Early on in Alan Hollinghurst’s big new novel—his first in seven years, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to his Man Booker–winning The Line of Beauty—a youngish man stands gazing at a tomb, thinking about an absent penis. The year is 1926, and the man, George Sawle, is a married scholar in his early thirties, to all appearances a moderately distinguished product of the comfortable middle classes. The tomb (and the penis) belong to Cecil Valance, a dashing aristocrat and promising poet who had been killed in the Great War—and who had been George’s lover at Cambridge.
As George examines the marble effigy atop the grandiose tomb, commissioned by Cecil’s grieving family, he is struck, not without a certain rueful amusement, by the contrast between the “ideal” and “standardized” quality of the statue and his private memories of their “mad sodomitical past” together. This thought inevitably leads to recollections of certain features that the tomb could not, of course, depict, and that George nearly can’t bring himself to name: “the celebrated…the celebrated membrum virile, unguessed for ever beneath the marble tunic, but once so insistently alive and alert.”
There was a time when the membra virilia you were likely to encounter in Hollinghurst’s novels were neither unnamable nor bashfully hidden away. In 1989, when he was thirty-five, he made an impressive debut with his marvelously rich and deft The Swimming-Pool Library, in which a plush style, a formidable culture, and a self-confident avoidance of then-fashionable formal tricks were put in the service of a startlingly direct and unembarrassed treatment of gay desire. The novel, set in the early 1980s, traces the surprisingly entwined lives of two gay men: Will Beckwith, a narcissistic, well-to-do young pleasure-seeker whose ambition is to keep “clear of interference from the demands and misery of other people,” and an elderly peer called Charles Nantwich, an old Africa hand with a complicated past who has asked Will to write his biography, and whom Will had met, somewhat comically, while “cottaging”—looking for anonymous sex in a public toilet.
Both men, it turns out, have a taste for young black men, and the novel is, among many other things, a sophisticated investigation into what you could call the erotic component of colonialism. (Will doesn’t realize how patronizing is his admiration for the “happiness and loyalty” he sees in the face of a black youth.) But its most striking feature, perhaps, was its insistence on highlighting the urgent presence in many gay men’s lives of what you could call the less theoretical side of desire. Penises, for instance. In one of the many scenes that take place in the shower of Will’s gym—set pieces that highlight his cool connoisseurship of the bodies he intends to have, or has had—a swoony catalog of male members gives you an idea of the way in which Hollinghurst’s velvety sentences can smoothly twine around a subject that some literary novelists might find dauntingly rebarbative:
In the rank and file of men showering the cocks and balls took on the air almost of an independent species, exhibited in instructive contrasts. Here was the long, listless penis, there the curt, athletic knob or innocent rosebud of someone scarcely out of school. Carlos’s Amerindian giant swung alongside the compact form of a Chinese youth whose tiny brown willy was almost concealed in his wet pubic hair, like an exotic mushroom in a dish of seaweed.
The deliberate elegance of the prose makes a certain point. Style, in Hollinghurst’s work, is the great leveler—it brings within the orbit of serious fiction subjects and acts that other writers, even gay writers, might “tastefully” elide.
In his next few novels the unflinching gaze and posh pen were often trained on difficult or even unattractive material and characters; the tension between the lush style and the gritty subject matter would become a hallmark of Hollinghurst’s writing. His densely atmospheric second book, The Folding Star (1994), focused minutely on the antics of an appallingly unself-aware Englishman living in Belgium who develops a Humbert Humbert–like obsession with a seventeen-year-old boy he’s tutoring. (A soupçon of ephebophilia runs through these books.) A third, entitled The Spell (1998), was a slight, rather self-conscious exercise in what some critics called “Austenian” social comedy—in it, a group of four men of all ages fall in and out of bed with one another in various combinations and with no visible consequences. The novel was unapologetic about the important part played by drugs and casual sex in the social lives of many educated, middle-class, “nice” gay men.
Hollinghurst’s most acclaimed work, The Line of Beauty (2004), is the story of a young, middle-class gay man’s complicated relationship with the family of a wealthy and ambitious Tory politician in the 1980s—a kind of Thatcher-era riff on Brideshead Revisited, complete with a deceptively soft-spoken matriarch and wayward patriarch. Here, the author turns his coolly ironic gaze on the way in which its protagonist, who begins as a graduate student working on Henry James, is led by his deluded social and erotic ambitions to “cut” his “moral nerves” (as he puts it, in a different context), leaving him with nothing but a “life of valueless excess”: cocaine, empty sex, and so on. In all of these books, the willies wag and the anuses wink with gleeful abandon. They are, Hollinghurst rightly insists, an important part of the story.
