Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The ingredients of drama (Books - Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski)

Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost accomplishes a its magic with simple means. Her writing is unfancy, like walking in good shoes. She observes the words and actions of people and the context of their situation, and then puts one word after the other on the page in order to describe it. That is not to underestimate Laski's skill, it is because she does each of these things completely, and because she understands the ingredients of drama well, and because she has something of value to say that she has produced a book that is such a pleasure to read. Perhaps still sounds simpleminded. Take these sentences:
Then, while the coffee was slowly filtering through the Cona, Mrs. Wainwright had the happy idea of bringing out the old snapshot album. 'This was the first photograph we ever had of you,' she said. 'You were just three weeks old,' and the memory of the total love she could give him in infancy enveloped them both in pleasing nostalgia. 'Here's a nice one of your father just before we got married,' she said, and there was the old doctor miraculously recognisable in the eager young man leaning against the sundial, unprescient of the death that would leave his wife and son locked in their bitter incessant strife.

One word after the other of simple detail, first of some of the physical context - this is wartime England, but there is coffee in this house. It does not appear miraculously in cups so that we might get on with the plot, it is filtered in a Cona. Then, as it filters, the idea to act, and the actors relationship to that action - it's intention - and the dialogue that occurs while that action takes place and then - wham. There is everything in that few sentences so much backstory of Hilary, the central character, who is not acting but rather is acted upon. Whatever Laski chooses to describe, she does completely. And this thoroughness is not reserved for domestic detail. When Pierre, a member of the French underground, arrives at Hilary's childhood home on Christmas, it is to tell him that his wife died at the hands of the Gestapo in occupied France and that, Jeanne, Pierre's fiancee took the baby but was herself killed. He risks his life in coming to England to pledge to help Hilary find the child after the war. The most interesting pages in the chapter, are Pierre's description of Jeanne changing overnight from a politically active member of the Resistance to one who prefers to do her duty by raising her friend's baby until he can be returned to his father.
"...All that seems to be certain is that we should each do good where it is near to us, where we can see the end of it, and then we know that something positive has been done." Then she nodded at the room where the baby was and said, "That's why the thing that seems to me most important now is to keep Lisa's baby safe and give him back to his father. If I can do that, I know that I have done something that is actively, positively right."
And although Pierre disagrees with her politically, he feels he must honor her memory by carrying out her wish and finding the lost baby with Hilary once the war is over. So the ground has been carefully laid by someone who understands what makes a drama. The main characters are motivated by the highest passions, and the setting will be post-war France, torn politically and domestically (as we see in Pierre and Jeanne) as some of its inhabitants were violently resistant, some passively, and others collaborated with the Germans. And those actors in that setting will carry out the action of the novel - the search for the child. I have just arrived in post-war France as that action begins. Great reading.

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