Tight Little Island

The Spell

by Alan Hollinghurst
Viking, 257 pp., $24.95

Rural England, even the real thing, often looks like a parody of itself. You visit someone in the village, and before you have downed your first gin and tonic they’re talking about bell-ringing and cricket and who got a blue for what at Cambridge. You go for a walk, and pheasants whirr up in front of you as if practicing for their future life on coasters and place mats. I take these instances from the new novels by Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes, but I could also have taken them from almost anyone’s actual experience.

Sometimes the parody is a little run-down, well past its imperial best:

The poverty of the little supermarket, with its own-brand biscuits and jams; the high prices of the farm shop, with organic vegetables and free-range eggs crusted in authenticating dung; the brown old men who slapped down all their change on the newsagent’s counter, not yet used to decimal currency, or leaned wheezily at the urinal under the town clock with their leather shopping bags; the old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes, and the charity thrift-shop indistinguishable from it, and the derelict boutiques with a spew of mail across the bare floor; the photos of fêtes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of a museum; the peeling front of the main hotel, with its promise of fire-doors and meal smells; the word MONUMENTAL on an undertaker’s sunlit window thrown in sharp-etched shadow across a waiting tablet; the shyness of the country folk and the loudness of their jokes and greetings—he felt he knew it all, and was horrified by it, as though by some irremediable failing of his own.

This is Thomas Hardy’s England, updated by decimal currency and a supermarket, along with the boutiques which have already come and gone, but also curiously persistent in its shabby sadness. “For life I had never cared greatly,” Hardy writes in a well-known poem; but he cultivated a pretty lively form of indifference, and so does his England. The sunlight on the undertaker’s window: an inducement to a slightly morbid form of survival.

Of course the perception here—the quotation comes from The Spell—belongs to a particular character, embarrassed by his past, suddenly prepared to enjoy his present and his future. He is Alex, a gay civil servant (“pensions fund of a government department”), who has recently found new excitements through a youthful boyfriend and an encounter with the drug Ecstasy. One of the things he likes about the country is its apparent unawareness of what the city watches for: “He had the eerily restful country feeling that his homosexuality was completely invisible to these people.” But there’s not much life in restfulness, and the country is also Alex’s unadventurous past. He grew up in a country town which resembles the one he has just arrived in, and he has a “ghostly familiarity” with its dullness and conformism. He may be …

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