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 wrong about the invisibility of his homosexuality too, but that’s another story.

But the historical insight offered here concerns something more than Alex’s personal life. He is haunted by ever-present possibilities of failure, and it is in the house where the already mentioned conversation about church bell-ringing takes place that he abruptly learns his new grand affair is over. He accepts this as he accepts everything else: with “wounded bafflement.” What’s interesting, though, is not Alex’s failure, if that’s what it is, but the fact that he can find an image of failure in such an intimate and elaborate portrait of Old England. Parodies of England, and many English manifestations which are not supposed to be parodies at all, regularly include failure, denied, proclaimed, shufflingly confessed, brilliantly spoofed, as a major element—even in the complete absence of any idea of what success might mean.

When Alex first gets to the cottage of the friends he has come to visit, he knows he is about to step into a national fantasy. There’s no place like home because home is not a place at all, just a received notion of what a home ought to look like.

The cottage was low and very pretty and Alex scanned it with an Englishman’s nostalgia as well as a tall person’s sense of imminent discomfort. It was almost too much, it was the ideal of a cottage tuned closed to the point of parody, the walls of gold-brown rubble patched with bits of chalk and brick, the straw fantail pigeons on the crest of the roof and the real ones that sidled on the slope of the thatch below, the white clematis and yellow Mermaid rose trained tumblingly above the small dark windows, the air of stunned homeliness…

Nostalgia and discomfort: the perfect losing combination. And the real pigeons are sidling rather than strutting or just walking: even they have got the idea of the thing.

Can it be an accident that there is a minor character called Doggett in both Hollinghurst’s and Barnes’s novels? Yes, of course, but it is an accident with a history. Doggett presumably struck both writers as the sort of earthy Saxon name one ought to find, to borrow a locution from Calvino, not in rural England or even a book set in rural England, but in a place where you can’t tell England from “England.” And in which real or imaginary country do we locate the local church, for instance, St. Aldwyn’s by name?

It smelt of mould and rot; it wasn’t a snug sanctuary, more a continuation, even a concentration, of the dank chill outside. The petit-point hassocks were clammy to the touch; the foxed hymnal pages reeked of second-hand bookshop; even the light which struggled through the Victorian glass seemed to get slightly wet in the process.

Discomfort and nostalgia ride again. But the narrative situation of this church complicates our proposition considerably. It is to be found on the Isle of Wight, but as a relic which is even more outdated than it looks (or smells or feels), because the whole island has, in Julian Barnes’s novel, been made over into a concentrated replica of a fantasy England. Not a theme park, its inventor insists:

We are not talking heritage centre. We are not talking Disneyland, World’s Fair, Festival of Britain, Legoland or Parc Astérix. Colonial Williamsburg? Excuse me…. We shall offer far more than words such as Entertainment can possibly imply; even the phrase Quality Leisure, proud though I am of it, perhaps, in the long run, falls short. We are offering the thing itself.

Something better than Quality Leisure, imagine. Take historical failure, the last twitch of empire, as Barnes calls it elsewhere, and make it pay. Another character in England, England says, “You could—and should—be able to embrace time and change and age without becoming a historical depressive.” The thing itself is not a fantasy located within a historical reality; it is a new historical reality, a takeover and a displacement. The Wall Street Journal, conscripted for this fiction, says the Project, as the new development is called, brings together “in a single hundred-and-fifty-five square mile zone everything the Visitor might want to see of what we used to think of as England.” The place is expensive to visit, but, as the director of the Project explains, “After you’ve visited us, you don’t need to see Old England.” “In the old days,” the Journal adds, “if you wanted to see Westminster Abbey, you had to go to Westminster Abbey.” Talk about backward. On the new Isle of Wight you can see every English cliché you ever dreamed of: sheepdog trials and Big Ben; the graves of Shakespeare and Princess Di; Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Dr. Johnson and his dyspeptic temper; London taxis, thatched cottages, warm beer, cream teas; the National Gallery, Brontë Country, marmalade, Morris dancing, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sherlock Holmes, Nell Gwynn—this list is far from complete. “There is also, for the fiscally adventurous, the head-scratching complexity of real old English currency.” Even the King and Queen have been hired to impersonate themselves—the time is now some time after “the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent fracture of the hereditary principle.”

In one of the novel’s several comic tours de force, Barnes gives us a list of what the citizenry of England (we are not talking about Great or Little Britain), when polled in preparation for the Island’s new life, say are the “characteristics, virtues or quintessences” of their beloved country. There are fifty items, running from Royal Family to Magna Carta, but you’ll get the spirit if I mention (4) Class system, (12) Snobbery, (34) Half-Timbering, (37) Winston Churchill, (41) Trooping the Colour, (42) Whingeing, (43) Queen Victoria, and (48) Flagellation/Public Schools. “Here, on the Island, they had learnt how to deal with history, how to sling it carelessly on your back and stride out across the downland with the breeze in your face.”

