Little Boys LostBeing a lover of books and beautiful things, my teenage daughter usually discovers a Persephone paperback in the contents of her Christmas stocking. Last year, it was Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski. She read it almost immediately and then, appraising it and me with shrewd enthusiasm, declared: ‘This is a very good book and you’ll love it.’ She was right on both counts.
Little Boy Lost is the story of an English poet who, having lost his Parisian wife and infant son in the Second World War, hears that the child may still be alive and returns to France afterwards in search of proof. An astute psychological study as well as a tale of secrets and searches, it was ﬁrst published in 1949 and, thanks to Persephone, reprinted in 2002; but how such an accomplished and gripping novel managed to achieve ‘neglected’ status (the qualiﬁcation for publication by Persephone) in the intervening ﬁfty-three years is a mystery.
Laski, born into a Jewish intellectual family in 1915 (her father was a barrister and judge, her uncle the political theorist Harold Laski), read English at Oxford and worked as a journalist, critic, novelist and broadcaster all her life. Her style mixes traditional storytelling techniques – a mysterious disappearance, a romance tragically concluded, an enigmatic night-time visitor and a superbly atmospheric setting – with a view of the affair almost entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, Hilary Wainwright. His state of mind, his mental debates, his private reactions to the people and situations he encounters,are part of the narrative. You might imagine that this would result in many slow, reﬂective passages but in Laski’s taut economical prose it creates an immediacy that drives the story along at a rattling pace.
Hilary is not a particularly likeable character. Having heard that Lisa, his wife of only a few years, has been murdered by the Gestapo for her work with an escape organization, he guards his grief and disappointment bitterly. He has convinced himself that he has been too badly wounded emotionally to risk exposure to further pain, and that pride and self-pity are a justiﬁable response to the blow Fate has dealt him. He believes his son to have been irretrievably lost in the process of being concealed shortly before Lisa’s arrest, and embarks on a search after the war primarily out of a sense of obligation to the Frenchman, Pierre, who has offered to help.
Pierre is the ﬁrst of a number of characters in the book whose outlook and principles begin to undermine Hilary’s own priggish certitudes. A survivor of the French Resistance, he seems in many ways a suitable companion in Paris (though the Englishman believes him to be his intellectual inferior), just as, later on in the provincial town Hilary visits, the elderly Madame Mercatel and her schoolteacher son make him feel at ease in their cultured, elegant home. But his patronizing assumptions about their limitations are quickly shaken: Pierre has an optimism that Hilary envies, while Bernard Mercatel, a teacher at the Sorbonne before the war, is content despite living quietly in obscurity. Hilary’s reaction on hearing this is typical of the way in which Laski reveals the impact his experiences in France have on him:
This is followed by a conversation with the perceptive Madame Mercatel which leaves Hilary with the uneasy feeling not only that he has unwittingly revealed himself to be in some way morally inadequate but, even more troubling, that also he has never truly understood the relationship he had with his wife. He is a long way from the impregnable, arid safety of his London ﬂat and his debates with himself become more urgent with each visit to the orphanage that is home to the boy who might be his son, as he runs the gauntlet of nuns whose priorities are so clear, and whose motives are so uncluttered by moral ambivalence. More than once, his encounters prompt the thought that this story is about more than one lost boy.
The impression of France that emerges from this story is not the charming, cultured, picturesque place in every Francophile’s mind. Hilary considers France the most civilized country in the world. But the Paris he ﬁnds on his return in 1945 is a place of shattered buildings, makeshift bridges, dilapidated horse-drawn taxis, hotels without hot water and cafés without butter and milk. The unidentiﬁed town, 50 miles from Paris, to which Hilary goes in search of his son, is vivid in its ruination:
The street curved away so that only its beginning could be seen from the square. He rounded the curve, and then found a wilderness of desolation. Save for a rooﬂess church higher for the contrast of emptiness, there was not a building standing for half a mile in every direction. Red bricks and grey bricks, roof tiles and stucco, reinforced concrete spouting thick rusty wires, all lay huddled in destruction. Nothing seemed to have been cleared away save what was necessary to allow a few tracks to pass through. It was ruin more complete and desolate than Hilary had ever seen.
