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Discussion about Little Boy Lost

on A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 on 1st January 2006:

Julia Neuberger: … It’s a wonderful novel, it’s beautifully written, very sparely written, I’ve always though that Marghanita Laski writes like a dream but this one I think is the best novel of hers. The book opens with a man learning that his son is lost in wartime France in 1943, and the story then continues with him going on a search for his son and eventually finding, through a variety of routes, a little boy. But is this child actually his son? And we also have the most heart-rending descriptions of what it was like to be an orphan and in those circumstances- not quite enough to eat, always cold, with rickets- as an orphan in post-war France, and it seems to me it also makes one think about what it’s like to be an orphan in Roumania or many other Eastern European countries not to mention Africa and much of the developing world, I don’t think the problems have changed very much.

Sue MacGregor: No. Paul, did you react to this book with pleasure or did you find it rather difficult to read because it’s so sad?

Paul Farley: I didn’t find it difficult to read at all, especially formally, it’s got the most amazing narrative motor, it’s a page turner, and I don’t want to sound like an arch blurbist or anything but it’s unputdownable, it just trots along, very economical, very spare as Julia said utterly unsentimental as well, and the story, without spoiling it, just snaps shut on the very last page, it’s an amazing end. There are all kinds of resonances in there as well, at one point a character called Pierre who has told Hilary about the possible existence of his little boy is almost acting as a kind of Virgil to Hilary’s Dante in Paris and then you get the babies in the washerwoman’s basket so there’s that kind of biblical thing there. And she’s fantastic on interiors as well, an entire world refracted through distempered walls, brass bedsteads, and these sad institutional smells and rows of bookcases, marvellous stuff. I have to say though, Hilary, the main character, it’s very difficult to sympathise with him often…

SM: I was going to say that too. I confess I had never read a Marghanita Laski novel before, which is a lack on my part, she was to me best known as a broadcaster and of course between the ‘50s and the ‘70s she was hardly off Radio 3, or the third programme in her day. But I must say that I thought this was a wonderful story as well. She was a great lover of France and I think she and her husband married there and lived there for a while before the war and the picture of the wounded in every sense but mainly psychological, the people of France post-war is very vivid and very believable because the French are still coping now with the number of people who, when half of France was occupied and governed by the Vichy government, collaborated effectively with the Germans, and who knows what would have happened had the same thing happened to us. It’s a France of black markets and food shortages and, as was most of Europe post-war, of tens of thousands of either orphans or lost children, it’s a heart-rending story. But I agree with you Paul that Hilary is not a likeable person. Does that bother you Julia?

JN: It bothers me enormously but it’s one of the reasons why the book is so good of course because I don’t think he gets very much more likeable as the book goes on. A lot of this is about his own feeling for a lost son and I think she spends quite a lot of time trying to work out what pity is and whether pity is different from compassion and then trying to work out whether he does feel any pity for this particular child who he is not certain is his son. I’ll tell you something though, I do think there is a little bit of sentimentality actually, I think there are odd moments with that very spare style when she suddenly uses sentiment, it’s deliberate, I’m not suggesting she’s just lapsing into it, but I think the business with the red gloves for the little boy which don’t fit is quite sentimental and deliberately so and I think the very occasional moments where you see ma mere, the head of the house, eyeballing Hilary and obviously thinking that he’s a real waste of space but trying to exert her power to get him to show some pity, I think that gets sentimental and deliberately so.

SM: Do you feel that that makes some bits of it feel a little dated at all Paul?

PF: The thing with Hilary is that he’s always thinking one thing and then either saying or doing another thing. I don’t know whether the language itself actually dates it because it’s all contemporaneous when it’s supposed to be happening so I didn’t have any problems with that, I just found him often quite anxious and selfish and a little over-sensitive, maybe, but again as Julia says it would not work nearly so well it that were not the case. I also thought that he was very cruel to Pierre, whom he dropped like a hot potato when it suited, and then there’s a horrible moment later on when he decides when he’s running out of money, oh I can tap Pierre for a few francs when I get back to Paris so I can continue to eat my steaks and drink my Armagnac…

JN: All on the black market and Pierre of course, having been a real friend and also having suffered hugely during the war, and there’s also that odd bit where he asks Pierre about whether Pierre is worried about collaboration. “Don’t you wonder with every stranger you meet what he did under the Occupation,” Hilary asks his friend Pierre. He replied, “Oh yes, but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I’m tired with ‘collaborationist’ as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.” And it’s almost as if Pierre is saying, well actually the way you are going to treat me was settled long before all of this exchange, but you do get the feeling that Pierre slightly despises Hilary and that tightens the book I think.

SM: Yes, there’s also a very good scene between Pierre and Hilary towards the beginning of the book when Hilary first goes to France. We should explain that his wife has died tragically towards the end of the war, she’s been taking in by somebody and that’s how the little boy has somehow got lost or misplaced, and Hilary is sitting in a café in Paris with Pierre and his intellectual friends and suddenly he envies Pierre this, and it is the France that he loves, it is the France of good conversation, not necessarily the France of good food at that point, but it’s the France he remembers, talking over the cognac and talking philosophically and he envies him and one feels that there’s Marghanita Laski herself in a way because she would have been most at home with that kind of conversation.

JN: Absolutely, and loving it and loving the good food and the drink, I don’t think she thought she deserved better than anybody else but she had a feeling about France as this wonderful place.

SM: There were one or two references, Paul to Hilary needing some sort of sexual relationship where the tone of it was slightly different: Nellie the local good-time girl who leads him on and indeed almost stops him from doing the right thing, seemed almost an intrusive character to bring in. Do you think it worked?

PF: I could say with my cynical hat on not only intrusive but also very convenient in the way she pops up at that point in the narrative. I think we should mention here Hilary’s relationship with his mother, which casts a very strange pall over the book.

SM: Well, we think she’s the reason he is as he is.

PF: Perhaps, and the Christmas scene at the beginning, before Pierre arrives to break the news, is unbearable…

SM: We’ve both agreed with Julia that it is a remarkable book and well worth looking up, it is published these day by Persephone Book and regular listeners to this programme will know that Persephone books are in some good bookshops but it’s probably best to find out about them from their website.

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