Thursday, July 26, 2012

The passage of time and the creative art of biography (Books - The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst)

Taking place across a span of nearly 100 years, Alan Hollinghurst's recent The Stranger's Child (Alfred A. Knopf 2011) offers simultaneous accounts of how the passage of time has affected both English literary and gay cultures.  Its title, adopted from Tennyson's elegy  In Memoriam, concerns the short life of the poet Cecil Valance (a contemporary of Rupert Brooke's though a fictional creation of Hollinghurst's, and a thoroughly convincing one) and those who survive him.  But it is less about the life of Cecil Valance who is, after all, a second-rate poet who died in his 20s, than about what is made of the life of Cecil Valance.  Sometimes when a life is noticed as remarkable, people take possession of it.  Some wish to live vicariously, others romanticize, demonize, lionize, criticize. That life becomes a symbol whose role it is to fulfill the needs of its creators, but people, like complex works of art, are not so quickly summed up.

Cecil is in the throws of an Edwardian romance with George Sawle at the Sawle family home, Two Acres.  The weekend includes a brief drunken dalliance with  George's younger sister Daphne.  When Daphne asks Cecil to inscribe her autograph book, he pens a peaen to his visit which, after his death in World War I a few years later, becomes a classic - learned by English schoolchildren and quoted by English statesmen.  Cecil's homo or pan sexuality is buried, as is usual for the time, and the poem is presumed to have been written for Daphne.  Following the war, Daphne marries Cecil's brother, Dudley, and George marries Madeleine, a fellow historian, but eventually a biographer named Paul Bryant wants to tell Cecil's life story.
The Stranger's Child traces the creation of Cecil Valance(s) over time.  How his biography is put to use by his brother, widow, lover, and the scholars that study his oeuvre or those events they believe to be his life.  One observes how the morphing of his character can be both selfish appropriation and the maturing product of perspective. Further, those shifts reflect larger-scale movements within the culture.  Particularly apparent in this novel is the transformation of how homosexuality is experienced and recognized in the public context, particularly since the mid 1960s when its criminalization was ended in England.    

It is the way Hollinghurst crafts his narrative to evoke the passing of the years that I found to be the great pleasure of reading this novel.  There is the more obvious progression of narrative form, from a more densely descriptive, luxuriating prose:
In the second case there were clothes for cricket and swimming, and a number of soft, coloured shirts which Jonah thought were unusual. He spaced them out equally on the available shelves, like a display in a draper's.  Then there was the body linen, fine as a lady's, the drawers ivory-coloured, vaguely shiny, catching on the roughness of his thumb before he stroked them flat again.  He listened for a moment for the tone of the talk downstairs, then took the chance he had been given to unfold a pair and hold them up against his round young face so that the light glowed through them.  The pulse of excitement beating under his anxiety made the blood rush into his head.
To a jumpier, though still rich narrative, more frequently interrupted with dialogue and other modes of contemporary communication:
Rob escorted Jennifer through the clearing and stacking of the chairs towards the crowd around the buffet table, Jennifer making confidential but fairly loud remarks about some of the speakers while Rob discreetly switched on his phone.  "A shame about the sound," she said.  "That young man was absolutely hopeless!"

"I know..."

"You'd have thought they'd have something as basic as that sorted out."  Rob saw he had a text from Gareth.  "I thought that Scotsman was awfully boring, didn't you?"

see u 7 @ Style bar - can't wait! XxG
Hollinghurst does not announce our progress through the decades with chapter headings.  Early in the novel, he offers clues in his narrative, allowing the sense of when we are to gradually unfold to the reader through detail.  In Chapter Two, we are told that Daphne now lives at Corley, the Valence estate, rather than Two Acres.  We learn that World War I has come and gone:
Three toes on his father's left foot had been blown off by a German shell, and the man he had learned to call Uncle Cecil was a cold white statues in the chapel downstairs, because of a German sniper with a gun.  Wilfrid ran down the corridor, in momentary freedom from any kind of adult, his fear of being late overruled by a blind desire to hide - ran past his grandmother's room and round the corner, till he got to the linen-room, and went in, and closed the door.
At the same time, as time marches forward, we see a continuity of place and person.  Corley - the Valence house - continues to figure as a prominent structure throughout the novel, though its inhabitants change.  Wilfrid, Daphne's son, continues to hide.
As time progresses forward in jumps, we must intuit what must have happened to the characters since, creating narrative as the characters in this novel do about Cecil.  As we approach modern times, Hollinhurst's technique becomes less furtive.  In Chapter Three we start to guess we have reached the 1960s via mentions of hair length and Penguin editions with openly gay characters.  In Chapter Four, Hollinghurst dispenses with subtlety, having one character tell another after one page "We haven't seen each other for a good ten years..."

From the second chapter forward, Hollinghurst provides each era with a large gathering at which the many characters of his drama interact, usually sewing the seeds of conflicts to come.  These scenes are writerly tour-de-forces in that I was barely aware of the efforts to which Hollinghurst had gone to introduce us to a cast of twenty or thirty key characters spanning multiple generations who I knew by party time well enough to anticipate or dread their behavior.

What is true of the progress of Hollinghurst's narrative technique, is also true of the way he depicts the relational and sexual activities of his characters. While on the eve of World War I there is breathless description of two men shedding trousers and jackets, what follows is a classic Hollywood fadeout, and post-ravishment talk of being spent - hardly the graphic content Hollinghurst has been credited with in past books.  As gay people are liberated from their closets, not only does his narrative feature more explicit talk of the body (polite by modern standards), but his gay characters become more varied.  They share familial roles such as widowhood and the complexity of relationships lived out in the public sphere.

Hollinghurst has, for years, been identified by many not so much as a great novelist, but as a great gay novelist, much like the disservice done to women of talent (woman-doctor, woman-scientist, lady-novelist).  I found it striking that, although this Hollinghurst novel features gay characters, he is no longer writing about the demimonde.  Not only do we see gay characters emerge from the shadows, he is showing them living in and contributing to the world at large as they always have (only not openly).  For years heroes in stories have been assumed to be straight, this book said, but war heroes and widely recited poets can also be gay (as can astronauts, you may have learned earlier this week.) To Hollinghurst's credit this is a novel not merely an argument.  His biographer, Paul Bryant, sweet and reticent as he may seem, is far from entirely likeable himself.  His acts may be as motivated by selfish needs as Valence's family member's are. (Hollinghurst is great at creating such characters.  Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty presents similar paradoxes).  The Stranger's Child leaves us duly warned about any act of biography.  People cannot be summed up by their sexuality.  The real and complex person cannot be summed up at all.  They will always be somewhat unknowable and their biography a creative fiction made out of the needs of the writer by whom it was written and the era in which it was read.


Danielle said...

This sounds so good--I can't wait to read it. It makes me think of William Boyd's Any Human Heart (also high up on my reading pile) but another sort of fictionalized biography (or in that case autobiography). I love how you write about books by the way.

Ted said...

You have made me curious about that Wm Boyd novel. I have added it to the list. I don't think I have ever read anything by him. Thanks for the compliment.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I liked his older stuff (like Swimming Pool LIbrary) kind of, but I could only get half way through The Line of Beauty. You make this one sound interesting, but I wonder if Hollinghurst's prose would do me in.

Ted said...

Hollinghurst's prose can be quite densely descriptive but, I think, to great effect in this book. I was captured by the story and found his handling of multiple characters and cutting across a large swathes of time masterful.