Marghanita Laski knew France well – she, like her protagonist, was married in Paris – and she is forthright about what she clearly felt to be the moral depravity of the black market that prospered at this time. The dilapidated hotel in which Hilary stays, shunned by people such as the Mercatels, is patronized by others who enjoy juicy steaks, buttery potatoes and real coffee while the orphanage struggles to provide its children with the most basic level of nutrition. Hilary is incredulous when the Mother Superior at the orphanage describes their situation and then mentions that there are tubercular children in the same dormitories as the others.
‘Yes,’ said the nun steadily. ‘We have tubercular children here. If you knew more of Europe, monsieur, you would know that to run the risk of being infected with tuberculosis in a home where you have a bed to sleep in and regular meals is today to have a fortunate childhood.’Nonetheless, when Hilary returns to his hotel and sees the meagre offerings of the ‘ofﬁcial’ menu card, he heartily accepts the alternative, discreetly whispered to him by the waitress and the obsequious patron. ‘This is Black Market, Hilary told himself, it’s what we’ve all been so shocked about, what prevents the poor getting even enough, and then he asked, But what good does it do if I refuse it? It won’t go to those children, it will only go to other people rich enough to pay for it, and he ate it, and argued with himself, knowing that he should go hungry and that he would not.’
By now the reader has reached the third and main part of the book, entitled ‘The Ordeal’. Hilary’s selﬁshness and moral equivocation spar with his ability, albeit suppressed, to feel pity and, at a deeper and even more suppressed level, love. The focus of this debate is Jean, the 6 year-old boy in the orphanage who may or may not be his son, and the debate is all the more agonized for this reason: that no one can provide proof one way or the other. The boy was parted from his mother before he could form lasting memories of her, and has been in the orphanage for as long as he can remember.
The exchanges between Hilary and Jean are delicately observed and arouse an aching compassion. The man who has become used to caring only about himself must carefully consider every word he addresses to Jean, in order to gain the trust of this sensitive, deprived and institutionalized child and try to decide whether he is his son. Sometimes he strikes the right note, occasionally he is horribly cruel. He is attracted by the idea of becoming a father and receiving the affection of a child; then he is repelled by something the child does or says; and all the while he is terriﬁed of pity catapulting him into a situation he may regret. When they ﬁrst meet, he takes Jean to see the trains at the level crossing, and then to a café.
Jean seemed to have forgotten about the trains. His eyes were roving the room now with eager interest. ‘Look, monsieur,’ he cried suddenly, pointing to a dusty green plant in a pot, ‘Look, there’s a little palm tree.’ ‘How do you know it’s a palm tree?’ asked Hilary, interested. ‘I saw it in a book,’ Jean said casually. ‘Do you like reading?’ Hilary pursued. Jean said, ‘I like reading about Africa.’ ‘And what else?’ asked Hilary. Jean said, ‘I haven’t got a book about anything else.’ Hilary frowned. He resented his own inability to anticipate the to him unbelievable limitations of this child’s experience. Then again he remembered that he had a part to play in which a frown was a forbidden indulgence and asked quickly, ‘What do you learn about Africa?’
What the reader proceeds to learn is too enthralling to be revealed here and, though a re-reading of a novel can never capture the thrill of discovery the ﬁrst time round, I’ve enjoyed re-reading Little Boy Lost so much for this article that I’m going to read it yet again right now.
Annabel Walker was a journalist in London in the last century.
Marghanita Laski, Little Boy Lost (1949) Persephone • Pb • 240pp • £9 • isbn 9781906462055
This extract is taken from the Summer 2011 edition of Slightly Foxed, a quarterly digest produced by, and for, readers. www.foxedquarterly.com