I’m not sure whether this profoundly English novel will resonate fully in America. The difficulty is not so much with Alan Hollinghurst’s story, that of a poet (like Rupert Brooke, perhaps) who is what we would now call bisexual or gay and dies in World War I, and of the posthumous ripples of his life and reputation. The first part of The Stranger’s Child, with its upstairs-downstairs portrait of a large house on the outer edge of the suburbs and the middle class, can be enjoyed as an elegant, gently parodic re-creation of a world much revisited on page and screen, from Brideshead to Downton Abbey; later sections might be read as a literary detective story written in reverse or an affectionate satire on the changing forms of gay identity. What may seem more obscure to the American ear is the dry humor and semantic freight of Hollinghurst’s exactly calibrated style, with its layered, ambivalent ironies; its careful self-deflations; its shy, tongue-in-cheek allusions; and its faith in reticence. These qualities are neither decorative nor incidental: over the course of the book they acquire an almost moral virtue.
Hollinghurst’s groundbreaking first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), interleaves the priapic adventures of its narrator, Will Beckwith, an ex–public school boy footloose in 1980s London, with the diaries of a much older man named Charles Nantwich, a former colonial official who wants Will to write his biography. Set in the last months before the outbreak of AIDS (the halcyon days before a different war), the book takes place entirely in a world of men, at the swimming pool and the opera, in the army and the school changing rooms. Through the stories of Will and Charles (and with reference to Ronald Firbank and E.M. Forster, porn flicks and art photography) Hollinghurst excavates the vein of homoeroticism buried in English culture, showing it to be both essential and constitutive. By the end of the book you’re convinced not only that Englishness has a gay subtext but that the subtext is gay—that the very presence of a subtext is, in a sense, gay. How was the empire built but through the tight bonds between men, formed at boarding school and sealed in secret tenderness, protected by codes and rituals, reinforcing the lines of class and race while crossing them for sex? The point had been made before, but often partially and snidely. Hollinghurst writes from the inside, sparing his characters nothing while recognizing, in the tragic story of Charles’s imprisonment for cottaging and the loss of the African houseboy who was his heart’s desire, the depths of love and suffering hidden in their history.
Hollinghurst has published three novels since The Swimming-Pool Library, including The Line of Beauty (2004), his Booker Prize–winning satire of the Thatcher years, all densely allusive, all incisively observed: along with Forster, Henry James is a presiding spirit. But The Stranger’s Child returns, more directly but also equivocally, to the preoccupations of that first book. Where the early novel exhumed a homoerotic English past, the new one proceeds in reverse, tracing the vanishing of a less defined, more polymorphous version of same-sex love, first through suppression and then, paradoxically, through acceptance and openness.
Despite its many comic touches, the book has a distinctly elegiac mood. Its central character, the poet Cecil Valance, is dead before the second act; others grow old before our eyes as the novel foreshortens time, dipping in and out of their lives from 1913 to 2008. The final section opens at a memorial service where the mourners are addressed by a queer theorist, whom we last met as an embarrassed schoolboy. The epigraph to that section—“No one remembers you at all”—is from “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson,” a poem by the Scottish writer Mick Imlah, who also died too young and to whom the book is dedicated; part of Tennyson’s own “In Memoriam” features in the novel and lends Hollinghurst his title. The memorials open into one another like rooms in a country house; like the book’s various assessments and accounts of Cecil Valance’s work, none are final or definitive.