Of course all is not perfect in the Project, in spite of its rampant commercial success. There are what we might call reality crises, clashes between the simulacrum and desire, or vertiginous excesses of identification. A security man appears in the director’s office with a worry. “There seems to be a slight problem with the smugglers,” the picturesque fellows employed to reenact the fiction of Daphne Du Maurier, and other fans of rocks and coves and dark nights and wreckers. “What’s the problem,” the director asks, little suspecting the dizzying, doubling answer to come. “They’re smuggling.” It is a sign of the remaining humanity, not to say sanity, of the director that, at this news, she has to suppress “the carefree, innocent, pure, true laugh that lay within her, something as incorporeal as the breeze, a freak moment of nature, a freshness long forgotten; something so untainted as to induce hysteria.” Untainted by unreality, that is, and although the laugh is ours as well as the director’s, the overexplicitness, even sentimentality of the writing (“breeze,” “freak,” “nature,” “freshness long forgotten”) suggest that Barnes himself doesn’t quite know what to do with the extent of the taint.

In the case of Dr. Johnson, things are even worse. The visitors want only “Dr. Johnson,” a polite scale model of the real thing, but they are getting an impressive performance from a fake who has forgotten that a fake is what he is. Here are some of the complaints entered against him:

That he was badly dressed and had a rank smell to him; that he ate his dinner like a wild beast, and so quickly that Visitors, feeling obliged to keep pace, gave themselves indigestion; that he was either bullyingly dominant or else sunk in silence; that several times, in mid-sentence, he had stooped down and twitched off a woman’s shoe; that he was depressing company; that he made racist remarks about many of the Visitors’ countries of origin; that he was irritable when closely questioned; that however brilliant his conversation might be, clients were distracted by the asthmatic gasping that accompanied it, and the needless rolling-around in his chair.

When the director calls the Doctor in for a disciplinary chat, she gets more of the same. Perhaps Boswell, or “Boswell,” is the problem? “He fills a chair.” The food then? “It is as bad as bad can be. It is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-dressed.” But then the Doctor falls at the director’s feet, and starts gabbling the Lord’s Prayer to himself. Fetishism will out. Rebuked, he confesses his errors but not his fictitious existence. “When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of body, and disturbances of mind very close to madness, which I hope He that made me will suffer to extenuate many faults, and excuse many deficiencies.”

This is wild and whirling stuff, and the director herself feels the Doctor has behaved “as if she were less real than he was.” This, we soon learn, is because she is less real than he is. She knows who she is and where she is. She is Martha Cochrane, the smart and worldly woman who can look after herself, whose cynicism is always ahead of everyone else’s, and she is the director of the Project because she has cleverly ousted its inventor, Sir Jack Pitman, a bullying tycoon who thought he could condescend to her. But that’s only one way of being real, and her encounter with Dr. Johnson, for all its layers of simulation, is an encounter with history and the world. It doesn’t really matter who’s responsible “for turning ‘Dr. Johnson’ into Dr. Johnson, for peeling off the protective quotation marks and leaving him vulnerable”:

The sudden truth she had felt as he leaned over her, wheezing and muttering, was that his pain was authentic. And his pain was authentic because it came from authentic contact with the world…. The way he had twitched off her shoe and started gabbling the Lord’s Prayer as if in expiation; the way he had talked of his disorders and deficiencies, his hopes of salvation and forgiveness. By whatever means this vision had been put in front of her, she saw a creature alone with itself, wincing at naked contact with the world. When had she last seen—or felt—anything like that?

Worse still, when did Martha last believe that anything like that was possible? Martha doesn’t find redemption from unreality in this novel, and still less does she find the heart-stopping, uncompromised love she can’t cease wanting, for all her careful cynicism. But she survives many of unreality’s onslaughts, and she remembers the lesson of Dr. Johnson’s pain. She recognizes, for instance, that it’s possible to be “artificial without being specious,” and wonders whether the “truer” nostalgia is “not for what you knew, or thought you had known, as a child, but for what you could never have known.” The brilliant and quirky reflections on memory which open the book (“Martha Cochrane was to live a long time, and in all her years she was never to come across a first memory which was not in her opinion a lie”), point toward the same thought. “It was like a country remembering its history: the past was never just the past, it was what made the present able to live with itself.”

What England, England suggests is that there are many ways of losing the past, and that the invocation of a national memory is one of the best of all ways of making sure it stays lost. What’s more, there may be no direct way of recovering the past, just the hope of some accidental, live anachronism, a Dr. Johnson of our own. The memory of England in this novel becomes the Project, a synthetic commercial country which makes Old England obsolete, all discomfort and no nostalgia. So obsolete, in fact, that the actual country secedes from Europe, and virtually from the world, returning to its ancient, isolated ways. By the end of the book Old England is called Anglia, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms have been reinstituted as provinces.

