By Alan Hollinghurst. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 448 pp. $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-27276-8.
Alan Hollinghurst’s ambitious century-spanning saga, The Stranger’s Child, explores the artistic legacy of Cecil Valance, a middling English poet. Opening with Cecil’s 1913 visit to Two Acres, the modest home of his fellow Cantabrigian lover, George Sawle, the novel traces the aftershocks of Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle family, especially George’s spry, enamored teenage sister, Daphne. Through the years, the poem Cecil writes in honor of the “two blessèd acres of English ground” ripples through the imagination of schoolboys and statesmen alike. The premise and title, drawn from “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s threnody for a friend, connote nostalgia and admiration for the biographers who strive to commemorate Cecil, a victim of a World War I sniper. Yet the novel repeatedly obscures their vision and pits their efforts against the persistent and deliberate degradation of physical exteriors (characters’ bodies, architectural façades), suggesting that Hollinghurst’s objective is actually a wry, subversive critique of memorialization. When we look too closely at the past, trying to preserve its beauty or breach its secrets, we find it elusive, and witness instead the dissolution of memory and the irrevocable transition to modernity.
Enter Cecil and George’s love affair, “a mad vertiginous adventure” set against the pastoral idyll of late-Edwardian England. The concupiscent George revels in the sheer sensual joy and comedy of sex. When Cecil quips that he’s nymph-like, “some shy sylvan creature, unused to the prying eyes of men. Perhaps you’re a hamadryad,” George retorts, “Hamadryads are female…which I think you can see I’m not.” “I still can’t really see,” Cecil returns, before “pranc[ing] down the leafy slope like a satyr, sun-burnt and sinewy calves and forearms darkly hairy.” Witty though this little ingot of lovers’ banter is, the imagery and phrasing set the pace for the shading of their interaction in the novel writ large. They’ll only ever know each other’s bodies in the partial obscurity of the forest, their features shrouded by leaves and shadows, their emotions cloaked in shyness. George, mystified by “the unseen jostling of different magics,” feels “he would never stop taking [Cecil] in. He loved the beautiful rightness of his bearing, that everyone saw, and he loved all the things that fell short of beauty, or redefined it, things generally hidden.”
This gentle shadowing of raw sexual energy, its modesty and prudery evocative of its historical moment, may surprise readers of Hollinghurst’s previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Set in Thatcherite London, it chronicles in luminous, torrid prose the love affairs of Nick Guest, a young arriviste using a wealthy Tory politician’s home as a pied-à-terre. Stylistic differences aside, though, these novels have similar messages. The Line of Beauty takes its title from the ogee curve, formed by the convergence of two S-shaped arcs; for Nick, the undulation of a lover’s hips mirrors this architectural motif. On the surface, it’s an arresting figure. But it’s also a dangerous one; those who come too close to its ideal face the growing menace of AIDS, first named and pathologized during these years.
The Stranger’s Child adapts this vision, but leavens and tempers it. Views of the male body are mediated and distorted. Where George sees little, Daphne sees less: she’s aware of the “hint of a mystery” and “secret throb of color” of her natural surroundings, but only partially witness to an evening “far too dark for spying” in which George’s “face was hidden. Was it just the lamplight that made his ears burn red?” Daphne’s more innocent than, say, Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement; she’s perennially confused about her sibling’s sexual exploits, and equally unsure of her own place with the sibling’s lover. Cecil’s mild flirtation becomes an “extraordinary unwholesome thing, her mind chasing and confirming and losing the story in vivid fragments of memory…with each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less.” His hermetic poem is no better a key to his feelings, for “the harder she looked at it, the less she knew.”
The Sawles’ frustrated sight, and the lack of understanding that follows from it, could speak alone for the experience of biographers and artisans over the course of the novel. But the irony of peering into the life of a man named Cecil Valance, whose names, taken together, literally denote blindness and curtains—doubly resonant in their opacity—is evidently lost on them.
Hollinghurst wittily shows this through his depictions of Corley Court, the Valances’ sprawling country estate. Like one of its antecedents, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, Corley is a grand architectural masterpiece to newcomers like Daphne, who loves its Gothic molding and “functionless, unwieldy” décor. Meanwhile, her husband, Cecil’s brute brother Dudley, calls Corley “a Victorian monstrosity…of exorbitant ugliness and inconvenience” and hires a “thoroughly modern” interior designer to redecorate it. Disdain toward the Victorian—and the forceful erasure of it—are recursive features of The Stranger’s Child, whether it’s Carraveen, the home of Daphne’s daughter Corinna, “some now completely forgotten home or holiday place that someone had loved long ago,” Corley itself when it’s requisitioned as a World War II military hospital, then converted to a boys’ school, its “jumble of Victorian furniture…roughly stacked and locked away…at some unknown date,” or Two Acres, “decrepit,” “disheveled,” and wearing “its own mild frown of self-regard,” given to developers to rename “Old Acres,” and ultimately, to raze. Daphne herself is one of many women labeled “shabby” and “a Victorian” late in the novel.
This intentional, carefully wrought destruction counterpoises Cecil’s biographers’ efforts to commemorate him and reconstruct his narrative. Neither the crumbling homes nor their inhabitants yield insight into the gnomic poet, for memory is an impenetrable cloister. A sculptor commissioned to build a marble effigy for Cecil’s tomb misses his mark: George contends that he “had never set eyes on Cecil—he must have worked from photographs…which only told their own truth…All these depictions were in a sense failures, just as this resplendent effigy was.” The sculptor gets the hands wrong, while George’s own memories are more vivid, if “vague as well with touching and retouching…magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands.” Likewise, George dismisses the characterization of Cecil by an early biographer, Sebastian Stokes, as “sweeping talk.” Stokes is denied even George’s tempered vision of Cecil, for “the English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes.” And his successors, increasingly intrusive in their investigations, are held at an even further remove. One, Paul Bryant, later labeled a “fantasist,” meets with Dudley’s categorical refusal of additional detail about Cecil; Daphne’s directing him to her own memoir, a work of “poetical reconstruction” in which “she had made up all the conversations” rather than answering his questions at length, and her maddeningly elliptical replies (“well, quite…” and “hmm…”). Paul’s visits to Corley are equally fruitless, like “finding a mined palace or burial chamber long since pillaged.” Cecil’s effigy itself is relegated to a mere “nuisance.” Only a conversation with a senile George offers glimpses of the questionable paternity of Daphne’s children, information “almost unusable” given George’s lack of inhibition. Watching the succession of biographers in their varied, vain efforts to retell the tale recalls reading modern and postmodern classics like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler. Repeated attempts to open and reconstruct the story bring us no closer to its truth.
What does the accretion of all this damage signify? What are the implications of writing a novel that maps halcyon memories and literary and architectural heritage, but undermining it all with an epigraph to a closing section warning “no one remembers you at all”? Hollinghurst’s objective pivots on that warning. That his characters—biographers who turn out to be liars and charlatans—spend ninety years trying to unmask a mere poetaster whose crowning achievements were but “a goodly few” poems worth remembering is irony enough. The mediation of their vision, coupled with the family’s guardianship of its secrets, and the resounding failure of their collective efforts to preserve show Hollinghurst’s artful mockery of the elegiac act itself. For as the narrator reminds us, stories are ephemeral: even a book can become an amorphous, forgettable form, “a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle.”
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.