an antique fashion shows
The cover was off-putting. A boy in a garden, glancing slyly back at an illicit meeting, in the unctuous watercolors so popular for mass market literary paperbacks of a certain age. I refer, of course, to a Penguin edition of First Love, translated by Isaiah Berlin, which, as a book, rather reminded me (not to give too much away) of the The Go-Between – but then L.P. Hartley is to Turgenev as Noël Coward is to Ibsen.1
The novel, set within the double frame of men recounting their first loves after dinner one night, and the unexpected, unsettling confession/recital of the narrator in a letter, is uncanny in its representation of desire and what is means to desire – how so often it is desire not for the happiness of the beloved, but for the imagined goods (cachet, self-respect, envy) the beloved could potentially bring. It flows neatly and then twists, revealing heartbreak rather than the more common disillusionment.
Although I did not think much of it at the time, the ungainly formality and suggestion of melodrama irritating as a long-winded dinner guest, yet I can think back on it over a year later and feel its freshness. In memory, the story becomes new in a way it never was on reading.2
- A hyperbolic statement, but one should not dismiss it entirely on that account.
- I see, looking at my notes from soon after reading First Love, that I had meant to write about Byron. But I can’t at all remember what I had intended to say.