In the best of his work, the unruly presence of charged and illicit desires in otherwise traditional English landscapes is the vehicle for biting commentary by the author—on social and sexual conventions, on the way in which self-concealment can become self-betrayal, on colonial and imperial hypocrisies. “The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes,” a character in the new book observes; or, as Will Beckwith says of the biography he’s thinking of writing, “it’s the queer side, though, which would give it its interest.”
Indeed, Hollinghurst has Lord Nantwich make the provocative argument that “queerness” is what allows us to read the true story of the past. For him, the behaviors or attitudes of an earlier, closeted era, which to today’s gay men and women may seem hopelessly furtive or repressed, had aesthetic and even intellectual advantages:
Oh it was unbelievably sexy—much more so than nowadays. I’m not against Gay Lib and all that, of course…but it has taken a lot of the fun out of it, a lot of the frisson. I think the 1880s must have been an ideal time, with brothels full of off-duty soldiers, and luscious young dukes chasing after barrow-boys. Even in the Twenties and Thirties, which were quite wild in their way, it was still kind of underground, we operated on a constantly shifting code, and it was so extraordinarily moving and exciting when that spurt of recognition came, like the flare of a match! No one’s ever really written about it….
But Hollinghurst himself writes about it, again and again: in his fiction, the ability to puzzle out codes and achieve meaningful recognitions—and the tragic consequences of the failure to do so—has been a constant preoccupation, strongly inflected by the homoerotic element. In the five novels that he has published over the past twenty-two years, the distinctive knowingness to which gay people often feel privy, the sense of having privileged access to powerful secrets and hidden motivations not visible to other people, is a vital element in a serious investigation into knowledge, truth, narrative, and history. That his gay protagonists—they tend to be so unattractively self-absorbed that you can’t really call them heroes—are revealed to be clueless about everything but their own desires adds a telling irony to his treatment of this subject. In The Swimming-Pool Library, Will learns from Nantwich’s diaries that the old man had been prosecuted and sent to prison in the 1950s for soliciting an undercover police officer; he also learns, to his horror, that the smoothly ambitious prosecutor who used the case to further his political career was his own grandfather, now Lord Beckwith.
The theme of knowledge, self- knowledge, and secret knowledge often sets in motion penetrating investigations into the nature and meaning of desire, art, politics, and identity. In The Folding Star, three ingeniously nested tales of erotic obsession—the gay narrator’s yearning for his pupil, a long-dead Symbolist painter’s undying passion for his drowned muse, and a Belgian youth’s affair with a collaborator during World War II—serve as a vehicle for a meditation on the way that our yearning to “know” one person can make us disastrously ignorant of more momentous realities and truths. The uncanny likenesses among the three tales further underscore the Vertigo-like theme of reduplication; the reader is forced to ponder why we make copies of what we find beautiful.
Hollinghurst elaborates these motifs with an irony that is sometimes amusing and sometimes tragic. The title of The Line of Beauty alludes to the S-shaped curve admired by Hogarth, in his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, as expressive of liveliness—as opposed to straight or intersecting lines, which according to Hogarth suggest stasis and death. One of the many bitter poignancies in the novel is that the gay aesthetes in the story who pursue “the line of beauty”—the curve recurs with pointed frequency, whether of the shape of a piano at a recital or in the undulations of a black youth’s torso and buttocks—are themselves doomed to death.
For all these reasons, the new book comes as something of a surprise. In many ways, The Stranger’s Child—which is about the way in which the true, gay story behind a poem that Cecil Valance wrote, and which for a time becomes a national favorite, is elided over time—takes up themes and settings the author has visited in the past; not the least of these, as George Sawle’s glum ruminations make clear, is the way in which public, family, and “official” narratives come into conflict with, and often betray, the complicated truths of messy private lives. There is, to be sure, a gay love affair; and the story is set in (among other places) a grand Victorian country house and some charmingly old-fashioned suburban acreage—places that have played an important symbolic part in Hollinghurst’s earlier books, which, as this one also does, explore the shifting meaning of Englishness from the last century to the present one. But there is something tame about this effort, in which, indeed, cold marble seems too often to substitute for living flesh. By the time you reach the last of its over four hundred pages, you wonder whether a certain vital organ is missing.
