Monday, 20 July 2009

45. L.P. Hartley - 'A Change of Ownership' (1948)

'Laid back, I'll give you laid back'
(Hot Chip, 'Over and Over', The Warning, 2006)

'What fun for him, after these constricted years, to come home to a big house of his own, where he has three or four sitting-rooms to choose from, each of which he may occupy by himself!'
(L.P. Hartley, The Complete Short Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1973, p.167)

It can never be 'his' front door.

'It was locked all right; but who had locked if?' (p.169)

A real oddity this one, of English gothic vintage. This side of Hartley was discernible in the Belladonna episode of The Go Between, with all its shattering symbolism of innocence and experience, but this is a fully fledged dalliance with the Weird. Making sense of 'A Change of Ownership' is harder than most; it is in many ways a refreshingly recalcitrant read - the sort of short-story where you do have to go back at several points to grasp the underlying narrative of the main character.

Hartley establishes the rather splintered, paranoid personality of 'Mr' Ernest carefully; first, he is seen partly through the eyes of a companion, Hubert - an old friend who gives him a lift back home after they have been to the theatre. Ernest's home is 'semi-rural', a large suburban house overlooking a field on one side. (p.163) His friend's conversation illustrates Ernest's isolation, living alone in this big house (his servants are apparently away), where previously he has lived in shared accommodation: when Ernest says that he is alone 'in a sense', Hubert understandably queries, 'Queer devil you are, Ernest; you must either be alone or not alone. Do I scent a romance?' (p.164)

Hardly so, as once his friend has departed, Ernest slips into thinking about himself in the third-person, a trend that marks the rest of the narrative. He imagines himself in a strange array of guises and roles while attempting to get to grips with being locked out of his house - which has been done by mysterious means. Internal dialogues convey an authentic sense of madness, and Hartley displays an unerring command of using the present-tense to embroil the reader. The status of the narrative voice is deliberately unclear - at times, as in the epigraph above, it seems as if it is mocking Ernest.

His learning to live alone, 'like other people', is shown to involve a splintering of - or at least, an uncertainty within - his personality. Stithies Court, the house, is a forbidding place and becomes literally inaccessible to him, its presumptive owner. The word presumptive being operative there. Stithies - evocatively, choicely, named - is something of an impregnable, infernal fortress: 'it looked like a large black hat-box, crowned at one corner by a smaller hat-box that was, in fact, a tower', the only certainty and constant in this unreliable narrative. (p.164)

LPH delves into the uncanny, and this can be said to fit in very nicely in the English Weird continuum, linking M.R. James and Christopher Priest; I, Haruspex is indeed the short-story covered so far which this most resembles. It is revealed that the figure in the house, keeping down the window with his fingers when Ernest tries to get in that way, initially has a Sapphire and Steel anticipating blankness - its face 'a featureless oval, dimly phosphorescent'. (p.173) This 'simulacrum', it is eventually made clear, is no less than Ernest himself: 'This time the face did not alter. It was Ernest's own face, a hateful face, and the face of a murderer.'

It is, overall, a continually discomfitting, confounding tale, written in an unusual, intriguing style; another fine advertisement for home ownership! Hartley, often facilely bracketed as English Heritage, is indeed, far from that; this is anti-heritage in almost all senses, being concerned with deeper things. As with his great 1953 novel, tradition and hierarchies are destructive; in this case, the old English house itself takes on particular malignance:

'In an old house like this, of course, the floor-boards do contract and expand; they have seen a great deal; they have something to say, and they want to get it off their chests.' (p.168)


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