I read this lovely book about a month ago now. I had read Hilton before — Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon — but this one had been on the shelf for a while, along with several other Hilton books I’ve picked up over the years at the Book Thing.
I don’t know if they write books like this anymore. I would think not. There isn’t the time.
What this is is a slow, quiet, gentle unfolding of a character. Just like getting to know a person in real life, we are introduced to Charles Anderson in little bits and starts. And the Charles we meet at the beginning — stuffy, stodgy, fussy, overly careful — is not the Charles we know by the end — wise, compassionate, sad, kind. There are in Charles’s character some hints of the good Mr. Chips (who makes a very brief cameo as the headmaster of Charles’s public school at Brookfield), and there is a similarity in the loves of the two characters’ lives: both of these quiet men fall in love with dashing, larger-than-life women, seemingly beyond their reach, who come to them relatively late in life, love them, lift them up, laugh with them, and then leave them too soon.
Despite the similarities, the book is not a retelling of Chips. It tells of Charles Anderson, his growth, his life, his times, his family, all in an unhurried, touching narrative. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, its focus on detail leaves you with the desire to pay more attention to the quiet and small, to be more aware of the passing scene. I am pretty sure they don’t write books like this anymore.
Charles, like James Hilton himself, is born with the new century in 1900. Hilton died the year after publishing this book, in 1954, of liver cancer. It is a book of looking back, a middle-aged book. Charles’s life is retold in three long flashbacks, bookended and separated by brief interludes in present-day Paris where Charles is meeting his just-come-of-age son. The titles of the flashback sequences derive from spoken and unspoken thoughts going through Charles’s mind during the Parisian scenes; these titles — “Nothing to Complain Of,” “Run of the Mill,” and “Till It Was All Over” — bespeak Charles’s modesty and British reserve. The events described in the sequences give us the young Charles, the maturing Charles, the post-war Charles, and are poignant and evocative. I was looking to balance the sentimentality and seriousness of those descriptors by adding that the incidents described are also funny, and rich, and real, but the words that come to mind in trying to summon up Hilton’s prose are not dynamic and hard-consonant-laden. Instead, words like “rueful” and “wistful” and “bittersweet” come to mind.
We watch the young Charles, steady and perennially falling short of expectations — chiefly those of his mad, colorful, and often cruel father — grow into a man who trades first love and an artistic idyll for a diplomat’s portfolio. The futility of that choice, as evidenced by the second world war and Charles’s lack of a mark on his world as he is ultimately passed by and passed over in his profession, is keenly documented. But this is, as I said, a middle-aged book, and success is not measured by Charles’s material gains. We come to respect Charles as he slowly — so slowly, so realistically — grows up, grows wise, goes on. We watch as Charles, beaten down, betrayed, and undermined by his father over many years, turns the tables on their power struggle, not with vengeance or malice, but with humor and understanding — and, ultimately, warmth and even respect and love. It is an amazing arc, and utterly believable, fueled by adult insights layered over childish perceptions.
The most striking episode for me in the book was the startling and stark descriptions of wartime London. Hilton makes the blitz very real, very terrifying, and very immediate, in a way I had never read before. And he does so without ever raising his voice, as it were. Just matter-of-fact descriptions of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, coping, managing, getting through.
Another notable sequence comes toward the end when Charles is asked in the last present-day sequence, “What sort of life have you had?” And he responds, with reserve, “…But as for calling my life — as a whole — unhappy, I’d certainly say no to that. Oh, definitely no — at least nothing to complain of, mainly run of the mill…” And then, Charles discreetly folds back the curtain before he reveals too much. The unspoken “till it was all over” melancholically colors the scene.
Dipping back into the book just now for quotes and reference, I found myself again caught up in its tone and style of having made one’s peace with the world. I know they don’t write books like this anymore.