If you don't like spoilers, don't read the Wikipedia entry for Random Harvest. I'm glad I waited until after, although by then I was feeling a tad foolish for letting James Hilton keep a bright guy like me from guessing the ending. Other things bothered me about Random Harvest: It got me to wondering if I really am the sentimental dupe I'd been joking in several prior reviews here about being, and it made me feel hopelessly ingenuous, like a bumbling oaf, reading how sophisticated the British gentry tend to be (I might have said naïve or callow had Hilton not used the more sophisticated ingenuous).
A couple of things got me past these discomforts, to keep me reading. One was Hilton's irritating use of ALL CAPS to emphasize certain words. Possibly the typesetter was to blame for not using italics, but Hilton went way overboard in assuming we couldn't get the emphasis from context alone. To wit: "Not that Charles would be an easy man to MAKE happy, even if he HAD got the right woman. But he isn't happy NOW—that I DO know—" Being irritated by so much of that made me feel a tad critical, less ingenuous, and eventually it got to where I hardly noticed it. And this was because of the other thing that helped me forget how inferior I am to the British gentry: Hilton's superior writing and storytelling. Random Harvest is so good it didn't bother me that I could never write that well or think up a story that good.
Here's some of that writing that grabbed me and held on, a description of London with surgical insight and the—dare I say it—sophistication of a literary mind:
There was a charm, a deathless charm, about a city whose inhabitants went about muttering, "The nights are drawing in," as if it were a spell to invoke the vast, sprawling creature-comfort of winter. Indeed no phrase, he once said, better expressed the feeling of curtained enclosure, of almost stupefying cosiness, that blankets London throughout the dark months—a sort of spiritual central heating, warm and sometimes weepy, but not depressing—a Dickensian, never a Proustian fug.
Now to the story. Were I Hilton trying to entice a prospective literary agent to read my query, I'd call Random Harvest a "romantic mystery" first. If that didn't work, I'd try another agent with "mystery/romance" or, better yet, "mysterious romance", and so on until one ultimately took the bait and read my irresistible plot synopsis, which would go something like this:
Harrison, a Cambridge graduate student, has an oddly engaging conversation with a garrulous stranger on a train. They meet by coincidence later at Harrison's college, where the stranger, whom we now know is Charles Rainier, wealthy industrialist and member of Parliament, is the speaker. They hit it off, and Rainier soon hires Harrison as his personal secretary. Rainier confides in Harrison, explaining the oddness of their train conversation was a result of his memory loss from the moment of a WWI battlefield injury to his waking up two years later on a park bench in Liverpool. He remembered enough to learn his name and find his family, whose industrial empire he then saves from ruin during a stock market crash. All the while his memory is returning incrementally in déjà vu-like flashes and fragments that haunt him with a vague sense of some sort of significance but nothing more. The breakthrough comes when he remembers he'd gotten married during the missing two years and that his wife was pregnant when he left her temporarily to meet with an editor in Liverpool, hoping to sell some stories he'd written. He arrives, slips on a rainy street, is hit by a car, and wakes up on the bench with the hole in his memory. Now, twenty years later, the hole is finally filled in, and he's off alone to find the love of his life. Harrison and Rainier's current wife, whom his respects but doesn't love, set out to find him.
If the agent were to read this far, I would add that a backdrop to Rainier's story is the encroaching threat of WWII, and its effect on the British sensibility. There's much talk of the malignant presence of Adolf Hitler, England's passivity despite a growing anxiety, and the League of Nations' impotence.
Here's Rainier's take on it:
We are like people in a trance—even those of us who can see the danger ahead can do nothing to avert it—like the dream in which you drive a car towards a precipice and your foot is over the brake but you have no physical power to press down. We should be arming now, if we had sense,—arming day and night and seven days of the week,—for if the Munich pact had any value at all it was not as a promise of peace to come, but as a last-minute chance to prepare for the final struggle. And we are doing NOTHING— caught in the net of self-delusion and self-congratulation.
And here he is expounding on Hitler in words that, although Random Harvest was published in 1941, read as if they just might, with a change in tense, be found in something current, such as The Atlantic: “...the fact that all seemed to depend on the workings of one abnormal human mind gave every amateur psychologist an equal chance with politicians and crystal-gazers. And behind this mystery came fear, fear of a kind that had brought earlier peoples to their knees before eclipses and comets—fear of the unknown, based on an awareness that the known was no longer impregnable.”
"If you forgive people enough you belong to them, and they to you, whether either person likes it or not squatter's rights of the heart." -- James Hilton
I might also play the “crystal gazer” and state with confidence that Random Harvest not only would become one of the top-selling novels of 1941, but its movie adaptation would win an Academy Award nomination.
The title, you may be wondering, what in hell does it mean? This citation, appearing on the novel's title page, might be a clue: "According to a British Official Report, bombs fell at Random." —German Official Report
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]