Book review

Random Harvest (James Hilton)

John Singer Sargent, Gassed

James Hilton writes about loss. Ineffable, all-pervading, devastating loss. A loss that hollows out his protagonists, leaves them shells of their former selves, blinded and aimless like Sargent’s soldiers. I’m thinking of Reverend Howat Freemantle in And Now Goodbye, of Hugh Conway of Lost Horizon, and of Charles Rainier of Random Harvest. But the loss delineated in Random Harvest is deeper, systemic. It’s the loss not just of what Steve would call Rainier’s “driving wheel” and what Rainier himself describes as a “sense of bewildering, pain-drenched loss,” but also of a world and a way of life—and with it, a realization of just how inadequate and foolish that world and way of life was.

So a nuanced and complex book, this, and with echoes backward to the half-remembered Paradise of 1933’s Lost Horizon  and forward to 1947’s war-themed Nothing So Strange. And, as in Time and Time Again, Hilton’s descriptions of ordinary people in extraordinary war times are wonderfully vivid.

Mostly, though, I think the 1941 book — which ends on the day of Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland, when the need for England to go to war is inevitable, irrevocable — is angry.

On Armistice Day 1937, Charles Rainier — impenetrable, insouciant, unsettled— tells our narrator a shocking war story of cold, ruthless calculation: a young officer and his unit had been set up by their commanders as a sacrifice so the Germans would trust intelligence from a spy placed in their midst. The officer figures this out just before his unit is shelled because he speaks German and hears the enemy talking in the trenches. Notes Charles, “It’s curious to reflect that one’s death was planned by both sides.”

After this episode, Rainier loses his memory, and the consequent three-year gap in his personal narrative and subsequent strange sequence of twists in his family’s fortunes, changes him from what one of his professors at Cambridge describes as “one of the rare spirits of our time” to an empty, superficial success presiding over the resuscitated Rainier steelworks, serving in Parliament, avoiding his wife’s grimly relentless and socially triumphant dinner parties. Charles has done what’s needed to be done, but without passion, conviction, desire, or belief. His life, over the twenty years portrayed in flashbacks and dialogues in the book’s five parts, has largely been that of a disengaged sleepwalker going through the motions. When Harrison, his confidant and the book’s narrator, reminds him that he’s done what he set out to do, Rainier replies that the thing that’s more important than that is “to feel that it’s been worth doing.”

It slowly becomes clear that Charles’s affliction is England’s as well. This is an England numbed by the experience of World War I and easily lulled and sated by the ensuing material success, security, peace. “Ah well, these things will probably right themselves in time,” Harrison summarizes the prevailing attitude. It’s the aimless drifting Christopher Isherwood captures in his Berlin Stories; the decay genteelly powering Shaw’s Heartbreak House. One character explains:

We missed our ways years ago and found a wide, comfortable road, fine for sleep-walkers, but it had the major drawback of wandering just anywhere, at random.

There’s also a dim awareness that this moment will not last, that the zeitgeist is shifting, that the world is bored by English domination, that the future is bleak. Notes a nobleman, late in the book:

Look at those trees — planted two centuries ago, deliberately, by someone who thought of a time when someone else would see them like this. Who could do such a thing today?

The way out of this passivity, this anomie, is passionate commitment, a sense of belonging to something bigger and better than oneself. A telling early episode that moves and saddens Rainier is of a “warm small room”:

But that room — the feeling I had in it — of comfort, of being wanted there…

Random Harvest, like its protagonist, takes a convoluted path to resolution. It is full of meanderings and odd emphases and reiterations; it doubles back and sprints forward, and then lingers in odd places where, narratively speaking, we really have no right to be, as when we are told compelling anecdotes by one character of another, a rather extraordinary person who will remain unseen and unmet. It’s all decidedly odd, and made me a bit fearful for the book’s overall structure and success as I was reading. But Hilton is firmly in control and the last breathless pages tumble into place confidently — albeit with a quite chilling undercut by major-domo Sheldon a dozen pages from its end. Depending on one’s belief in Sheldon’s omniscience, that sentence can severely alter one’s perception of the finality of the ending.

Ultimately, Random Harvest is a love story about a fascinating character in deeply disturbing times. What clinches its relevance is Hilton’s deep appreciation for outsiders, misfits, oddballs, nonconformists. As Harrison remarks to a young writer employed by the Rainiers, “One healthy symptom of so-called English society — its inside is full of outsiders.” But Hilton’s regard is most specifically for a particular kind of outsider: “dangerous” people “thinking proudly.” As one character sums up:

We’re both impervious to sentimentality and mob optimism, and both of us also, if I may so express it, are accustomed to think proudly… Both of us have the same aim in view —the cure of the thousand-year-old European disease; both methods have succeeded at various times throughout history—his, I admit, more often than mine. Either might succeed today. But what will NOT succeed, and what we both know will not succeed, is the unhappy mean between the two —the half-way compromise between sentiment and vengeance—the policy of SAFE men playing for SAFETY.

A stirring message that has not gone — and hopefully, will never go — out of style.

2 thoughts on “Random Harvest (James Hilton)”

  1. As always, thank you for reminding me of James Hilton. I very well remember the first time I read Random Harvest – “last breathless pages” indeed.

    I re-read the book six years ago, wrote a blog entry about it: – in German, though. I particularly noted the several references to Sherlock Holmes, something I hadn’t associated with Hilton – remembrances of a time gone. I hadn’t really realized that it is about England’s lost past as well, but I quite agree. I’m glad you liked the book and presented it to me from yet another perspective.

    I had to look up that sentence by Sheldon that you refer to. Found it. Chilling, indeed. Call me sentimental, but I don’t take it the way it could be taken.

  2. i wish i could read german! i would so love to hear your thoughts. yes, the sherlock holmes/baker street references did hearken back to a victorian time when things made sense, and all mysteries had a logical explanation. i am glad you are sentimental; i will follow your cue. and happy new year to you.

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