17/10/2011

the buried life


Alan Hollinghurst – The Stranger's Child

In the first of her Richard Ellmann memorial lectures delivered at Emory University in 1999 (published in On Histories and Stories), A.S. Byatt reflects that “[o]ne very powerful impulse towards the writing of historical novels has been the political desire to write the histories of the marginalised, the forgotten, the unrecorded..”; and this observation assonates with one of the principal themes of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child – its solicitude for the buried life, the generations of men who were compelled to conceal or deny their sexuality, the unrecapturability of historical truth.
          The minor poet Cecil Valance spends a weekend at the family home of his friend George Sawle. Valance composes a poem based on the visit – 'Two Acres' – a fairly mediocre pastoral elegy which will become an anthology staple (inscribing it in the autograph album of George's sister Daphne). The two undergraduates covertly engage in sexual by-play, while Daphne, sixteen and starstruck, nourishes an infatuation for the poet. The Sawles are a touch déclassé, and Valance descends on them with all the condescension and mystique afforded by his own aristocratic background. He appears only in this first section of the book: slain in the Great War, his literary immortality is assured – and it's the after-life of his reputation that forms the motor of the novel. His life and work become a site of contention, for those who knew him and those – biographers and scholars – who didn't. The visions and revisions of the successor generation (the 'stranger's child' of Tennyson's In Memoriam – unknown inheritors) run athwart the mute ravening of time. And – challengingly, frustratingly – the novel's structure enacts these displacements: divided into five sections, its plot doesn't proceed in smooth linear fashion; rather, each part sets us at a point perhaps many years later, where it often isn't clear what has occurred to the characters in the interim. (Between Parts One and Two, for example, Valance has been killed; between Two and Three, the Sawle children have grown into late middle age, their lives in the meantime only faintly hinted at.)
          Latterly we follow the attempts of Paul Bryant, a young bank clerk, to piece together Valance's biography; braided with his erotic dalliance with a schoolmaster Peter Rowe, someone else with a concern in Valance's posthumous fame. Characters earlier introduced rematerialise, but diminished, somehow: and it's this unaccountable reluctance on Hollinghurst's part to give them their narrative due that hobbles The Stranger's Child. Scenes from the childhood of the Valance children – Corinna and Wilkins – are drawn with brilliant intensity, lit from within: but, when both reappear decades later, they are soured, broken and barren: with Hollinghurst offering no clue as to why they might have been alloted this fate. (It makes no sense humanly speaking; nor formally and creatively.) Paul Bryant is tiresome and priggish – but occupies a significant stretch of the novel's middle passage – we spend time with him in the reasonable expectation of some pay-off, of one of the conventional deliverances of narrative fiction. Yet he too slips below the story's horizon, and we glimpse him once more, in the final chapters, after a furlough, a bluff, bloated beneficiary of the Valance legacy, where he stands betrayed as an exploitative cynic for his own careerist ends. For a novel that stakes its authority and fidelity on the tender, patient delicate restoration of lost lives, it seems perverse that its characters should be so carelessly deposited in the landscape of the novel. Hollinghurst writes exquisite, lambent sentences with Jamesian finesse: and this evidently licenses him to feel that he can press his characters into the service of prose style alone; as if secretly he longed to dispense with the heavy obligations of the classic realist novel, yet feared – given the emotional reserve he so prizes, the controlled rage for order – the lawlessness of the experimental.

in their deathtime

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