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Time Wounds All Heels

By (October 1, 2011) No Comment

The Stranger’s Child

Alan Hollinghurst
Knopf, 2011

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is disappointing, but deliberately so. Disappointment weighs down on characters who are waiting for some improvement that never comes, and disappointment is built into the structure of the novel, which is really four novels set decades apart. The author has taken Chekhov’s line about a gun in the first act going off in the next, but to cheat expectations he skips right over the gun firing and picks up the story years later, so if you like narrative explosions, you’re out of luck. Each new section requires a reorientation, an effort to connect these names and people with their younger selves. For instance, Daphne

Sawle, the 16-year-old not quite at the center of the first book reappears in book two, a decade later, as Lady Valance, and by book three is Mrs. Jacobs, celebrating her seventieth birthday with the accumulated relatives of her three marriages.

Myths and memories fill in the gaps, but these are always imperfect; struggling to remember his long-dead father, Daphne’s brother George finds that ‘the image was blurred and unavailing, like any much-handled memory, the pale blue eyes soon lost among the flowers and candles crowding the table.’

The novel’s central figure is Cecil Valance, who lasts only as long as the first section of the novel but continues to dominate the lives of the other characters. He’s a creature of myth even before he’s killed in the First World War, leaving behind a handful of godawful poems (we’re treated to plenty of excerpts) and a reputation for literary brilliance and sexual magnetism. Cecil is a guest at Two Acres, the modest but nevertheless comfortably rural and servant-run home of his Cambridge friend George Sawle. Cecil is already screwing George and proceeds to screw with Daphne, treating her to her first kiss – ‘he tilted his face sideways and pushed his open mouth over hers, and worked his tongue against her teeth in a quite idiotic and unpleasant way.’ The story ends at the end of his weekend visit and picks up after his death, although we learn later that he has written to Daphne asking her to ‘be my widow.’ He’s also written to another girl on the same day, asking the same thing – he’s that kind of guy. When he dies, Cecil’s body is brought home from France by his wealthy parents (historically extremely rare, and thus a sign of the family’s wealth and power) and installed in the chapel of the monstrous family pile, Corley Court. The architectural flourishes of this Victorian house are the subject of repeated in-jokes – if you know what a jelly-mould dome ceiling is, you’ll get an extra chuckle out of it. As a recumbent white knight on a tombstone, Cecil continues to pulse with life, and his posthumous influence, in the mind of the mother of George and Daphne Sawle, is ruinous: ‘What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children.’

In any event, Daphne does not become Cecil’s widow but his younger brother’s wife. Dudley Valance is maimed in the war but not killed, a resentful younger brother who becomes a bully and tyrant to his wife and children. The second book centers on a house party in the late 1920s at Corley Court, a gathering of friends and family to offer their memories of Cecil to his first biographer. Scenes and patterns recur: Hollinghurst is fatally fond of moonlit gardens and the glow of cigars in the darkness, secret corners where confidences are exchanged and buttocks groped. Yet the tension that builds in these chapters, in Dudley’s latent violence, his children’s misery, his wife’s budding affair, is deflated by time passing; by book three, none of it matters.

The novel relies on the importance of Cecil Valance, but Hollinghurst stops short of representing him as a talented poet or a complex personality. He wants to explore the vagaries of literary reputation but always in a self-conscious way, showing us the biographer as self-serving creep instead of the poet as worthy subject. Cecil’s closest literary analogue is Rupert Brooke, but Brooke is himself a figure in the background of the book – two or three years ahead of Cecil at Cambridge, a slightly older, slightly more glamorous figure. In a fictional footnote to a real edition of Evelyn Waugh’s letters, Cecil is described as ‘a less neurotic – and less talented – epigone of Brooke.’