On one level, The Stranger’s Child rings some interesting and rather elegiac changes on Hollinghurst’s characteristic themes. The book takes its title from a line of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a poem that someone recites in the first of its five sections and that suggests its dominant preoccupations: how difficult it is to know the past, and the insufficiency of our attempts to memorialize, indeed to remember.
The year is 1913, and the poem is being read by Cecil Valance, who although still an undergraduate is already on his way to becoming a well-known poet himself; he’s written a number of poems about Corley Court, the great Victorian country seat belonging to his family, and several have been published. The recitation occurs halfway through Cecil’s weekend stay at Two Acres, the suburban home belonging to the family of his lover George. During the course of the weekend Cecil repeatedly ravishes the swooning George (whose clueless mother, Freda, is merely happy to see that her hitherto shy and friendless child has blossomed at school); but he also flirts with, and makes an aggressive pass at, George’s sixteen-year-old sister, the highly impressionable Daphne, a girl already breathing “the air of legend.” Cecil’s apparent polymorphous perversity gives rise to a series of metastasizing misunderstandings that, over the course of the novel’s subsequent sections—the second is set in 1926, the third in 1967, the fourth in 1979, and the coda, fittingly centered on a memorial service, brings us to 2008—come to obscure a truth that, we are told, is of some cultural significance.
For by the end of his stay Cecil has written a poem called “Two Acres” in Daphne’s autograph book, which goes on to become a sentimental national favorite for a time after Cecil is killed in the Great War: we’re told at one point that Churchill makes much of it, and that it has, as someone remarks, “entered the language.” (Cecil is clearly modeled on Rupert Brooke; as with the real-life poet, Cecil’s posthumous reputation is the object of a fierce though civilized struggle between his mother and his biographer.)
With each new section, each of which is tellingly pegged to a major historical or political event—the General Strike in 1926, the decriminalization of consensual homosexual relations in 1967, and so on—the passage of time further blurs the truth of events the exact nature and motivations of which were already murky when they occurred. Daphne thinks “Two Acres” was a love poem written for her; George believes it was written for him. Their mother thinks it’s a poem “about her house.” Jonah, the handsome local boy who serves at Two Acres, steals some torn-up pages that are an important clue to the poem’s meaning.
And meanwhile, a true gay love story, more profound and more moving than Cecil’s lordly toying with George, is taking place right under the Sawles’s noses: a slowly stoked passion the secret of which won’t be uncovered for nearly a hundred years, and by accident—by someone who, in the novel’s last lines, is shown to be too preoccupied with his own amours to give this poignant discovery much thought. (Another recurrence of that favorite theme.) All this is meant to bear out the rueful truth of Tennyson’s lines—that the passage of time will inevitably make “A fresh association blow,/And year by year the landscape grow/Familiar to the stranger’s child.”
In many ways, this sentiment ideally suits Hollinghurst’s penchant for playing secret gay histories against “history” with a capital H—and for enlisting allusions to other favorite novels to make his point. This time around, he’s riffing on Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which similarly makes a young girl’s misunderstanding about grownup sexuality the basis for a series of increasingly grave errors.
Daphne’s fantasies about Cecil lay the groundwork for what is, to my mind, the most successful element of the book: a richly layered, subtle, and often witty exploration of the way in which the stories we tell ourselves can occlude (comically or tragically) the real story—how “our” truth ends up obscuring “the” truth, whether in poetry, history, or biography. Or in fiction: it’s amusing that, from the start, Daphne is a kind of novelist manqué. When we first meet her, she’s already an impressionable fabulist: waiting for her brother George to show up with his glamorous Cambridge friend, she starts to imagine that something dreadful has happened to their train, and glows with self-important pleasure at the thought of spreading the news of an accident: “She…saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.”
This turns out to be both a prophecy about Daphne and a forecast of the theme of the book itself, which shows how each generation interprets—which is to say, rewrites—“Two Acres” and its history in a way that reflects the assumptions, interests, and preoccupations of the times. (By 2008, the queer theorists have gotten their hands on the poem.) At the center of the deliberately vague narrative is Daphne herself. By 1967, when a young man called Paul Bryant enters the now-elderly Daphne’s orbit—years later he’ll write a controversial tell-all biography of Cecil—he is given to believe not only that “Two Acres” “had been written specifically for her” but that Cecil “wrote pretty well everything for her.” (Like Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty, Paul is a Charles Ryder character, pressing his long nose against the Palladian windows of his social superiors: a not necessarily attractive type that recurs in Hollinghurst’s fiction and for which the author has a peculiar and affecting sympathy.)