The world began to forget that “England” had even meant anything except England, England [the trade name of the Project], a false memory which the Island worked to enforce; while those who remained in Anglia began to forget about the world beyond. Poverty ensued, of course; though the word meant less in the absence of comparisons…. A new chic applied to fountain-pens and letter-writing, to family evenings round the wireless and dialling “O” for Operator; then such fashionable habits acquired authentic strength. Cities dwindled; mass transit systems were abandoned, though a few steam trains still ran; horses bossed the streets. Coal was dug again, and the kingdoms asserted their differences; new dialects emerged, based on the new separations.

Ah, the wireless, the streets full of horse shit, the impenetrable dialects: the brave old world.

The book begins with Martha as a child in pre-Project England, and ends with her as an old lady in Anglia, so she sees the complete satirical unfolding of a scheme we might regard as implicit in Barnes’s Letters from London, a series of articles originally written for The New Yorker, and which made him, he said, “a foreign correspondent in my own country.” Barnes remarked in a recent interview that he feels “awkward with the word ‘satire”’ and prefers “semi-farce,” and some of that awkwardness lingers not only in that half-hearted verbal preference, but in the plotting and writing of England, England, above all when characters who are not Dr. Johnson try to get in touch with their putative feelings. Not all the jokes are as good as the ones I’ve illustrated. Still, “satire” seems to me a noble word, and the right one, and Barnes doesn’t let it down.

In Letters from London, Barnes tells us that those who opposed Margaret Thatcher made “two fundamental miscalculations.” They thought she was just a “Tory ideologue,” didn’t see that she “represented and successfully appealed to a strong and politically disregarded form of Englishness.” And they thought “that what she was doing to the country could, and would, eventually be undone.” England, England is not an allegory, and neither Martha Cochrane nor Sir Jack Pitman is Margaret Thatcher. But between them they give us a good picture of her spirit walking. That spirit abolished the past while appealing to it, and in some sense perhaps even yearning for it, and you can now, in England, cross over from the Project to Anglia and back almost any day—without going to the Isle of Wight or encountering anything you might think of as an up-to-date European country. The semi-farce becomes realistic when the real becomes fully farcical. Whether there’s a space in the contemporary country for the wheezing, unprotected Dr. Johnson is an open question; one doesn’t imagine him getting on too well with Tony Blair, perhaps a truer heir to Margaret Thatcher than Martha or Sir Jack. In any event, the best example of the stalking spirit is the one Barnes evokes in Letters from London:

When I want an image of what Mrs. Thatcher has done to Britain [not just England] I think of the carol singers. At the time she came to power, they would, as they always had, stand outside your house, sing a carol or two, then ring the bell and, if you answered, sing some more. Halfway through the rule of Thatch, I began noticing that they wouldn’t bother to start singing until they had first rung the bell and checked that you were there to listen and pay up. After she had been in power for about ten years, I opened the door one Christmas and peered out. There were two small boys some distance from the house already, unwilling to waste their time if they got a negative response. “Carols?” one of them asked, spreading his hands in a businesslike gesture, as if he had just acquired a job lot of tunes off the back of a lorry and could perhaps be persuaded to cut me in.

The England of Holling- hurst’s The Spell, as we have seen from the opening quotation, is not a simulacrum or a replica, just the real thing verging on parody. Although it has a strong flavor of Anglia, its alternative vision is not the Project (even if homosexuality is number 35 on Barnes’s list of English virtues), but gay London, swinging and international: a world of clubs, bars, drink, drugs, gropes, and (sometimes) happiness in the night. People shop at Issey Miyake, listen to techno and house music, and have names like “Jim and François, and Carlton, and Bob and Steve and Jerry and Heinrich.” When a valuable pendant is stolen the thieves are Brazilian. And when gay London takes off for the country it’s like a riotous invasion of centuries of sleep:

There was no doubt who the party party were. Among the few Saturday commuters, local kids and dun-coloured hikers there was a swishing little posse of metropolitan muscle and glamour. In appearance the boys ranged from sexily interesting through very handsome to troublingly perfect.

This last assessment is, I take it, a bit of style indirect libre, the judgment of a character rather than authorial assertion, but there can’t be any doubt about the swish or the glamour.

The occasion of the party is a birthday. Danny, who is Alex’s new lover, is turning twenty-three, and his father, Robin, an architect, is the owner of the low-slung cottage we have already seen. “I understand you’re now living as a gay man,” another character says to Robin. “Well, I am a gay man,” Robin replies, but then pretty much everyone else is in this novel, apart from a few hetero walk-ons, who generally do the comic bits. Robin is now living with Justin, Alex’s ex-boyfriend, so you can see that things are a little complicated, and also that the major sexual register, in spite of all the names and the fun, is quite small. More like a minuet than a rave, and possibly more like a soap opera than a minuet.