Yet Brooke’s sentimental pre-war poetry and posthumous cult are the model for Cecil’s, and the fictional poem ‘Two Acres’ is a parody of Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ – a similar ode to a country house and a vanishing English idyll that the poem knows perfectly well is a fantasy. The problem with this literary winking is that although Cecil is not Rupert Brooke, he functions in exactly the same way, so we have to believe in two Cambridge poets who were making a social and literary name for themselves before the war, who merrily slept with men and women, and wrote deliberately old-fashioned and self-conscious poetry that lodged in the national consciousness ever after; two poets who had a memoir written by an older, secretly gay political ‘fixer’ and heavily edited by their overbearing mothers; and two poets who were the subjects of revelatory biographies in their later years that dismantled the myth and replaced it with a more realistic, if negative, picture. Given that Brooke’s myth depends so heavily on his uniqueness, these strongly marked parallels dilute his singular impact, and make Cecil the more implausible the more you know about Brooke.

At the same time, though, much of the book’s gentle satire depends on knowledge of not only Brooke, but also his larger pre-war Cambridge and Bloomsbury circle. At Daphne’s seventieth birthday party, the talk revolves around literary biography, and the knowledgeable reader is invited in:

‘There’s this young chap … Hopkirk.’ Sawle looked at her.

‘Holroyd,’ she said.

‘Who’s about to tell all about old Lytton.’

‘Oh, I can’t wait,’ said Peter.

‘Mark Holroyd,’ said Madeleine firmly.

Hollinghurst is fond of this kind of joke, which flatters the reader who knows who Lytton Strachey is, with bonus points to those who know Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey and can get the joke at Madeleine’s expense. Similarly, whatever comedy lies in descriptions of the amiable squalor of the Times Literary Supplement’s offices, and an awkward gathering at an Oxford college, is directed at those in the know. There’s no reason not to set a novel in a closed, esoteric world, and academic satire is a time-honored genre, but the novel also wants its readers to believe that Cecil Valance is worth knowing as a poet and a personality, and that his biographer’s quest to uncover the truth about his life is worthwhile. The book’s wavering sympathies towards its characters is part of its purpose to explore the ways that people and attitudes change – so we follow in minute detail the biographer’s early, dogged, frustrated efforts to research Cecil’s life, but skip any small triumph he might enjoy, and meet him again as an established author who is condemned by other characters for his self-serving and sensationalist book. The disappointment of readerly expectation is a deliberate effect, but its repetition dulls its edge.

In the fourth book, focused on the efforts of Cecil’s biographer Paul Bryant, Hollinghurst has plenty of sly fun inserting his creation between the lines and in the footnotes of real books, like Michael Holroyd’s book on Strachey and the collected letters of Evelyn Waugh. And the details that stack up in the imaginary research of an imaginary life are occasionally overwhelming, invoking a panoply of unknown actors in the background of that life:

He had written to Winton Parfitt and asked him straightforwardly if he knew of material on Stokes’s dealings with Cecil that had come to light since his book had been published twenty years earlier […] In fact Parfitt was as much of a diplomatic clam as old ‘Sebby’ himself, and the royal-blue jacket of his huge biography, covered with praise from the leading reviewers, was now among those features that make all second-hand bookshops look inescapably the same.

The sudden barb about second-hand bookshops is a swerve from the narrator, a suggestion of the ultimate futility of Paul’s undertaking while the character is still in thrall to the world of back-scratching reviews, and desperate to break into exclusive clubs like Oxford and the TLS offices. Yet the book can’t quite decide how futile. While the glimpses of Cecil’s poetry we get are pretty dire, plenty of characters are able to quote his lines until the end of their lives, and a fragment is used, quite seriously and effectively, during a memorial service. Paul is clearly interested in digging up the truth about Cecil’s sexuality, but he is also presented as one of the poet’s most ardent fans. Literary biography as a genre, in all its blandness, repetitiveness and cliché, the puffs of reviewers, indeed the whole industry of ‘literature’ itself, are perfectly valid targets for satire (perhaps retrospectively sharpened by the novel’s exclusion from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist.) But nevertheless Hollinghurst, I think, still wants us to believe that Cecil matters as a poet, and that by extension English poetry matters. It’s just not clear how, or to whom.

