Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Ends: Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child

First of all, how not to like a book that begins 

"My nature demands that my life should be perpetual Love," wrote dear Lord Beaconsfield to one of his female friends in a moment of spiritual expansion, and Dr. Swift recommended women to "turn their attention less to making nets and more to making cages, so that there might be fewer unhappy homes" (Agnes Jekyll, Kitchen Essays [London: Thomas Nelson, 1922, repr. Persephone, 2008], p. 11)?

And then it goes on:

One guest scored off a solicitous hostess who, when accepting a proferred visit for luncheon, asked for some guidance as to the then preferred diet--was it vegetarian or uncooked fruit, were vitamines and proteids desired or taboo?  The reply came short and incisive: "Thank you, I eat everything except corpses," thereby making a lamb cutlet or the wing of a boiled chicken seem positively tigerish (p. 20). 

But that's just the appetizer (along with the one solitary "refined little clove of garlic" Dame Agnes recommends inserting into a whole leg of mutton before roasting it--and then, needless to say, removing it before serving the dish [p. 13]).  The book I really want to recommend is Alan Hollinghurst's Stranger's Child (NY: Knopf, 2011), which I finished several weeks ago, and which is, as with everything Hollinghurst writes, brilliant.  Though perhaps not quite so brilliant as his novel The Line of Beauty, which is the most incisive analysis I've read of the nauseating brew of unvarnished greed and neo-Victorian moralistic hypocrisy that fueled the Thatcher revolution in England (and the Reagan one in America).

Hypocrisy is one of Hollinghurst's things--exposing it with neat surgical precision, showing us precisely where and how its tough tendon runs beneath the thin layer of verbal skin.  And homophobia: no matter what he writes about these matters, he's dead-on in his accurate depiction of the hypocritical "tolerance" that hides the intractable homophobia lying just under the surface of enlightened societies' understanding and "acceptance" of those who are gay.

And so Hollinghurst is a moralist in the tradition of Wilde, able to limn delicately and precisely where the line of outright hypocrisy falls in the oh-so-noble pretensions of middle- or upper-class ideals.  Hypocrisy remains a major theme in Stranger's Child.  And secret-keeping.  And that peculiarly Anglo-American brand of homophobia in which one knows and doesn't know, asks and doesn't ask, tells and doesn't tell.

Hollinghurst is brilliant at describing this game--again, delicately, unerringly--in a succession of British eras from the pre-World War I period to the present.  And what he does with the interlocking stories he tells in this novel, from era to era, is equally fascinating.  The narrative succession is not linear, from one era to the next, from one set of stories to its successor.  

It's not linear, in that we're getting updates of the same story from period to period.  Instead, the narrative line alters and shifts, so that, while the characters remain the same, we suddenly see events from the perspective of another character than the one who has dominated the previous narrative.  So that we're ineluctably led to the conclusion that "truth" is always (and irrevocably) perspectival.

And this is driven home by the device of biography that dominates the book: the dominant thread holding together the generations of stories is the interest of successive generations of biographers in writing an accurate biography of Cecil Valance, a gay (or bisexual? or is he?) minor poet of the war period.  The perspectival nature of truth is driven home by the attempt, over several interlocking eras with shifting mores vis-a-vis gay life, to compile a "true" biography of Valance and to get at the "truth" of his life and relationships.

All of this, and that probing, merciless, inerrant talent Hollinghurst has for demonstrating the subtle ways in which the British class system works, despite its shifts from era to era and its supposed movement from archaic to progressive, intolerant to tolerant, exclusive to "accepting."  This pronunciation, that tone of voice, this word or that one, this college rather than the other, trade or landed wealth, two acres or thousands: here, Hollinghurst works wonders with every lind he writes.

And then there are passages like this:

"So . . . " Dupont paused, as if to recover his bearings, some clever little vanity again in the invitation to watch him improvise.  Half the audience seemed seduced by it; others, older colleagues of Peter's, friends of the family who had never heard of Dupont, and were yet to see the point of him, had the air of mildly offended blankness which is the default expression of any congregation (p. 408).

And if that single refined little clove of garlic doesn't pique the mutton of your literary appetite, you have perhaps lost the ability to devour any novel with an appetite approaching the tigerish.

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