Years later, when the middle-aged Paul (who turns out to have some secrets of his own and is—an amusing paradox—both a good liar and an intuitive biographer) is interviewing the old lady for his book, she rather desperately continues to suggest that she is central to the Cecil story, despite what is clearly, almost amusingly, a lack of hard evidence in the poems themselves. (“In the poem I’m merely referred to as ‘you.'”) Paul may be haunted by a “curious feeling of imposture,” but everyone in this story turns out to be a bit of a fake.
The difficulty of getting at the meaning of the past has always been on Hollinghurst’s mind; here, it often has comic overtones. There’s a very funny scene in which Paul, who has managed to track down and interview Jonah Trickett (the pretty servant boy at Two Acres, now an old deaf man living in a council flat), reads the transcripts of his taped conversation with Trickett and finds that his great scoop consists of the following:
PB: Did George Sawle (inaudible)?
JT: Oh, no, he didn’t.
PB: Really? how interesting!
JT: Oh, lord, no! (Cackles)
PB: So was Cecil himself at all (inaudible: fortunate?)
JT: Well he could be, yes. Though I don’t suppose anybody knows that!
PB: I’m sure they don’t! That’s not what you expect! (giggles)
Time, as Hollinghurst knows, always giggles at our attempts to get around it.
And yet despite its often rich elaborations of this favorite theme, there is a hollowness at the center of this book.
Part of this has to do with a bold choice that Hollinghurst makes: aside from a couple of lines here and there, we never get to see Cecil’s poem (and what we do get suggests that Cecil would, at best, have become a pretty mediocre minor Georgian poet). Hence the center of all this narrative cleverness is a cipher—as if to suggest that the past we yearn to recapture is always evanescent, if not indeed substanceless. This notion is reflected in the most interesting technical feature of the book, which is built around a series of narrative “gaps”: from one section to the next, people disappear, relationships shift, deaths occur, and it’s left to the reader to puzzle out these reshufflings.
But organizing a very long narrative around a blank space, however intriguing a notion, fatally robs the book of any real stakes: in the end, you can’t really care that much about whom the poem was addressed to, or what the circumstances of its composition were. (By contrast, Hollinghurst’s marvelously inventive presentation of Nantwich’s diaries in The Swimming-Pool Library and of the Symbolist painter’s canvases in The Folding Star gives those books much of their rich texture and appeal.) And, as often in Hollinghurst—perhaps too often, at this point—there’s no character appealing enough that you have any real emotional investment in the proceedings.
What’s really missing here is the ornery soul that animated Hollinghurst’s earlier works and gave them their satirical texture and bite—the priapic figures dancing at the edges of the traditional landscapes he lovingly evokes. In The Stranger’s Child, for the first time, the landscape overwhelms the satyrs.
Already in The Swimming-Pool Library, you could feel a tension between the author’s gritty subversiveness and a certain sentimental nostalgia, “the irresistible elegiac need for the tenderness of an England long past,” as Will Beckwith puts it. This conflict is reflected in Will himself, suggestively divided between his subversive passion for pretty boys and his wholly conventional passion for beautiful buildings. By day, he toils away at a grand encyclopedia of architecture, and almost sheepishly admits that “the orders, the dome, the portico, the straight lines and the curved…spoke to me, and meant more to me than they do to some.”
They clearly mean a lot to Hollinghurst, too: in all of his novels, the rather tender descriptions of buildings and interior design schemes and artworks have a pointed symbolic function. In particular, the great piles built by prosperous and appetitive Victorians—they crop up in The Swimming-Pool Library, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty as well as in the new novel—seem like reproachful reminders of a more confident era: the gloomy fate of these admittedly often tasteless constructions, torn down, boxed in, callously modernized, cut up into flats, suggests a certain nostalgia for a grander, more aesthetically satisfying past.