A judgment that Paul makes when he first meets the ageing Daphne could stand in for a judgment of the book: ‘As often with older people he was both bored and unaccountably involved at the same time.’ Hollinghurst achieves a remarkable evenness of tone that is seductively leisurely, meandering around the byways of minor characters’ neuroses, leading to a sense of being headed off from the point or the purpose. In what starts to sound like a parody of British repression, relationships are always strained by prejudice, or secrecy, or embarrassment, or some other kinds of inhibition. Hesitations, circumlocutions, pleasantries and banalities are recorded meticulously; people say things like ‘I’m very much ready for a cup of tea,’ and whole stammering failed conversations are faithfully transcribed. The sentences can be as tortured as the emotions: ‘She felt the odd prickly decorum of telling Eva but very little of the solemn heartache which she hoped none the less to convey.’ It’s precise, measured, careful, but it doesn’t half stick in your throat.

Sexual excitement and sex itself are where the book allows more powerful, if fleeting, emotions to surface, generating images that flash and linger, like a description of the nervous young servant acting as Cecil’s valet and excitedly unpacking his bags: ‘Then there was the body linen, fine as a lady’s, the drawers ivory – coloured, vaguely shiny, catching on the roughness of this thumb before he stroked them flat again. He listened for a moment for the tone of the talk downstairs, then took a chance he had been given to unfold a pair and hold them up against his round young face to that the light glowed through them.’ These tiny, vivid moments of connection, or the recognition of desire, are powerful in part because they pass so quickly. More often, Hollinghurst deals in the suppression of intense emotions. Flashes of joy are fleeting here, and change nobody for the better – indeed, people get worse, smaller, more pinched and disappointed. You can’t help but keep hoping for some happiness that never comes.

This is not to say that frustration, inhibition, disappointment and alienation aren’t emotions worth exploring in fiction – but they are not the only ones. For a book that maps entire lives, there’s a curious resistance to love, between partners, friends, or within families – there’s infatuation, and there’s fondness, and there’s companionship, but nothing much stronger or more lasting than that. And for a book as ambitious in its structure as this, which is bold enough to disappoint narrative expectations and leap over the consequences of large and small events, it is disappointing in a deeper sense not to be asked to feel more deeply that we are. For all Hollinghurst is steeped in the minutiae of Bloomsbury – he even name-checks the decidedly minor Georgian poet Fredegond Shove, for goodness’ sake – Virginia Woolf is barely mentioned.

The structure of the book owes a major debt to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, also a kind of country-house novel that plays with time and the differing representation of ‘major’ or ‘minor’ events. Yet even in Woolf’s driest or emptiest characters, flashes of anger or desire light up whole caverns of feeling; in Hollinghurst they are simply snuffed out.
The novel attempts, in its own arch, intellectual way, to sum up the changing experience of private lives in the twentieth century. For the gay characters in the early sections of the book, the impossibility of articulating their own desires to themselves, let alone publicly, makes happiness equally remote. The third segment of the story, however, takes place in 1967, on the eve of limited decriminalization of sexual relationships between men in Britain, and the book’s short fifth section, a sort-of epilogue, is set in 2008, in a new era of civil partnerships. (These chapters also see the somewhat clumsy introduction of the novel’s only non-white character: ‘There were perhaps a dozen people of colour in the room, but Desmond was the only black speaker, and Rob felt the small complex adjustment of sympathy and self-consciousness that passed through the audience…’ The man also has ‘nice square Nigerian diction.’) Yet perhaps because his characters never quite connect, in Bloomsbury-ite E. M. Forster’s phrase, either with each other or with the reader, it’s hard to feel the impact of these changes on them. Paul stiffly observes that ‘There were times in one’s life that one only knew as one passed through them, the decisive moments, when one saw that the decisions had been taken for one.’ We never get to see the consequences of those moments and decisions, and so we are left with little more than a sense of the vaporous triviality of human lives – and feeling very much ready for a cup of tea.

Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.