Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski was the book for discussion on Sunday’s Walking Book Club. It was a drizzly day but actually the weather was to thank for a particularly pretty walk, as we found a sheltered route which took us off to quiet and wild bits of the Heath, as opposed to our usual busy Parliament Hill climb.
Little Boy Lost is published by the wonderful Persephone Books, known for publishing ‘domestic’ fiction, largely about women in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Somewhat unexpectedly then, Little Boy Lost, though written by a woman, is about a man.
Hilary, a poet and intellectual, goes to France after the Second World War to look for his lost son. He has only seen his son once, as a baby. Through various complicated backstory twists, his son, now a child, is somewhere unknown in France. Pierre, the husband of a friend of Hilary’s wife, turns up and explains that it has become his life’s mission to discover the whereabouts of the missing boy. Later, when Pierre thinks he might have found the boy, Hilary is summoned to France to try to identify him.
One of the biggest questions in the book is whether or not the boy is Hilary’s son. Will Hilary recognise a family resemblance or mannerism? Will the boy remember anything about his earlier childhood, or his mother? What counts as conclusive proof? Hilary is adamant that he will only look after the boy if he is his son.
Of course when we meet the boy in the orphanage, a poor little thing in ill-fitting clothes: ‘its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists’, he is so pitiable with his poor circumstances and good nature that we long for Hilary to take care of him, regardless of his parentage.
Laski has set up a tricky opposition here: the reader wants Hilary to adopt little Jean, and yet Hilary stubbornly persists in searching for proof that he’s his son. So we don’t particularly like Hilary, for this seemingly selfish behaviour against this child’s innocence, and I know you’re never supposed to say things like you don’t like a character, or found a book difficult for not liking a character, but surely it is vital to empathise with a novel’s main protagonist, and when the main protagonist persists in not doing what you want him to do, this can be problematic.
So, why does Hilary act so selfishly? Why does it matter so much to him that the boy is his? In part, he is scared of reawakening his emotional life. He catches himself daydreaming of a happy scene of reunion with the boy:
It would be wonderful beyond words, he told himself dreamily – and then he realised what he was thinking. It can never be like that, he said, there is nothing left in me to make it possible that it should be like that. The traitor emotions of love and tenderness and pity must stay dead in me. I could not endure them to live and then die again.
After Lisa’s death, he thought:
It would have been better never to have been happy, never to have felt love and tenderness and all those things, than to have known them and then lost them.
Pierre points out, ‘if the boy is found, those things will be found again too.’ Then:
‘I don’t want them,’ Hilary cried harshly. ‘…I couldn’t endure being hurt again; I’d sooner feel nothing.’
So Hilary is afraid of feeling, of opening himself up to being hurt again. If the boy isn’t his son, then he is let off the hook.
Hilary hunts about for other reasons too. There is a terrible moment when he says to Pierre that he is afraid of claiming the wrong boy, in case his actual son would then ‘turn up somewhere quite different’. Pierre assures him this won’t happen:
Not if I can help it, he added to himself. Not through him would Hilary ever know of the boy who mouthed and whimpered in an asylum at Tours, who could well, for dates and blood-tests and all that was known of his history, be Hilary’s son. Nor would he tell him of the little boy who was now the sole consolation of the parents near Lyons whose own two boys had been caught by the Gestapo and tortured before they died…
This glimpse of the stories of these other boys opens out Hilary’s quest to encompass, in a flash, the fate of the many many other children and families whose lives were turned upside down by war. Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her review that this is the story of ‘every lost child of Europe’, and certainly here you suddenly see the awful bigger picture. I found this to be one of the most moving moments of the book, made all the more so by the way it was casually thrown in, almost in parentheses.
Why else does Laski choose to put Hilary in such a predicament about the boy? Early in the novel, Pierre tells Hilary about a conversation he had with his wife in which she argued for the importance of acting as an individual rather than subordinating your morality to a group.
The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often the good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.
Perhaps this – being sure of doing good as an individual – is the underlying philosophical wrestle of the novel. Leaving aside Hilary and his son for a moment, Laski also portrays the complex moral situation of being in France during and immediately after the War. Hilary asks Pierre, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’ Pierre replies:
We each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.
This is a terrible thought: it isn’t war which forces you to act badly, rather the war brings to the fore a predetermined aspect of your character. I couldn’t help but think here of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the protagonist finds himself acting heroically because of the war even though he feels himself not to be a hero:
Now he found himself the leader of a thousand men who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not.
It’s the opposite perspective. In The Narrow Road, this realisation happens when the protagonist turns down an offering of steak, in spite of the fact he is starving in a POW camp, and insists on it being shared out. Hilary in Little Boy Lost, by contrast, tucks into Black Market steak at a French hotel, managing to assuage his guilt about the terrible deprivation of the orphanage rather easily.
Little Boy Lost is a novel about how an individual makes choices, how his moral compass swings and wavers during and after the War. We walking book club readers all wanted Hilary to adopt the boy regardless of his parentage, as do many of the respectable characters in the novel, but Laski insists on Hilary choosing for himself, as an individual, rather than giving into pressure from anyone else (the reader, or another character). The decision, when it happens at last, is all the more powerful for being self-determined.
I suppose ‘what you would have done in the War?’ is one of those questions that everyone asks themselves, wondering how we’d behave when challenged to the core by such a dreadful situation. Laski shows us here that it isn’t just wartime that provides a challenge; big difficult decisions persist and we must choose what we – as individuals – feel to be good.
(By the way, here is a piece about collecting rare books which I wrote for the latest issue of The Spectator.)