Tuesday 5 July 2011

'to slip the noose of the world'

The Stranger's Child 
by Alan Hollinghurst

This was my first experience of Hollinghurst having missed the boat slightly with The Line Of Beauty and then been driven further and further away from reading it by all the coverage and plaudits it received and the TV adaptation that followed. There comes a point where you feel that there's little to be gained from actually reading a book you don't have that much interest in anyway. So I wasn't one of the legions of readers who have been eagerly awaiting his latest novel but it did mean that I approached it with a certain freshness and only the vaguest of ideas of what to expect (those hunches turned out to be about right: bit posh, bit gay, bit long).

This large novel (560 pages) follows the trajectories of two families, The Sawles and the Valances, through the twentieth century. Linking them is a late summer weekend in 1913 when Cecil Valance, an aristocratic poet, comes to visit 'Two Acres', the grand suburban home in Stanmore Hill of his Cambridge chum George Sawle. Chum maybe isn't the right word, for Cecil and Valance share what might be delicately termed a close friendship. George is in fact quite in thrall to his friend 'Cess' and their stolen moments of passion inject energy if not actual descriptions of sex into this opening section. It isn't just George for whom this will be significant weekend however. In fact it is his sister Daphne who has her head and heart turned and the course of her life altered. She is the character who will endure throughout the novel, and whose fortunes we will watch alter.

Hollinghurst's descriptions of the bustling household are wonderfully observed. Staff prepare rooms whilst discussing the 'nocturnal missions' (the preferred terminology for a wet-dream) that require them to change the bedsheets of the young gentlemen more frequently than they might like. For new boy Jonah in particular, asked to act as Cecil's valet for the weekend, the mere unpacking of a suitcase is a project fraught with the danger of not observing the right protocol. We hear Cecil's laugh downstairs 'like a dog shut in a room', there is always a sense that things are happening in every room and out in the grounds too. There is plenty of conversation too of course, particularly about the approaching hostilities, with Cecil's innate confidence helping him to strike a heroic pose in contrast to his friend's uncertainty.

Cecil seemed ready to fight at once - he said he would jump at the chance. It was touching to, and slightly comical, to see George's indecision. Anyone less inclined to fight it would be hard to imagine, but he was clearly reluctant to disappoint Cecil. 'I suppose I would, would I? - if it came to it,' he said.

But as I said before it is Daphne's encounter with Cecil that provides the novel with its 'Atonement' moment, a clumsy kiss, and the poem written by him apparently for her that gives the novel its title.

With each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less, and its imagined impact on George, or her mother, or Olive Watkins, their fury and bewilderment, grew stronger in compensation. Daphne felt the warm flood of the story surge through her and grip her whole person; but each time the wave seemed a little weaker than the time before, and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation.
This is the beginning of the novel's major theme of artistic legacy, how the retelling, reimagining, reinterpreting of events and of those few lines, 'the minutely staggered and then the breathtaking merging of word, image and fact' can alter their very meaning over the proceeding years. Cecil's poem captures an idyllic vision of England just before The Great War destroys a generation and with the death of Cecil himself thanks to a sniper's bullet a 'very minor poet' is elevated to the status of icon. But before future generations pore over the meaning of that poem there are the personal recollections of those who knew him. George's encounter when visiting Cecil's tomb in the family chapel is quite brilliantly realised, first in highlighting the falsity of trying to render an accurate likeness, then in describing the assault of remembrance.

