Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel was a surprise absence from last year's Booker list; though having read the majority of the shortlist it, like a couple of the other novels on the list, is a contemporary history concerned with the secrets that we hide from each other; and the consequences therein. In five chronological, and somewhat separate sections, "The Stranger's Child" covers over a century, beginning just before the first world war, and ending in 2008. Amongst the many complimentary cover blurbs, the Independent compares it to "Middlemarch" which makes you wonder if the reviewer had read either this or the Eliot. For what "The Stranger's Child" is not, in any way, is a vast societal novel. Rather, Hollinghurst writes about minutiae; whether its the intimacies of gay relationships; or the architectural features of great houses; he is at heart a miniaturist.

Cecil Valance is a charismatic, aristocratic gay poet who visits with his new lover, the quiet, naive George Sawle. Sawle's family have a small house called "Two Acres"; he has a brother and a sister, and a young widowed mother who drinks too much. From this small beginning Hollinghurst maps out a century of emotional and literary intrigues. For George's sister Daphne, a susceptible, romantic girl of sixteen, is immediately obsessed with the visiting Cecil - who's undoubted charisma and confidence comes from his station in life; heir to a baronetcy, and member of a Cambridge secret society. She hands him her autograph book, but rather than a signature, over five scrawled pages, he writes what will become his most famous poem "Two Acres." This first section is Jamesian in its detail, but owes as much to that other gay writer E.M. Forster. "Two Acres" is a house not unlike "Howard's End" with it changing from country to city as the railway broadens the London suburbs into Middlesex. Yet, whereas Forster was comparing "new" and "old" money, Hollinghurst as ever, is enamoured of aristocracy; their giant houses; and their insouciant lives of privilege. The first section, "Two Acres" is as masterful as Cecil's poem; though we already feel that Cecil is going to be a minor poet - if not a minor character in the novel. The Great War is looming, and inevitably, all the character's lives will be shook up by this.

In many ways "The Stranger's Child" - a title taken from Tennyson - is the equivalent of one of those "group biographies" that have proven so popular when writing about the "Bloomsbury set." Here, Valance is another branch. In Hollinghurst's universe, he's in the Georgian anthologies, and knows (but doesn't have much time for) Rupert Brooke. Yet, his biography is very similar to Brooke's - a second rate poet who is remembered for some well-loved verses. Our fascination with the first world war; the Edwardian and late Victorian worlds that it destroyed; and with the emerging world that follows; is at the heart of this book. It's a well-trodden path of course - and at times one wonders why Hollinghurst's fascination with a world that has been written over three times already: in the contemporary books of the day; in the biographies of Bloomsbury and others; and in more than a few contemporary novelisations. The subject, however ably Hollinghurst rehashes it, is a tired one. Having read the recent Edward Thomas biography by Matthew Hollis I couldn't help but thinking how much more interesting Thomas's world is than this one. A "real" poet of the first world war, Thomas was from a poor background; working as a hack for many years; yet Hollinghurst - like McEwan in "Saturday" - has to create a poet of the aristocracy as his "hero."

For Cecil Valance is very much a "hero" in inverted commas. In him, Hollinghurst is writing the first chapter of a gay history of the 20th century, where gay men throughout the years pass down his coded poems like a baton. Though it's only towards the end of the long novel that this seems to be the novel's purpose. A young girl being privy to a secret is the slightly schematic plot line of McEwan's "Atonement", and, I wonder to what extent the success of that novel sent Hollinghurst to plough the same furrow? That said, it is "Brideshead Revisited" that the novel most echoes. There are plenty of mentions for "real" writers in the book - Waugh being one of them - but given that novel's beautiful writing and its inherent tragedy, it seems the setting up here of an almost parallel story, albeit with a literary rather than a Catholic subtext, is always going to come out secondary.

Hollinghurst is at his best in the first and fourth sections of the novel. In the middle two, we are thrown into the cast of characters - the Valances and Sawles mostly - at different points in the 20th century. He avoids the "big moments" - the births and deaths - and instead throws us into the aftermath. Daphne Sawle, now Lady Valance, but married - we discover in a neat feint - to Cecil's brother Dudley. This section is pure Downton Abbey. A big country house gathering with wounded war hero; visiting in-laws; damaged children and ageing matriarch thrown together for the purpose of the next revelation. Though, this and the third section - for Daphne's 70th birthday party, half a century later - have as much a touch of the plotting of Gavin & Stacey, where the two contrasting families and various hangers-on are thrown together once again, and the sparks fly.