So too in The Stranger’s Child. We learn—ironically—that even as the reputation of “Two Acres” evolves over time, the two houses associated with the poem—the grand Victorian Corley Court and the more modest but charmingly evocative Two Acres—lapse into decrepitude. This devolution and the emotions it provokes are foreshadowed in the first part, when Daphne, excitedly discussing local landmarks with the newly arrived Cecil and George, exclaims over the “sad fate” of a historic house that has been turned into a school. This, in fact, is what will happen to Corley. Already in the 1920s, before the house is sold, Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley (who ends up marrying Daphne), has had its exuberant Victorian excrescences boxed in and smoothed over. These come to light only in 1967, when an overflowing bath in the matron’s quarters causes a dropped ceiling to cave in, revealing unguessed riches at which Paul’s boyfriend, who teaches in the school, gazes in rapture.
As for Two Acres itself, by the time that Paul locates it in 1979, looking for clues about the past, it’s been despoiled—the house divided into apartments, the famous eponymous acreage zoned for “Executive Homes.” “There was nothing to see,” Paul thinks as he noses around the property, whose significance now lies wholly in the past, and in poetry. The passage of time, as we know from Tennyson’s poem, makes everything unrecognizable—our landscapes, our houses, ourselves.
A taste for impressive old buildings is not at all illiberal; but the sentimental element that subtends it makes itself felt in other, more troubling ways. The kind of thing I’m talking about appears already in the first book. At one point, Will Beckwith ruefully acknowledges that his family’s social status and country seat are of embarrassingly recent vintage—“how recent and synthetic this nobility was—the house itself bought up cheap after the war, half ruined by use as an officers’ training school, and then as a military hospital”—and you can’t help feeling that it’s meant to color our sense of just who the Beckwiths are, in particular the loathsome grandfather. Indeed, the elder Beckwith, an arriviste whose lifestyle is bought (he’s merely a life peer, to boot), is pointedly contrasted with the man he ruined, Lord Nantwich, whom we’re meant to see as nature’s nobleman as well as Debrett’s. (Nantwich comes complete with an ancient, rather ramshackle London house stuffed with dusty but authentic treasures.)
But surely the notion that the bad guys aren’t bona fide aristocrats and the good guys are is suspect. Similarly, however delicious the lampoon of the nouveau riche Thatcherites may be in 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 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 Hollinghurst’s part is worth mentioning because it inevitably weakens the force of his larger critique.*
You have to wonder what is being critiqued in the new book. Bad design? “These plans!” the Daphne of 1926 says, when she is mistress of Corley, as she glimpses a glamorous lady decorator’s plans to box over its gaudy splendors. “We’re not going to know ourselves soon.” The way in which we can become unrecognizable to ourselves is, as we know, a large theme here. But whereas that destabilizing loss of certainty led, in the earlier books, to a salutary new consciousness—Will Beckwith, for instance, finally learns who he and his family truly are by the end of The Swimming-Pool Library—what marks The Stranger’s Child is a strong nostalgia for the old style of life. More strongly than in the previous novels, a palpable aura of regret runs through this book, almost a resistance to the present. I lost count of the number of times that characters mournfully say things like “No one remembered the rememberers.”
Something about all this isn’t right. While it appeals to a certain taste in popular entertainment, which cannot get enough of “old” England—Downton Abbey, most recently, to say nothing of Upstairs, Downstairs, the endless succession of Austen and Forster adaptations; a taste that, I suspect, will make The Stranger’s Child the most popular of Hollinghurst’s books yet—this abundant tenderness for an England long past sits ill with the other story that’s being told here, however atrophied it is: the “gay” story, which reminds us of what often lay behind those impressive or charming façades: the class arrogance, the middle-class “niceness” that ruined so many lives. Mrs. Sawle’s discovery of Cecil’s love letters to George triggers a confrontation so traumatic that George ends up trapped for the rest of his life in an airless marriage to a dour lady academic.
And so there’s a strange waffling at the heart of The Stranger’s Child. I was struck by the author’s complicated sympathy for Paul Bryant, who can’t decide if he wants to cheat Daphne’s family or infiltrate them (he ends up doing both); and wondered whether, like Paul—like many of us gay men over the past generation, with its galvanizing traumas and its great successes, too—Hollinghurst the writer can no longer quite decide who he stands with: the “queer” outsiders or the establishment. Like Cecil’s tomb, this latest book is “a thoroughly dignified piece of work, in fact magnificently proper,” as George admits; but one in which—as he murmurs while gazing at the curiously insufficient marble likeness—you “don’t quite feel” you’ve found the person you once knew.
I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne’s marital history 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 spouse 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. ↩