Cecil had been much photographed, and doubtless much described; he was someone who commanded description, which was a rareish thing, most people going on for years on end with not a word as to what they looked like. And yet all these depictions were in a sense failures, just as this resplendent effigy was...
...He had others, more magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands, the heat of Cecil, the hair raising beauty of his skin, of his warm waist under his shirt, and the trail of rough curls leading down from his waist. George's praying fingers spread in a tentative caress of recollection. 
That scene comes in the second section where the action has leapt forward several years. The prose may move at a stately pace but the jumps in time that come with each new section might not be to all tastes. There is something quite unsettling and even upsetting about getting interested in a setup or its characters only to turn the page and find an entirely new one. For example in part two we suddenly find Daphne married to Cecil's 'frightful shit' of a brother, Dudley (in whose talk 'candour marched so closely with satire that the uninitiated could often only stare and laugh uncertainly at his pronouncements') and in the next section find that she has had yet another disastrous marriage. But by focusing on these moments in time Hollinghurst can cover a far greater period and pursue his real interest which seems to be in literary interpretation and criticism, the creation of myth both literary and personal.

Cecil's poem may have been written in Daphne's little album but we will discover that it was really intended for her brother George and that there may have been a far more graphic version hidden in notes. An official biography comes from Sebby Stokes but the literary detective work comes from Paul Bryant who begins life as a clerk in a bank (through whose manager he is able to meet the now 69 year old Daphne) but goes on to work for the TLS (as did Hollinghurst). The second half of the novel charts his shift into life as a literary biographer whilst also covering a period where biography itself shifted - 'Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?' For Paul this is about discovering the truth behind the famous poem and even better shrouded secrets within both families. For the ageing Daphne, who has already written her own book about her life (reviewed more sympathetically by Paul than most other reviewers who questioned the book's veracity) he just seems to be after 'smut' quite apart from the fact that 'He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.' The guarded exchanges between these two (and also a touching interview with Jonah, remember him?) provide the more interesting moments in a second half that delivered slightly diminishing returns for me.

I did struggle with this one, you see. Part of the reason for finishing it was to prove that I actually could after giving up on a few books recently, and part was to give an author I hadn't read previously a fair crack of the whip. Coming back to the book to copy out some quotes and reading around those a little made me realise what a fine crafter of a sentence Hollinghurst is. The writing is undeniably good, and whatever you might feel about the novel's structure there is no doubting the ambition and scope. But I did find it slow and arduous at times, no doubt heightened by only being able to read it in snatches. And as much as I could appreciate the themes that Hollingurst develops through the book I couldn't help but want to go back to the idyll at the novel's beginning, where the characters were more vivid, the dialogue punchier and all those passions a little closer to the surface. There is already plenty of talk about this being a dead cert for the Booker which would be remarkable enough given that Hollinghurst has won it previously (and for his previous novel at that) even if it weren't for the fact that some already feel that it isn't even his best book. As I just said, I haven't read any of Hollinghurst's other books but I feel that I have already read better books this year that deal with the same themes of noble entitlement, death and remembrance.


Anonymous,  5 July 2011 at 11:10  

I ll reserve the rtight to say to much Will as I ve not read it yet having read some of his other books ,I think this will be like them he tends to pick one thing sat a era and mine it for all its worth ,all the best stu ~~(I will comment Will after I ve read it )

leyla 5 July 2011 at 14:49  

Beautifully written review as always, Will. I'm one of the people who loved this book, although I'm not sure anything could beat The Line of Beauty, which is for me, one of the most gorgeously written novels I've read. Both have a certain froideur at their heart in that they are sumptuous as far as architectural detail, art and literature are concerned, and immaculately written (as you note about The Stranger's Child), but the relationships in them do lack warmth and love. This is Hollinghurst's intention; in TLOB, a sister was driven to self destruction by her parents' values, and you could see the protagonist being corrupted by the shallow wealth around him. I think Hollinghurst captures so well the coldness at the heart of many upper class families.