For Hollinghurst isn't really doing plot: the plot is all hidden from us. There are secrets we know about (such as George and Cecil) and then ones that we don't - as we've only been made privy to certain aspects of the family history. Given that in the first Jamesian chapters we are told the meaning of every glance; the middle part of the book sags heavily into two somewhat endless "party" scenes - the first letting us glimpse the wrecked changes that the world has given us after the Great War - the second glimpsing sixties gay liberation. Unlike previous Hollinghurst's the sex is not overly described; yet he revels in writing about the preamble to sex - as whole scenes are set pieces leading to consummation in a glade or in a corridor. I guess, a little like Sarah Waters, this is one of the motivation's of writing these histories, with more candour than a contemporary writer would have done. Yet, at times sex - and relationshps - gets reduced to a transactional level which has little of the wracked pain of James or Forster at their most acute. In th 1960s section we are introduced to Paul Bryant, a young gay fantasist, working for a bank who becomes a somewhat sleazy biographer. Accidentally coming into contact with the Sawles and Valances's he's given an entree into sixties literary life that he yearned for reading Valance's poems, but otherwise would have not found it easy to find.

Bryant is the book's most troubling character - though there are plenty here who are unsympathetic, even grotesque (one of the joys of the book is the simple hideousness of almost all its characters, that Hollinghurst draws out with a certain sardonic relish) - for we next meet him in the mid-70s when he is beginning to earn a living writing reviews for the TLS. Like the first part of the novel this seems to work better; as it's squarely about a literary life. You have to feel, with the book's dedication to the late poet Mick Imlah, that Hollinghurst is writing something of a roman a clef, albeit about the generation before him and Imlah worked the London literary scene. Bryant, a sensationalist biographer who is terribly bad at actually interviewing his subjects, is skewered repeatedly as a comic figure; even as he somehow gets lucky and discovers the revelations that we, the reader, have been denied - even though we've been there at the start of things. In some ways, the book comes back to life at this point; the hubris and longeurs of those gossipy central scenes is sharpened and brought into focus as Bryant starts out on his literary detective story. Cecil Valance, from being a figure of fun, is somehow a "stayer", his few decent poems have made him more of interest in the late 20th century than he had been when alive. As his brother points out the irony of him being famous for a poem called "Two Acres" when he was heir to 3,000, the chopping and changing fortunes of a somewhat undeserving aristocracy are followed right up to the present day.

We get a sense of the great turning of history - but only a sense of it - for though these characters are famed in their day; know Generals and politicians, there does seem to be a mixed message in Hollinghurst's treatment of them. For, like the Bells, Stracheys and Sitwells they are mostly minor figures; more remembered for their chaotic personal lives than for their artistic endeavours. I'm never quite sure if Hollinghurst with his love for country houses, boarding schools and posh, artistic lives, is entirely satirising these people or not. The other characters - a German widow, Paul Bryant, a lesbian interior decorater - are, if anything, treated with even more disdain. The comedy, which is there, is one of manners - for this is, like Downton, superior literary melodrama at heart. Tying it to his earlier novels, there is also, I think, a fittingly successful attempt to tell a story of hidden or at least closeted, gay lives throughout a swathe of time, with a fragment of a poem offering an olive branch to each generation that manages to detect its code.

What we're doing reading this fake life in 2011/2012 I do wonder. It has none of the expansiveness of Burgess's "Earthly Powers", and comes up short, both literally and psychologically against those books it most echoes - Howard's End and Brideshead. I think Hollinghurst's meticulous prose, so good at the psychological miniature that starts the book, falls away, and becomes sloppy when it has to take in too much, or has to describe too much - a problem I also found with "The Line of Beauty." I sometimes think that like Dudley Valance - who covers up what he thinks of as Victorian ugliness with 1920s decoration -  he's boxing something in. After all, if there is a contemporaneous gay history of the 20th century its there - at least now - in the histories of some of it more illustrious poets and novelists. The usual Hollinghurst obsessions - with grand houses and even grander families - seems the least interesting part of this book. There's also a sense, with writing that is done in an equally grand matter, and which is highly conventional in its stylisation, that he's ignoring to the point of evasion the importance of modernism in all of this. Henry James or Edith Wharton may have been a little shocked by the ease with which his characters move towards consummation, but I think they'd find the book, if anything, a little too conventional for their tastes.

There is much to enjoy, and admire in the novel, but I feel it probably missed on the Booker shortlisting either because of its literary focus or because the theme of secrets hidden was also there in two books that did make the list, including the winning Julian Barnes. You can't help but enjoy Hollinghurst's prose, though its Jamesian overemphasis and tendency to melodrama makes me wonder at those reviewers who praise his great style. For someone like me, who has an abiding fascination with the literature of the first third of the 20th century there is much to enjoy, even though this is a fake branch of history that Hollinghurst has added. It has quite a few clever things to say on posthumous reputation, and, I think, on the need that marginalised communities have to find precursors texts - alternative histories. A long book, it's a worthwhile literary page-turner, yet, like "The Line of Beauty" it seems to be part of an over-populous part of the contemporary literary city.

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