Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador €15.99

Emer O'Kelly

THE debate about whether or not Alan Hollinghurst is "a gay writer" seems interminable.

Howard Jacobson (who also has won the Booker) is debated as to his "Jewishness". But for him, Jewishness is merely the methodology by which he illustrates and explores the universal. With Hollinghurst it is as though he finds a theme, then carves it until it fits into the gay canon.

You find yourself floundering to recognise this world where unadulterated heterosexuality is denied, or at least treated with distaste, and you wonder if Hollinghurst, even in this era of almost aggressive gay pride, wants to perpetuate and enshrine in emotional alabaster a kind of wistful masochism of victimhood for all homosexuals. Cecil Valance, his central figure in The Stranger's Child, is entombed in the family chapel, with fantasies and fictions about his short life entwining themselves around his effigy like a rampant clinging vine.

The Stranger's Child kicks off in Two Acres, a middle-class villa in London, in the summer of 1913. The Sawle family are about to welcome son George's Cambridge friend Cecil Valance for a brief visit. Cecil comes from more commodious, and to his mind, more notable and beautiful surroundings. His family has a minor title, and live in a Victorian country house, Corley Court, full of the ponderous and pretentious vulgarities of its architectural age.

Cecil is already a published poet, his work almost solely concerned with second-rate celebrations of his ancestral (well, built by his grandfather) home. But it is the poem he writes in George's 16-year-old sister Daphne's album, celebrating, not Corley Court, but Two Acres as an English pastoral idyll that will be the basis of his literary reputation after he is killed in the trenches.

He and George are lovers, but he goes down in history as the lover of Daphne, who goes on to marry Cecil's younger brother and becomes the chatelaine of Corley. And so the mockery of historical fact continues, interpretations predicated on a romantic rebirth of Cecil Valance as a Rupert Brooke-like figure, a poetic genius whose magnificence was cut off before it could flower. And, of course, the attachment of a supposedly blighted love story.

Hollinghurst follows Daphne, ostensibly the central character, from then until 2008. In 1926, Corley has been revamped by her husband in loathing of his heritage, and she is about to embark on an affair with a stage designer house guest, who happens to be gay. Brother George, Cecil's one-time passionate lover, is present as well, now a grim academic with an even grimmer wife. The occasion is a weekend planned specially to entertain Sebastian Stokes, a politician who is closely involved in monitoring the labour unrest as the General Strike looms, and on the side (he's gay too) is researching a monograph on the work and life of the late Cecil Valance.

In 1967, Daphne has three marriages under her belt and is living with the daughter of the first. Corinna is as detached and cynical as her mother, believing herself to have married below her class. One of his clerks, Paul Bryant, has literary aspirations and a predatory soul, and sets out to milk his slight acquaintance with the family. Concurrently, he loses his virginity to what in later years came to be called a "Young Fogey" a rampantly gay master at the prep school Corley has become.

Cecil's poetry now has a place on the GCE curriculum but nobody seems able to get a definitive handle on it or on him. This despite Daphne, his supposed lover, having written openly that "I was madly in love with him for five minutes when I was 16". And even though her first husband Dudley, the brother who inherited the title in Cecil's place, has made many things clear in his minor foray into literature, including his own awareness of the beauties of the penis.

And along the way there's the kind man whom George and Daphne had once hoped might marry their widowed mother, but who nursed a wild passion (tremulously returned) for Hubert, their older brother who died in the Great War.

Finally, it's 2008, the era of civil partnership and the triumph of gay pride. Also triumphant is Paul, the unpleasant faux-scholar who is now a celebrated biographer, his reputation based on his book about "the poet Cecil Valance".

Put like that, The Stranger's Child is a wall-eyed farrago of slightly flagellatory homosexual justification. And it is, endorsing critical opinion of Hollinghurst as a gay writer, even if the critical language is often fairly cautious. This caution may be due to a fear of accusations of homophobia and an unwillingness to seem less than adulatory of the extraordinary quality of the writing itself. Because The Stranger's Child is a glowing love-song to 90 years of a particular period of English history, with its intricacies, its subtleties, its fading beauties and civilities.

And the prose is magnificently descriptive, catching everything from the hilariously wicked description of the TLS offices (where Hollinghurst was deputy editor) through to the decrepitude of Daphne and her son, once served by 30 staff, and now living in a decrepit bungalow. Aligned with the palpitating sense of the English countryside and way of life as they were, about to change forever, a kind of misty watercolour of uneasy regret. It makes for a masterly novel.

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