You are very perceptive about some of the immediacy of the first section being sidelined in the later parts: while I found the theme of reputation and unreliability of memory fascinating (and Paul's venal intrusion as a journalist hilarious), I would have liked to know more about the human interactions, such as whether there was real love between George and Cecil or just sexual infatuation, and, as you say,more about events leading to each of Daphne's marriages.
I'm glad you mentioned Atonement by Ian McEwan because when I started The Stranger's Child I was struck by the similarity of its opening to that of Atonement - the English country house, the anticipation of an expected guest, the young sister spying on her unwitting older sibling. I hoped this was homage rather than uncredited influence.
Anyhow, it's a very astute review, even if we come to different conclusions about the book. I really would strongly recommend The Line of Beauty, though. It captures the glacial facades of the upper classes as brilliantly as, say, Edward St Aubyn does, and brings back chilling memories of Thatcher's Britain.

Thomas Hogglestock 5 July 2011 at 16:31  

I'm on the fence about whether or not to even give this one a try. I liked Hollinghurst's earlier novels, but I found The Line of Beauty to be tedious in the extreme. I got half way through and decided not to go any further which is a rarity for me.

William Rycroft 5 July 2011 at 17:23  

Stu - I'll look forward to your thoughts appearing

Leyla - Thanks you for your considered comment as always. A few people have tried to get me to read TLOB but I've always struggled to get over my familiarity with it as well as my aversion to bringing back 'the chilling memories of Thatcher's Britain.' If I can leap those two hurdles I will give it a go as I'm sure the writing will be of the highest quality, even with that 'froideur' (I guessed coldness but had to google to check!).

Thomas - The signs aren't good! John Self over at Asylum finished TLOB but couldn't finish this one. Maybe wait for a holiday or weekend away to imprison, I mean immerse, yourself in it.

Anonymous,  5 July 2011 at 21:07  

I have only read the first section and have to say that your thoughts on that are exactly what I experienced. I suspect I will be sharing your opinions on the rest as well. I am afraid that already "beautiful writing" is starting to raise a chip on my shoulder. I'll head out to the deck and bash it off before proceeding further.

As always, of course, a thoughtful and balanced review.

William Rycroft 5 July 2011 at 22:13  

Thanks Kevin. As Leyla hinted above I think the journalist part of your brain may be tickled later on. I look forward as ever to your thoughts once you've bashesd that chip off.

Matthew C Baines 6 July 2011 at 21:05  

I think Hollinghurst's prose is miles better than his plot development. I found some parts unnecessary (the psychic?). However I loved the book and felt genuine sadness for the memory of poor Cecil. Some of the characterisation could have been better (why kill off Peter and why not develop Jonah more?) The non-sex scenes shone through for being less plentiful than in his earlier novels and all the more suggestive. I thought the period denoters a little flat (z cars, iPhones etc). One final thing was his use of who/whom, which I've struggled to understand and previously noted in SPL.
Would definitely recommend although a little heavy for a summer read.

William Rycroft 7 July 2011 at 09:25  

Thanks for the comment Matthew. I think that thing about character development is particularly interesting. I guess people are likely to have different characters they're into but like you I was disappointed to see Peter go and immediately flagged Jonah as a potentially important character only for him to disappear I though forever (I thought his return to the narrative was really touching though). These are the perils of a decade leaping narrative however.

Max Cairnduff 9 July 2011 at 20:01  

A very nice review Will.

I find myself curiously untempted by this one. I can't say why either and I have read and enjoyed other Hollinghursts (The Swimming-Pool Library and Folding Star).

He's a very dense writer. Beautifully crafted sentences but on the level of the novel I can find him a bit claustrophobic.

TLOB's on the TBR list, but it's not near the top of it presently. I doubt this will get onto it at all. And yet even now, and after your very clear and informative review, I struggle to say why. Perhaps I'm Julian Fellowesed out.

William Rycroft 10 July 2011 at 07:59  

At least half of the book is well away from the Julian Fellowes arena Max but you're not the first person to say that they find themselves weirdly untempted by this book. As a Hollinghurst novice I have been unsurprised by the enthusiasm people have expressed for TLOB but encouraged by the passion readers have for his earlier novels. It means that I may read more of his work, something that I might not have said simply after having read this book.

