Monday, September 19, 2011

Alan Hollinghurst captures the twentieth century in a masterpiece of literary recollection.

I have had an early look at this novel that has just been published in England, and I am going to write a longer review than usual.

The Stranger’s Child

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (448 pages, Knopf, $27.95) is a staggering accomplishment. It follows the fortunes of a couple of aristocratic families over the course of the twentieth century; and in doing so it raises issues about love and sexuality, memory, family, literary recollection, truth and falsity, bibliography, biography, English culture, war memoirs, and most important, perhaps, poetry and its relation to experience.

The story is told in several set-pieces, ranging from 1913 to 2008. Many of the same characters circulate in each of these pieces, but each features a new character and a new narrative perspective best suited to the historical moment being examined.

Each section of the novel is so riveting and so beautifully told that one could be forgiven for wishing that Hollinghurst had allowed himself to make an entire novel out of this setting or that historical moment. But in the end, it is perfectly clear that all these sections are necessary to tell the story that Hollinghurst is trying to tell. It is nothing less than a kind of cultural analysis of the twentieth century from a number of different perspectives.

At first the story might seem over-familiar. Two Cambridge undergraduates appear at one of their family homes during a vacation time. They are intellectually exuberant, each being a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret group that met regularly to discuss ideas and (it seems) to grope each other meaningfully. Cecil and George are in love with each other, and during their visit to George’s home “Two Acres,” they practically scandalize George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne, who always has a way of peeking through the hedge just when they are at their most intimate. Cecil Valence is handsome and muscular, and he is domineering as well. George, blond and handsome himself, is utterly smitten; and the two men can hardly keep their hands off each other at dinner or while lying in a hammock.

Meanwhile, Daphne is intrigued with Cecil too. She knows him because of the poetry he has published. He seems a close second to Rupert Brooke at the time—Hollinghurst publishes enough of Cecil’s poetry to allow us to judge for ourselves—and he has astonishing self-assurance. George and Daphne Sawle are caught up in this phenomenon, and both feel that the poetry he writes in Daphne’s autograph book—a poem called “Two Acres”—is meant for them. We have seen enough to know that the love for George was deep and meaningful to the poet but that his dalliance with Daphne—he kissed her in the entryway to the house—was vivid as well. It is fair to say that only George and Cecil know the depth of their shared love, and only they can read between the lines of Cecil’s most famous poem—which “Two Acres” quickly becomes—to understand how richly and fully it represents their love affair.

History, however, sees it differently. Cecil is killed in the First World War, and Daphne claims the role of the woman who was engaged to and now mourns him. It does seem that after the visit to the Sawle house, Daphne went to Cecil’s family house at Corley—a Victorian pile that fascinates her deeply—and that during those visits, apart from the constant carrying on of George and Cecil, she and the poet become attached. She has some love letters from France to prove her attachment. After Cecil’s death, however, she marries his dreadful brother Dudley. The second section of the novel is set in the 1920s, just before the General Strike in England. This is another moment when these upper classes are teetering on collapse. We see Daphne and Dudley at home. They are having a big weekend in celebration of Cecil, and we find other new characters and some of the old ones in new configurations. George is very much in the background here, and so is his mother. But she is carrying around with her a sheaf of letters that Cecil wrote George from France, the male love letters to contrast to those he wrote to Daphne, and she cannot decide whether or not to confront George with them. She is appalled at what they suggest and is clearly torn about what to do with them. We never discover exactly what happens to them, but we get the clear sense that they are lost.

We also hear at this time about some poems that Cecil may or may not have sent from France before his death. Some friends, and especially an early biographer, have seen these poems, but no one is sure what has happened to them.

These two threads—the letters that will tell a fuller truth about Cecil and George and the lost poems of Cecil—come to sustain the narrative, and in a sense we become like literary detectives ourselves, always hoping to get closer to these crucial details.

Throughout several later sections, as these central characters grow older and we meet their children and grandchildren, a young lower class guy, gay himself, gets to know that family and the house at Corley and becomes fascinated with the saga of Cecil Valence, a poet whose work he had to memorize at school. Paul Bryant, a bank teller in the 1960s, is a working biographer by 1980, and we see him trying to piece together the truths of George and Cecil and Daphne back in the teens. He meets the two survivors, the brother and sister who were both in love with Cecil, and talking to them he starts to make sense of the past. Both people are indirect and absolutely confusing when he talks to them, but he still starts to get something of the picture. He is a timid young man, and the sections of the novel in which he is central are among the most fascinating, both because he is an outsider to this upper-class world and because his own sense of himself and what he is trying to achieve is the most tentative.
In the last section of the novel, Paul’s biography has been long-since published, and we hear from various accounts how absurd the family considered it. Cecil was in love with George—what could be more ridiculous—and that Daphne has children outside of her (various) marriages, too. Paul is considered a rank intruder, but we know from our perspective that he has come close to the truth just through his amazing instincts and good guessing.

E. M. Forster is quoted here and seems to be the inspiration for some of the threads of the narrative, especially the early ones concerning the Cambridge Apostles, of which he wrote as well. Later sections, especially those with Paul as the narrative center, remind one most vividly of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, which also concerned a young man trying to get to the heart of a writers identity. The Stranger’s Child pulls those traditions together, and also makes it clear how faulty memories of the past can be. The eighty-three year-old Daphne may think she is remembering the past, but as she even admits, she can hardly call to mind anything that ever happened after the cocktail hour—some sixty years all blend together in her memory—and who, she tells herself, even remembers anything they read.

This novel is about literature and memory, about attempts to make sense of the past, and how time itself obliterates much of what might in the past have been considered true. As the gay writer tries to get close to what happened in the past, he can only approximate what we ourselves have seen was immensely significant. Hollinghurst has told this story in order to make that fact of literary recollection vivid and meaningful to his readers. In this he has been preeminently successful. This is surely his own literary masterpiece.

Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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