The Stranger's Child
Picador, 576pp, £20
If 2004 was the "Year of Henry James", as David Lodge has argued, 2011 is shaping up to be the Year of Henry James's Friends. There have been novels about H G Wells and Joseph Conrad; a film of Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami and a television adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's novel-sequence Parade's End are on their way. Now Alan Hollinghurst, a gifted writer whose novel The Line of Beauty was an important contribution to the Year of Henry James, has spun a rich variation on the life and afterlife of a beautiful young poet whose death in 1915, at the age of 27, brought distress to the elderly James in the final year of his life. The Stranger's Child is a long and populous novel and, as T S Eliot wrote of an anthology of
poems from that period, Rupert Brooke is not absent.
In fact, Brooke is more present than perhaps he should be. The novel's central figure, though by no means the hero of the story, is Cecil Valance, a Cambridge graduate and promising poet who dies in 1916, aged 25. But, in one of many odd impulses, Hollinghurst wants his invented cast and bibliography to live among, rather than displace, the real-life figures and titles of the period. So Cecil is an acquaintance of Brooke's ("Oh, yes, I know Brooke") and will be compared with him, not just in dialogue between fictional characters ("people thought he was a sort of upper-class Rupert Brooke") but in real-life books such as Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, where he is described as "a less neurotic - and less talented - epigone of Brooke".
The Stranger's Child, as well as being an epic in episodes and a subtly constructed disquisition on mourning and memory, presents a portrait of Cecil's posthumous fortunes. In a novel whose time frame is longer than any of its characters' lifespans, it is Cecil who provides the glue. The first of the novel's five acts depicts the composition in 1913 of his poem "Two Acres", thought to be inspired by an encounter with 16-year-old Daphne Sawle. The remainder of the book is concerned with attempts to honour (or tarnish) Cecil's memory, most notably by Paul Bryant, an ex-grammar school boy and homosexual who leaves home in 1967 and starts working as a clerk in a bank managed by the shell-shocked husband of a daughter produced during (but not necessarily by) Daphne's first marriage.
It is characteristic of the novel's eccentricity that Paul, the closest thing it has to a protagonist, makes his first appearance on page 245.
He becomes its centre of consciousness for the next 250 pages, over which he is researching a biography of Cecil. He is then reduced to the role of despised outsider in the final section, which takes place at a funeral in 2008 where a young homosexual book dealer meets an Oxford don, who turns out to be the daughter of a son produced during (though not necessarily by) Daphne's second marriage.
After five novels, Alan Hollinghurst has not only his favourite kinds of observation (the involuntary act that exposes hypocrisy or duplicity, the tell-all physical gesture) but favourite words, too. Within the first 15 pages of The Stranger's Child, hedges and borders have turned "dusky and vague", an image is "both beautiful and vaguely unsettling" and Daphne, whose underwear is "vaguely shining", has "smiled vaguely". Later, various characters will experience "a vague sense of blame" or feel "vaguely amused" or - again - "smile vaguely". Nick Guest, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty, thinks that a certain word, as used by Henry James, is "sublime in its clinching vagueness". Hollinghurst's evocations of vagueness aren't so much unclinching, however, as unconscious.
The new novel exhibits the side of Hollinghurst that cannot help but indulge in the moribund mannerisms and clichés of the slyly comic, socially fascinated, psychologically invasive upper-class English novel. For example:
"I gather you came up through the Priory," said Hubert, genially determined to follow every step of the journey.
“Yes, indeed we did," said Cecil, very smoothly.
“You know Queen Adelaide used to live there," said Hubert, with a quick frown to show he didn't want to make a big thing of it.
“So I gather," said Cecil, his glass empty already.
After a while, the reader, tiring of these tags, may begin to wonder how vivid or insightful they really are. Hollinghurst puts it best when he has Paul observe someone being "very free" with "Shavian stage-directions (sniggers, pauses regretfully, with sudden feeling etc) attached to quite ordinary-looking statements". He thinks of them as "getting in the way".
But the most frequent, not to say tenacious, symptom of Hollinghurst's fetishism for novelese is his reliance on behavioural paradoxes: "the delighted firmness that conceals a measure of uncertainty"; "both bored and unaccountably involved at the same time"; "to keep him with him and somehow immobilise him at the same time". Those adverbs ("unaccountably", "somehow") are a giveaway, and it is fairly self-incriminating that the author describes Paul's "usual muddle of gloom and relief" but also has Cecil's brother Dudley write, in a florid memoir, of his "mingled gloom and determination".
Readers of The Line of Beauty will recognise this type of phrase, probably with fondness, yet the altered context is crucial. Nick was a bourgeois arriviste who had difficulty interpreting the behaviour of a wealthy, aristocratic clan to which he was both mascot and impostor. His neglected PhD thesis concerned the Anglo-American, perennially divided Henry James, and he was drawn to the ogee curve - Hogarth's "line of beauty" - because it traced "the snakelike flicker . . . of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement". It suited Nick's temperament that he found, in a single action or gesture, enlargement and diffusion, facilitation and containment, stupor and animation. Paul, as both servant to and adjudicator of the Valance-Sawle tribe, is in a similarly dialectical or see-sawing position, but he is by no means the only source of the novel's prevaricating or paradoxical phrases. Most of the devices on display here seem merely habitual, deployed not for how applicable they are, but as if the novel - and The Novel - could not exist without them.
In some ways, The Stranger's Child is a full-dress display of Hollinghurst's virtuosity, as a lyricist and an elegist, as a writer of set pieces, as a pasticheur, as a describer of homosexual longing and early-summer rapture. Yet it is also a broken-backed and anti-dramatic novel that contains a good deal of complacent brushstrokes next to the beautiful ones. The opening section, for all its sumptuousness, is especially bizarre, bearing as it does an unignorable resemblance to the opening section of Ian McEwan's Atonement - a bookish teenage girl (Daphne, instead of Briony) lives in a large house, respectable but definitely not a stately home (in Middlesex rather than Surrey), with her frail mother (insomniac rather than prone to migraines) and two older siblings, one of whom brings home, on the cusp of a world war (the First rather than the Second), a star guest whose visit will continue to resonate and deposit sexual secrets for decades afterwards. The difference is that Atonement turns out to be a parody of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, whereas The Stranger's Child turns out to be a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer