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.
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The brief life and long afterlife of Cecil Valance coincide with the decline of his (minor) aristocratic family and of “the English idyll,” brilliantly evoked through details that, to a native reader, work like madeleines. Cecil’s biographer, eating biscuits after breakfast in a provincial hotel room sometime in the 1980s (“the Bourbon, the sugared Nice, the rebarbative ginger nut”), is “touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life, as crystallized in the Peek Frean assortment box.” Calling on a source in “a terrace of pebble-dashed cottages with playing-fields beyond,” he recognizes “the door, with its four thick bull’s-eye panes above the letter-box” and “something vaguer, shouts and football whistles on the air, the meagre romance of suburbs petering out into country, that took him back to his Uncle Terry’s council house in Shrivenham.” Cecil himself represents, for those who come after him, a nostalgic dream of “English things” and “English music,” which the book both mocks and loves; in the 1960s his star sets (“I think Uncle Cecil’s poems are awfully imperialist, Granny”), never to rise again, despite his biographer’s wish to polish and pin it up in a new gay firmament. “He was a first-rate example,” says the queer theorist, “of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters.”
The book begins in the plenitude of a summer evening in 1913, overripe and rich with secrets:
It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.
The observing consciousness here belongs to Daphne Sawle, the 16-year-old sister of Cecil’s lover, George; it is through her that we first see, or rather hear, the two young men come into the garden of Two Acres through the woods from Harrow and Wealdstone station. (The suburban name neatly foretells the fate of the Sawles’ house and garden: by the end of the book Two Acres has become Old Acres, a new development of “Executive Homes.”) Daphne’s world shimmers with things half understood, unspoken or disclosed in “the kind of ‘Cambridge talk’ that George often treated them to, where things were insisted on that couldn’t possibly be meant.” In this world there is no way to name Daphne’s shock and thrill at finding George and Cecil in the hammock after dinner and being included in their edgy banter; or the thrill and shock of being kissed by Cecil in the dark, and being hurt by “the hard shape of the cigar case in his trouser pocket thrusting against her stomach.” A cigar is both always and never only a cigar.
In her eager literary precociousness Daphne is very like Briony, the child whose prurient imagination sets the action rolling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but Hollinghurst deploys her to a very different purpose: while Briony’s misprisions frame a moralistic fable about writing, Daphne’s reflect the double entendres and strategic silences of the culture she inhabits, which offer hiding places in plain sight. So, at dinner, playing footsie with Cecil under the table, George is horrified when someone mentions the young men’s membership in the Apostles, the supposedly secret society at Cambridge University—horrified, above all, at what Cecil might think of such a breach of trust. “Candour is our watch-word,” George explains, trying to save the situation. “I see,” says his brother, Hubert. “And what are you candid about?” “Well that,” Cecil cuts in, “I’m afraid we’re not allowed to tell you.” George is left with “a mysterious vision of screens, as of one train moving behind another, the larger collective secret of the Society and the other unspeakable one still surely hidden from view.”
The unspeakable secret is both planted and hidden in the long poem, “Two Acres,” that Cecil leaves behind in Daphne’s autograph album and that becomes the cornerstone of his posthumous fame. (It is also veiled, appropriately for the period, in Hollinghurst’s book, which eschews the explicitness of his earlier work for the judicious line break and the wry prose equivalent of the shared cigarette: “‘That was very good,’ muttered Cecil, already standing up.”) The poem changes Daphne’s life, although the passion expressed in it was “really” meant for George; we next see her after the war as the mistress of Corley Court, the Valances’ country house, itself a pastiche (like Brideshead and its many real avatars) with its Oriental dining room and jelly-mold ceiling domes. The confusing weekend at Two Acres has been fixed as if in formaldehyde; the poem that meant so much to her has become public property: “It’s entered the language, hasn’t it?” Corley is being modernized, its high ceilings boxed in and its dark, shadowy corners brightened with pale paint. Cecil’s white marble effigy lies in the chapel, bleached and leached of detail, “candid” in the root meaning of the word.
In the novel’s most moving extended passage, George pays his respects at his old lover’s tomb, remembering his first visit to the chapel in his company, and recalls, as he looks at “the small seamed cushions of the closed eyes,” the living Cecil, “the heat of Cecil, the hair-raising beauty of his skin, of his warm waist under his shirt, and the trail of rough curls leading down from his waist.” That Cecil is already vanishing under the stiff weight of his reputation: “Is it Cecil, or is it, as it were, someone else?” Daphne’s memories of her infatuation with him, too, remain inexpressible: “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say.” But when Hollinghurst returns to her in the 1960s, a suburban old lady now, she has, at least in public, put her doubts aside and endorsed the official Cecil myth: “It turned out ‘Two Acres’ had been written specifically for her. She told Paul about it quite frankly, over the second Gin and It.”