At one point Robin, recalling dancing styles, has the sense that his own “Mick Jaggerish strutting and shaking had already gone to join the jitterbug in dance limbo, along with the twist and the charleston, the quadrille and the gavotte,” but the plot he is caught up in has a certain repetitive formality to it, unless we think of it as possessing the breathless limitations of romantic fiction. Alex meets Danny, Justin breaks up with Robin, Justin comes back to Robin, Danny leaves Alex, Alex finds a new boyfriend Nick, and Nick and Alex and Justin and Robin all meet up at the end, looking at the dropping sun and the curling silver currents of the English Channel. Danny thinks of “the muddled commitments of this group of older men,” and also of “the farce of sex,” so perhaps farce is the genre we should be looking to: one of those plots where everyone keeps running in and out of different bedrooms.

The most visible spell in the novel is that cast by young Danny over Alex (“I feel as if I’m under a beautiful spell”), but Danny himself thinks about the uncertainty of “sex-magic,” and in a tangled moment of self-awareness, feels most loyal to Alex just as he is about to abandon him.

At times, the success of his deceits gave him a dizzy feeling of competence, at sustaining a double life; and that in turn made him proud of his affair with Alex, as an achievement, unlike the straightforward world of his miscellaneous fucks, with its perishable feelings and minimal commitments.

But of course Danny is dedicated to his deceits and perishable feelings, can’t live without them, just as his father Robin is so remorselessly proud of his “unrefusable sexual power.” When Robin misbehaves, screwing around with Justin when his previous partner is dying, he can’t suppress “a certain shocked admiration for his own instinctual drive.” The common element here, shared by everyone except the sentimental Alex, is said to be a “blind desire to know the world through sex,” although all of these key words (power, drive, desire) seem rather fancy terms for what looks more like a realm of appetite and addiction and edgy vanity.

The characters in The Spell are mostly disagreeable, immensely selfish, and they’re not big on self-knowledge, although they are funny and certainly not without their rakish charm. Danny looks at himself in the mirror, sees how “terribly beautiful” he is, and we see him seeing that. “The image itself reflected again off some hard vain surface deep in his eye.” It takes a particular kind of moralist to find vanity in the depths of vision itself, and Danny certainly can’t see the hardness and vanity. Nor does he see that his “easy pity” for the man he is about to ditch is far too easy. When Danny realizes that he and Justin are “about to share the shabby distinction of having thrown Alex over,” he is himself aware of the shabbiness. But he believes in the distinction too, and when he thinks of pain as “the hard currency of human business,” we know he is once again slipping away from the very idea of constancy, deriving his “competence” from his speed of emotional movement, and from someone else’s pain.

The Spell lacks the passion and intensity of Hollinghurst’s earlier novels, The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star, and there are moments when the writing flops into uncharacteristic gush: “Alex loved being with him, it went off like a rocket in his heart, the fierce ascent and all the soft explosions of descending stars.” But Hollinghurst can also write very well, reminding us of “the unforgivable ignorance of mail sent to the newly dead,” or “the gruesome excess of irony which bristles around any crisis.” “His thoughts,” we learn of Alex in love, “emerged from the watery interview or vanishing railway-carriage of dreams, stumbled on for a few forgetful instants, pale and directionless, and then fled towards Danny in a grateful glow of remembered purpose.”

Hollinghurst is above all a specialist in irony, in the sense of what may lurk in the most casual words. A local couple have just dropped in for a drink, “though on their lips the phrase had a worrying looseness, with no implied promise of their dropping out again.” The characters themselves are endlessly, intricately ironic, their every sentence littered with nuance and implication. “You’re looking very groomed, darling, for the country,” Justin says to Alex when he shows up at the cottage. “This is the country,” Justin adds. “You can tell because of all the traffic, and the pubs are full of fascists. Apparently there’s another homo moving into the village. We’re terribly over-excited, as you can imagine.”

This little speech pastiches several quite different vocabularies, offering the listener the choice of response, and the speaker the choice of refuge. Toward the end of the book one of the characters is said to stand around “in a leisurely uncertainty about the pitch of irony,” but most of the time the uncertainty here is far from leisurely. Hectic, rather. The uncertainty and the irony provide all the energy in this book, and ensure that what might otherwise have been a rather faded country affair picks up and sustains the nervous pathos of the passage of time and beauty and sexual power. The pathos is not in the passage, but in the knowledge of the passage, whether the characters fully accede to it or not, and whatever their age. Hence the irony. A form of history lesson, the fading of the sunlight from the undertaker’s window.