The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst (Alfred A. Knopf)

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Buy it now from Left Bank Books or TLA.

This is the third big British
novel I’ve read so far this year. The others were Charles Dickens’ last
completed book, Our Mutual Friend
(1865) and Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives
Tales
(1908). The Dickens is wildly uneven: some of the best writing he
ever did, really quite forward-looking, is interlarded with some of the most
sentimental twaddle ever put on paper. One wonders how ill he was when he wrote
the book that he couldn’t see its all too apparent schizoid flow. Four decades
later, Bennett’s novel was written in reaction to Dickens and other fluffy,
mixed-message, Victorian triple-deckers. By then, Bennett had also read and
absorbed Flaubert. So his novel is an immensely readable amalgam, original, yet
somehow combining say, Vanity Fair
and Une Education Sentimental. One
scene in a Parisian suburb, when the heroine unwillingly witnesses a
public-spectacle execution, could have been penned by Balzac or Zola, but the
wind-up and conclusion are utterly of Bennett’s sun-never-sets- on-the British
Empire place and time.

To my surprise, I found that
Hollinghurst’s fifth published novel easily follows those big books, easily
fits into what F.R. Leavis called “the great tradition” of the English Novel,
and can stand alongside the best of them. I write “my surprise”, because while
I think his first novel, The
Swimming-Pool Library
is brilliant and his second, The Folding Star, wonderful and impressive, I was less impressed by
his country-house tale, The Spell. Frankly,
I found most of his Man Booker award winning The Line of Beauty, a bit too British-political. With his fifth
book, Hollinghurst seems to found the exact alchemical combination, despite the
fact that it too is very, very English.  

We go to the English novel for
very different reasons than we read, say, Tolstoy or Simenon or even F. Scott
Fitzgerald. Our expectations hover around not deep psychology as with
Dostoevsky or infused symbolism as with Mann, or the strikingly new side path,
as with Melville. Instead we go to it for the familiar, richly laid out in
terms of character, place, tone, and yes, even action. We’ll accept surprises,
yes; but not shocks. Rebecca Winterbourne, definitely: Eula Mae Snopes, nope,
afraid not. And all that familiarity is set against a larger texture of society
that has come to have a familiar, even comforting feel, one almost
unconsciously absorbed after years of novels, and stories, plays and movies
from “across-the-pond.” It is why, for example, good, far out British TV like Dr. Who and Torchwood work as well as Iain M. Banks, China Mielville and Neal
Stephenson do in print. Call it our shared Anglo-Saxon heritage—or even our
attitude. No matter how utterly mad everything else may become, there will be
tea on time in heritage porcelain alongside the dissection of alien corpses,
and lending libraries, well organized and up to date, where railroad schedules
may be found to help save the universe. Henry James and Joseph Conrad
understood this, foreigners that they were, and they benefitted. So do
Commonwealth outliers today like Amitav Ghose, Rohinton Mistry, and that
greatest of post-Empire chameleons, V.S. Naipaul.

The
Stranger’s Child
is not only virtually about those familiar expectations, but as it questions them in splendid
oppositional postmodern fashion, it also reformulates and solidifies their
familiar existence. The narrative, fractured over five different periods of
time, and further re-distributed into a dozen different Jamesian “centres of
conciousness” is, despite that, easy to read, fascinating page by page,
compelling in its greater arc, and its urge forward. Above all, while new it is
comforting – quite a feat to pull off.

The book is allegedly about a
striking and heedless young Georgian aristo poet, Cecil Valance who we meet
early on. He has sex with a Cambridge colleague, flirts with the lad’s sister,
and pens a few poems, including one that becomes famous to its World War One
generation. He cleverly enough perishes in that war and thus enters the literature
and the language. Accepted, lauded, the poems — especially one — alters the
lives of everyone who influenced them or, and here’s the beautiful turn, they
become influenced by the poem(s)’ existence. In particular, one middle class
family, the Sawles whose lives and whose satellites the author then follows for
the next century.

Affects them how? Much like
some Balzacian asses-skin or Hoffmanesque elixir, transforming each person and
casting each into some utterly different position than he or she seemed
destined for. Thus, as the years go by, it also lands each of them within an
unexpected, often false, identity – or does it actually shape their destiny? That’s the bigger question Hollinghurst is
working on here. So, for example, the young girl surprised to receive the poem,
becomes something of a Twenties celebrity, moving dissatisfied from one trendy,
improbable husband to the next, yet somehow sought after even in her shabby old
age.

The beloved Cambridge lad
either didn’t much care for Cecil in the first place, or so misses Cecil that
he appears to abjure love, settling for a dull existence as a historian and an
even duller wife. He only comes to life when very old, liberated in his
senility by disinhibition. The following generation of Sawles and Valances
cannot escape the poet’s—sometimes actually fatal – dead-handed reach. Even the
poet’s single weekend valet, “Handsome Jonah” Trickett who would seem to be the
most obliquely touched, is six decades later found hiding secrets of an inner
life, and more Jamesian yet, early drafts of the most famous Valance poem. 

It’s a gorgeous idea and it’s
gorgeously done. The writing is so rich, full, imaginative and modulated line
by line that it makes me want to thoroughly shake all those adherents of the “perfect
sentence” like Amy Bloom, (forget flat-liners like Auster or Cooper) and get
them to look at what the English language really can do. Hollinghurst is so in
command of it all that he can: 1) go into the mind of a very small child
believably and movingly, 2) clearly yet unpedantically delineate the British
class system in full flower over the decades via changing mores, language and
slang, 3) effortlessly make infradig jokes on literature, music, society and
even at the expense of the Times Literary
Supplement,
where he was editor for years, (is Dudley Valance really
Kingsley Amis, and if not then who is portrayed so acidly?) and 4) give us a
bank clerk turned literary sleuth we completely believe in. Hollinghurst
manages the tricky high-wire act wherein an author must convey huge amounts of
information and opinion, often quite quickly, while remaining true to his
sometimes near-daft character’s minds and lives.

Above all he has fun—and thus
you too will have fun—literary fun. Go for it.

©,
2012, Felice Picano 



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