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In a neat affirmation of the characters’ own silences, the historical events that shape their lives also take place offstage: Hollinghurst is concerned with the interstices, with what happens in between. The opening of each section is pleasurably disorienting, with small red herrings laid to complicate the game and narrative feints that implicate the reader in the characters’ prejudices. The passage of time is marked by carefully planted details—a pale blue Morris Oxford, the boom of a B-58—but also by subtle shifts in social nuance, which Hollinghurst captures with uncanny exactitude. So in 1913 the Two Acres parlormaid, impressed for table duty, places each bread roll “with a tiny gasp of relief;” in the 1960s a secretary withdraws “with her sad flinch of a smile.” The ugliness of modernity inundates the countryside; the tidemarks left by the retreat of empire also stain the houses. Corley Court becomes a boys’ boarding school, redolent of Airfix glue and imperial nostalgia, where a young teacher and his bank-clerk lover search for places to make love; in a flourish typical of Hollinghurst’s deadpan innuendo, the false ceiling collapses when the matron’s bath overflows, exposing once again the famous jelly-mold domes. Through many quiet echoes and recapitulations, the novel signals what has changed and what remains the same. In 1913 Cecil says the word “Corley” “as other men said ‘England’ or ‘The King,’ with reverent briskness and simple confidence in his cause”; in the 1960s the teacher, Peter Rowe, says it “as one might London, perhaps, or Dijon, with cultured certainty and polite surprise.” For George, what was once feted as Cecil’s “membrum virile” becomes, sixty-seven years later and with a little help from dementia, “an enormous cock.” But the line break in which love happens doesn’t change, whether it shelters George and Cecil in 1913 or the shy coming together of Peter and Paul Bryant some fifty years afterward.
Paul, who later becomes Cecil’s biographer, is a familiar Hollinghurst figure, the young gay innocent searching in books for clues to his own life; the son of a single mother widowed by World War II, he is both a sexual and a class outsider, like Nick Guest at the home of his Tory hosts in The Line of Beauty. It is partly his background that drives his investigations, which take him to visit many of the book’s earlier characters and allow Hollinghurst to have much literary fun and games, writing Cecil into the real English canon and producing skilled parodies not only of Edwardian verse but of various letters, diaries and memoirs. Though it’s dazzlingly well done, this section risks descending into fusty academic comedy; the characters and family relationships proliferate confusingly. The novel’s purloined letter—the actual letters written by Cecil to George—is of course never found. Other texts contain lacunas; Paul’s tape recorder fails. The truth, we are led to believe, has probably gone up in smoke—that is, if it was ever anything more than that.
But not quite. For all his postmodern playfulness Hollinghurst is, at heart, a romantic English writer. The silence at the core of this book is a space not for meaninglessness but for tenderness. “Was ever such a letter written by a man to a man?” thinks George at Cecil’s tomb. “How the world would howl and condemn if it read over my shoulder, yet everything in it is as natural and true as the spring itself.” Much later, in the 1960s, dreaming of Peter after their first meeting, Paul imagines “a shadowy scene more thrilling and scandalous than anything described in Films and Filming—in fact a scene that, as far as he knew, had never been described at all.” At an Oxford conference in the 1970s, Cecil’s brother, Dudley, himself a successful writer, is making snide remarks about his brother’s work; an elderly general interrupts to praise a poem of Cecil’s, “The Old Company”:
“‘It’s the old company, all right,/But without the old companions’—one of the truest things said about the experience of many young officers.” He looked around—“They came back and they came back, do you see, if they came through at all, and the company was completely changed, they’d all been killed. There was always a company tradition, keenly maintained, but the only people who remembered the old soldiers were soon dead themselves—no one remembered the rememberers.”… Paul sensed there were demurrers in the group, but the General’s claim for the poem’s truth made them hesitate.
In a culture where almost every utterance is layered with class markers and hedged with irony, where every written sentence drags a vast hinterland of earlier prose behind it, directness can become impossibly elusive. That’s one reason so many English novelists—from A.S. Byatt to Ian McEwan to Sarah Waters—have used pastiche to give their work its spin and keep it from becoming inert on the page. Hollinghurst does that too, perhaps more subtly and skillfully than anyone writing now, but in The Stranger’s Child he’s also after something more. By giving so much traction to wit and irony, by tracing so thoroughly the construction of the myth of Englishness after World War I, by describing so clear-sightedly what became of that world and its houses, Hollinghurst has made a space for true loss and true sorrow, which require great tact and reticence if they are to show themselves. “The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes,” George reflects, looking back; as in The Swimming-Pool Library, the idyll and the priapic figures are indivisible. In many ways The Stranger’s Child is a nostalgic book, but not for the days of gay oppression or English ascendancy. In marking the long transition from secrecy to openness, it simply acknowledges that something has been lost, that there is an advantage to being, in the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s words, “Definitionless in this strict atmosphere.”n