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On ‘The Stranger’s Child’

In response to:

In Gay and Crumbling England from the November 10, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Stranger’s Child [NYR, November 10], Daniel Mendelsohn writes as follows:

However delicious the lampoon of the nouveau riche Thatcherites may be in [Alan Hollinghurst’s 2004 novel] The Line of Beauty, you can’t help noticing the unspoken assumptions that lie behind the depictions of many of the vulgar right-wingers in whose company Nick Guest [the novel’s protagonist] becomes immersed. What, exactly, are we being asked to conclude about the crass “new” England when we learn, of one member of Nick Guest’s new circle, that the grand Duchess of Flintshire was once “plain Sharon Feingold”? This awkward and, I’m sure, unconscious inclination on Alan Hollinghurst’s part is worth mentioning because it inevitably weakens the force of his larger critique.

I don’t think that we are being asked to conclude anything that is not said. But we may conclude, unexcitingly, that Hollinghurst respects certain principles of realism in his lampoon, and, like all novelists, draws on elements of his own experience. I find no awkwardness, no unspoken assumptions, no dubious unconscious inclination, and no weakening.

Mendelsohn continues in a footnote:

I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne’s marital history [in The Stranger’s Child, the novel under review] seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final husband is a certain “Mr. Jacobs,” a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the “plain Sharon Feingold” sort. In this context it’s worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances—he represents the distressingly crass “modern” world of publicity and celebrity—is called Jerry Goldblatt.

Here Mendelsohn picks the names “Jacobs,” “Goldblatt,” and “Feingold” out of the huge cast of characters in Hollinghurst’s novels, and unequivocally implies, without any evidence of any sort, that Hollinghurst’s writing is in some way anti-Semitic.

When I encounter the surname name “Jacobs” in the United Kingdom, I take it that it’s quite likely to be the name of a Welsh Christian nonconformist, formed from the forename “Jacob” by the addition of an “–s” suffix: an instance of the standard Welsh patronymic, which gives us familiar surnames like Williams, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Griffiths, Davies (David’s), Jones (John’s). I don’t know whether Basil Jacobs is Jewish or Welsh, in Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child. Perhaps he is both—or neither. He is in any case described as “certainly the nicest” of Daphne’s three husbands.

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a usually intelligent critic like Daniel Mendelsohn can take Hollinghurst’s reference to “plain Sharon Feingold” in The Line of Beauty, or a photographer called Goldblatt in The Stranger’s Child, to indicate any trace of anti-Semitism. I suppose this sort of prejudice—Mendelsohn’s—will never end. But it requires a failure of ear, a narrowness of mind, an ignorance of the world, a capacity for unwarranted insult (the wearily regretful tone, the footnote as insinuation), that is in Mendelsohn’s case surprising, and in any case squalid. One hopes that Daniel Mendelsohn doesn’t think that Philip Roth can write about plain Sharon Feingold without anti-Semitism while Alan Hollinghurst cannot. Mendelsohn should apologize unconditionally for a slur that is as serious as he himself takes it to be.

Galen Strawson
Visiting Professor of Philosophy
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

I am grateful to Galen Strawson for alerting me to the possibility that “Basil Jacobs” might not be a Jewish name, as this would reduce the number of instances—striking ones, to my ear—in which Jewish surnames are used as markers of social decline in Alan Hollinghurst’s work.

I have objections, however, to some of his other claims. Professor Strawson dismisses my footnoted aside as a kind of phony rhetorical pose (my “wearily regretful tone, the footnote as insinuation”). I think my essay about Hollinghurst should have made it very clear that I have tremendous admiration for this writer, which is precisely why it gave me no pleasure to take note of what I did not claim (and do not believe, incidentally) was some kind of personal anti-Jewish animus on Alan Hollinghurst’s part, but tried carefully to characterize as an “unconscious” lapse into “an old British literary habit”—that habit being the use of Jews as exotics and symbols of un-Britishness.

I stand by my reading. Although I am of course willing to entertain Professor Strawson’s implication that generations of British authors have been the victims of a dire “prejudice” on the part of Jewish readers such as myself, I am emboldened to suggest that the burden of sensitivity lies on the other side. It is true that Hollinghurst’s work contains a “huge cast of characters”; indeed very few of them have recognizably Jewish surnames (even fewer than I’d thought, if Professor Strawson is right). For that very reason, I wished that the arriviste duchess in The Line of Beauty (who, when we first meet her, is the object of another character’s mimicry—a “thoughtless social dynamo” who is the heiress to a “vinegar fortune”) hadn’t been a Feingold; that the money behind the morally bankrupt Thatcherite politician at the center of that same book hadn’t been the Rothschild-like Kessler heiress (she seems “distantly foreign” to the protagonist); that the pushy intruder into the Valances’ marmoreally aristocratic existence hadn’t been Jerry Goldblatt. I cannot accept Professor Strawson’s startling claim that an author’s presentation of his characters—especially in a work of biting social and political satire such as The Line of Beauty—does not ask its readers to “conclude anything.”

To be sure, “principles of realism” must guide a novelist’s pen, but after rereading all of Hollinghurst’s work in preparation for my review, I was (as I wrote) dismayed to find what struck me as an unrealistic lopsidedness: the only recognizably Jewish Englishmen I encountered in it were either vulgar, filthy rich, or vaguely foreign—those age-old clichés of the Jew in British literature. (With one exception: one learns that Simon, the long-dead lover of the protagonist in The Spell, had a very nice bum.) My regret, in any event, was not a weary pose, it was genuine, and I framed my observation as an aside precisely because I didn’t want it to dominate my otherwise admiring and, I think, nuanced assessment of this worthy writer. You would think from Professor Strawson’s indignant references to insults and slurs and apologies that I had made an ad hominem attack on Alan Hollinghurst. I did not. I am a critic, and what I did was to offer a critical observation about a (small) aspect of the author’s oeuvre. My readers may judge the validity of this interpretation for themselves.

As for my “capacity for unwarranted insult,” I will merely point out that my footnote—one hundred words out of nearly five thousand in a generous and otherwise largely complimentary appraisal of Hollinghurst’s work—was framed as an unhappy parenthesis. Galen Strawson has responded to this aside by calling me tin-eared, narrow-minded, ignorant, unworldly, and prejudiced. He might want to pay some attention to his own capacity for insult.

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