Book World: ‘Stranger’s Child’ by Hollinghurst is an absorbing century

October 6, 2011

Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child” could hardly be better, and it’s a mystery to me — and to many others — why it didn’t make this year’s recent shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps quiet perfection is out of fashion in our noisy era.

“The Stranger’s Child” opens in the golden sunshine just before World War I, as a young Cambridge undergraduate named George Sawle brings home a poet friend, with whom he is clearly infatuated. During the weekend, Cecil Valance charms 16-year-old Daphne Sawle, escapes into the surrounding woods for a tryst with George, and scribbles a poem called “Two Acres.” Not much else happens, but the consequences of this visit are enormous for the Sawle and Valance families. Its aftereffects will last 100 years.

In this initial section of a book rich in facets and characters, Hollinghurst effortlessly channels the tone of E.M. Forster’s early novels. The dinner-table banter alludes to Tennyson and Lytton Strachey, Wagner’s operas and the Cambridge secret society known as the Apostles, while beneath the decorous surface of the conversation run myriad erotic tensions. A distinctively Edwardian high-spiritedness abounds, whether Hollinghurst describes Cecil’s pagan worship of the dawn or the young serving boy Jonah who “could write neatly, and could read almost anything, given the time.”

In the second section (of five), the novel grows darker, even as it enters the giddy world of Evelyn Waugh. Daphne has married and become the mistress of a grand Victorian house with 20 servants. Her husband, however, is having its interior modernized so that the drawing room now resembles a room in “some extremely expensive sanatorium.” Cecil Valance, we learn, died in World War I at the age of 25, but “Two Acres” has become an anthology piece, certain to be enjoyed “as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” Or so asserts “Sebby” Stokes, one of the late poet’s particular admirers, who has come down to Corley Court to gather material for a brief memoir. He is clearly modeled after “Eddie” Marsh, the literary executor of Rupert Brooke.

Again, Hollinghurst sets the entire action during a single country-house weekend — preserving the dramatic unities of place, time and action. He effortlessly juggles several points of view (including a 6-year-old’s), slowly revealing people’s true characters while keeping the reader guessing about the erotic intentions of various guests: Who is having an affair with whom? Many secrets are hinted at: Did Cecil write “Two Acres” for Daphne or for George? What precisely were his relations with Sebby Stokes?

Moreover, people have aged and changed. Daphne’s attractive mother — seen a decade earlier as a lonely young widow — has missed her chance to remarry. A former lover of Cecil’s has entered into a stolidly passionless marriage: He and his wife “look much more like colleagues than like a couple.” The choleric Dudley Valance, himself a writer, feels increasingly jealous of his dead older brother’s fame. Daphne’s children are afraid of their brutish father.

In the third section, Hollinghurst jumps to the swinging ’60s, when people say “fab” and a night out requires a “tight-fitting suit and zip-up ankle-boots with built-up heels.” Here he alternates his viewpoint between two young gay men, one a bank clerk named Paul Bryant and the other, Peter Rowe, a teacher at a private school housed in the former Corley Court: “No one, it was felt, could want to live in such a place, but as an institution of learning it was pretty much ideal.” By now “Two Acres” is a regular school text, slightly sentimental, of course, but regularly memorized.

No longer is homosexuality the furtive “love that dares not speak its name” or viewed as simply an element of the artistic temperament. In the 1960s, gays are starting to come out of the closet, even if muscle magazines are still running coded personals: “Undisciplined bachelor (32) would like to meet strong-minded person with modern outlook.”

Not surprisingly, people are also beginning to wonder about the Cecil Valance myth. Official literary histories describe him as a ladies’ man, capable of writing from the front lines to two women, asking each if she will be his widow. But now scholars are digging deeper. “Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?” Michael Holroyd — mentioned by name — is researching his tell-all life biography of Strachey and the Bloomsbury Group. At her 70th-birthday party, Daphne reveals that she is at work on her memoirs.

The fourth section takes place a dozen years later when Paul Bryant has become a book reviewer, specializing in gay subjects. Anyone who’s worked for a newspaper will recognize the accuracy of Hollinghurst’s sketch of the Times Literary Supplement:

“Paul balanced the stack of books he’d already chosen on the edge of a table scattered with sugar and ground coffee. Here the reek of Gitanes smoke was laced with that of sour milk. In cracked old mugs with comic logos, bluish crusts of mould were forming. The books table itself, ten volumes deep, had a broken leg propped up on other books that presumably would never be reviewed. The squalor was remarkable, but no one who worked here — young men in olive-green corduroy, good-looking women chatting on the phone about Yeats or Poussin — appeared to notice it. They sat in their low cubicles, walled in by rubbish, books and boxes, half-eaten meals, old clothes, and great slews of scrawled-over galley proofs.”

For his own first book, Paul has embarked on a biography of Cecil Valance and hopes to persuade the surviving members of the family — Daphne, George and Dudley — to reveal their secrets. Will he succeed?

In the final pages of “The Stranger’s Child,” Hollinghurst carries the story of Cecil and his legacy into the present moment. Initially inspired by people and places he loved, then edited by his most intimate friends, taught in schools and written about in a biography, Cecil’s poetry now claims the attention of queer theorists, while his every scrap is sought after by rare book dealers. Yet secrets remain.

While I’ve described the general arc of “The Stranger’s Child,” I’ve deliberately kept Hollinghurst’s neatly timed revelations inviolate and only hinted at his range, his ear for dialogue and his almost-Tolstoyan clarity about time’s ravages and surprises. He shows us Daphne, for instance, as a girl, wife, lover, widow and crone — all different, yet all of them Daphne.

Most novelists tend to be slightly show­offy, in one way or another; it’s how they make clear that what they’re doing is art. But Alan Hollinghurst doesn’t need to be a prose Johnny Depp. Instead, he writes with the relaxed elegance and unobtrusive charm of a Cary Grant. Part social history, part social comedy and wholly absorbing, “The Stranger’s Child” does everything a novel should do and makes it look easy.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

THE STRANGER’S CHILD

By Alan Hollinghurst

Knopf. 435 pp. $27.95

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