Simon (Savidge Reads) 10 July 2011 at 21:36  

Its interesting to see the debate this book is causing. I am still muling it over. One moment I think it writing, and even the way it ended (once you give it some thought) was rather genius. In other moments I keep thinking about the rather saggy middle.

It was interesting hearing him talk about the book (he got very cross with it being compared to Brideshead) on ABC Radio's book show and he said he wasnt given enough deadlines, maybe the publishers knew that whatever he wrote next would sell really well and so didnt get an editor on board.

That said I did like it quite a lot. My mixed thoughts will be on Savidge Reads soon.

P.S Can a book be a 'bit gay', which books are a 'bit straight'? Hee hee.

William Rycroft 11 July 2011 at 08:25  

Hi Simon. I'm not surprised to hear he was a bit cross about the Brideshead comparisons, just about every broadsheet review I've read has made them, suggesting it is quite a heavy debt he owes.

That idea about not being given enough deadlines is very interesting. I've long had a suspicion that certain authors, having established a certain reputation or regard (by winning the Booker for example), are left a little too much to their own devices and the red pen capped and put away when in fact exactly what they might need is a firmer hand from their editor to help them craft the next book. It's a part of the process the reader never gets to know about unless the writer themselves is candid about it (or their archives released much later in life - or death).

I'll look forward to reading your own review in time Simon.

P.S I wondered about whether to include that throwaway line about the book being a bit this and that, but decided to keep it in as I was really meaning to lampoon my own attitudes approaching it. (I know Hollinghurst has being getting cross too about being considered a gay writer - and I understand this book contains far less graphic material than his previous novels - but it did seem to me that the only relationships given real consideration and time where those between the male lovers)

Telly Ellie 4 August 2011 at 19:43  

As someone who has read all of Hollinghurst's work I have to say that this novel continues the departure heralded by Line of Beauty - which I objected to on the grounds of its immersion in the unpleasant and callous milieu of Thatcherism. Not that earlier work (including my absolute favourite, The Folding Star) doesn't have the same structural elements of middle-class protagonists out of their class comfort zone, a certain old-fashioned, almost nostalgic, view of England (especially as enshrined in dialogue), and the oft-noted, well-crafted prose.

But these last two novels are missing the sexual jouissance of Hollinghurst's earlier work. He's being too well behaved! As people have implied, we already have one Ian McEwan and don't need another. I feel it's a shame you haven't read some of the racier novels, Will, as they are much more fun.

An idea that I liked in The Stranger's Child, however, concerned literature and memory. I appreciated the point that what comes to be considered as a 'solid' work of literature could in fact be the result of a number of omissions and mistakes, lost drafts and jettisoned versions, censorships by either the author or others, discoveries through research or pure accident, etc. Put simply, that there is something inherently unstable about the transmission of literature; that 'great' works are in fact only partial stories that pass through the editorial hands and minds of others. I thought that was interesting. I just hope that Hollinghurst stays true to his own authorial voice to make sure what gets handed down to future generations is also what is most authentically 'him'.

William Rycroft 6 August 2011 at 11:51  

Thanks for a brilliant comment Ellie. Lots of Hollinghurst's readers have a lot of enthusiasm for his early work and I'm sure I'll read one or more of them at some point. Particularly with the promise of sexual jouissance!

That idea of literature and memory is fascinating isn't it? Not only does the author tend to draft and re-draft before ending up with the 'finished' product (which they often want to change further) but then there's the role of editor to be considered. And that's before we even get into the long term effects of the passage of time and how it interferes with what we cpme to regard as the finished product. As for the authenticity of authorial voice, that's where things can get really muddy. The revelation recently of just how much of Raymond Carver's unique style was actually due to the intervention of his editor, Gordon Lish, throws the whole idea of authorial authenticity up in the air (in a practical sense, without having to get our hands dirty with the theoretical difficulties). Interestingly I had the chance to interview the author Tom McCarthy about the very idea of authenticity recently and you can read what he had to say in a couple of weeks...

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