Book review by Sylvia D: I don’t know where Marghanita Laski sits in the Pantheon of novelists published between 1900 and 1950 but a Persephone Books The Captive Reader article in 2018 says, ‘She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose. Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down.’
I decided to re-read Little Boy Lost because it made such a powerful impression on me when I first read it, not only because my Grandfather instilled in me a love of France and things French but because it is so poignant and leaves the reader wondering what she or he would have done if faced with the same central dilemma. It is a story of loss, duty, guilt and finding oneself again whilst inviting the reader to explore a number of moral dilemmas.
It is the story of Hilary Wainwright’s search for his lost son in war-torn France in 1945. When we meet him Hilary is scraping by as a literary editor and a relatively successful poet but during the War he had served first in the British forces defeated in France in 1940 and then in the intelligence service as he spoke fluent French. In 1938 he had married Lisa in Paris where they were living and the couple’s son, John, was born just before the Germans invaded the city. Hilary’s one glimpse of his son was on the day after he was born. Lisa was too weak to flee and Hilary felt it his duty to return to England but in the expectation that he would soon be back.
In England Hilary has two visits from a Frenchman, Pierre Renier; the first was in December 1943 when Pierre confirms that Lisa who had been helping British airmen escape from France had been tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Fearing what was about to happen she had given the little boy into the care of her best friend, Jeanne, (Pierre’s fiancé) who in her turn was arrested by the Gestapo for helping to produce a clandestine newspaper but not before she had given the little boy into the protection of an elderly retired curé. (It later emerged the curé had been part of a network helping young Jewish children escape from the Nazis.) John had then disappeared. The only memory Hilary associates with his son is that of a pink floppy-eared dog called Binkie sitting in his cradle.
Pierre sets himself the task of trying to find John to expiate his guilt at believing one should put one’s duty towards country, movements and organisations above one’s duty to individuals. Jeanne however had changed her mind about this when the baby was given into her care. She said
“One can never be sure of the end, only of the means, and so we must be sure that the means are good. One can never be sure of the motives of anyone but oneself and those we can examine to ensure that they are pure. All that seems to be certain is 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.”
Following the ensuing argument Pierre had stormed out of her apartment and never saw her again.
His second visit to Hilary is in the autumn of 1945 when he tells Hilary he thinks he has found a boy who could be his son and he wants Hilary to meet him in France. The little boy, Jean, is in an orphanage outside Paris. Pierre has pieced together the story of how this boy came to be there but there is no evidence that he is John apart from he and Hilary having the same blood group. Hilary agrees with the Mother Superior who heads the orphanage that he should stay in the town for a week and take Jean out each day between 5.30 and 7.30 once his daily classes had finished. But what do you do all day long stuck in a soul-less French town in a ravaged country and how do you entertain a strange five year old boy every day for two hours. This section is very bleak although the two discovered a shared love of trains and the little shabby café furnishes treats which the orphanage cannot afford.
Hilary wants to question the little boy about his past as he has no instinctive recognition that the child is his, but this agitates Jean as he is so desperate to please. However, Hilary does acknowledge that Jean is different from the other children in the orphanage – he is very bright, he is well-mannered, he is enamoured of the stories Hilary tells him about his own childhood.
But does Hilary really want Jean to be his son? He has got used to his quiet London life with his cosy literary circle. Does he want this quiet existence disrupted by the arrival of a strange child. He has become selfish. And can he and does he ever want to feel emotions such as love and compassion again. Unlike Pierre who is trying to be positive and look to the future, Hilary continues to live in the past,
“I can do without those things”, he cried, “I couldn’t endure being hurt again; I’d sooner do nothing. I don’t like children as such; they bore me. I used to think that a child of my own would make me happy, but I know that isn’t true any more. I’ve got nothing to offer a child . . . I just want to be left alone so that I can’t be hurt again.”
Towards the end of the week when he still has not decided what to do, Hilary meets the buxom flirtatious niece of his surly hotel owner. She sets her sights at him and his repulsion at her personality and corruption succeeds in reawakening sexual desire. She insists if he wants her, he must abandon the boy and come back to Paris with him. Before leaving, he buys a pink dog that looks a bit like Binkie and sends it as a present to Jean with a note to the Mother Superior contending with himself,
If I had let myself succumb to tenderness, he argued, it would have been simple. I would have been torn to pieces by this child. I would have taken him and comforted him and never let him go. But I dared not give tenderness . . . I am incapable of giving. I dare not give and so I’m running away. I’ve finished with ordeals. I am fleeing to the anaesthesia of immediate comfort and absolute non-obligation.
But re-awakening sexual desire has released other pent-up emotions and Hilary realizes that if he goes, he will be betraying his dead wife. The novel ends on a note of hope.
The character of Hilary is beautifully drawn. You feel sometimes as if you are really inside his head and you can envisage the huge intellectual and then emotional conflicts he experiences. The sombre picture of a France in the immediate aftermath of the War is also striking and emerges in a gradual way whilst seeming to stand for all the other European countries which had experienced unimaginable horrors and devastation – the bomb damaged buildings, the society in a state of collapse, the high prices, the corruption, the hunger and in France, in particular, the bitterness and divisions caused by what people did during the Occupation; did they collaborate, were they in the resistance.
In the Afterword there is a note that Laski sold the film rights, and the story was unbelievably turned into a musical starring Bing Crosby, which of course devalued the moral issues it raised. Laski was said to have been ‘furious and hurt’ and I must say I can understand why. A note about Laski in Wikipedia cites Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian writing “If you like a novel that expertly puts you through the wringer, this is the one.”
Note: Laski was not only from a privileged background, moved in very eminent literary and political circles but was an avowed atheist. This probably explains why To Bed with Grand Music (1946) and Little Boy Lost have no sense of her coming from a Jewish family. She actually published To Bed With Grand Music under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.