. Leo never does get to wear his new swim suit, though I waited for that moment almost as anxiously as I did the larger dénouement that loomed on the horizon that steamy summer. Somehow I thought that nakedness and bathing and water and the thrill of danger would be intertwined with the finish, but that was just another beautifully executed feint where ordinary things take on the weight of portent.
The gentle, teasing story of that languid summer is that moment in a life when mysteries are revealed, truths are uncovered, futures are altered, and no one is ever the same again. The miracle is that Hartley captured it so completely, the sensual detail caught with the enthusiasm and wonder of a boy's eye: the rippling muscle of the farmer, the shock of cold steel and weight of the gun stock, the smell of Marian's perfume and the rustle of her satins as her white arms stretched over recalcitrant piano keys...
But the best, the very best, is the way Hartley brings his story to a close. We hold on through the summer with stomach clenched: when the crisis comes, we are ready, but Hartley teases us on with another suspense, and then another, until we are slowly sated, satisfied, and feel older, wiser, wistful. I adored character Marian at the end, while I hated her throughout much of the story. It was the older man's eyes and her own words that make this transformation, but it made her life and his a celebration, rather than a tragedy. Only time and distance bestows that grace, and Hartley was wise enough to tweek our emotions that one last time. This is the cusp of manhood story that school children should read, but aspiring authors could do worse than study how Hartley did this.
A final word: Hartley was a book reviewer foremost, and "often read as many as five novels a week and reckoned that in all he must have read well over six thousand books."(Tóibín, Intro p. vi). Would that our man were alive and writing today, we would be ever the richer.
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