Sophisticated musing drives Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Strangers Child.
Gay stylist of renown Mr. Hollinghurst is pulling some surprising new moves in his Stranger’s Child, the Booker award winner of In The Line Of Beauty and The Spell. The story of essentially a dead poet, Cecil Valance is an almost magical discovery in the world of upper crust England. The book promises us the usual trajectory but does certainly NOT deliver!
Instead five sections with large leaps in the future are what await. You’d expect the writer to follow those simple rules, main character, build up, then falter. Somewhat like, wash, lather and repeat. Instead Hollinghurst immediately does away with the whole book by exiting his main character the enigmatic poet. The very gay Cecil, not from booze or drugs or happenstance but offs our hero in war… something supposedly not gay! Therefore the rest of the book is almost about ‘what could have been’. The death of this poet seems to weigh very heavily upon all involved. It’s almost like there is no way to seal him in as his name and fame, his poetry seem to live beyond him. Hollinghurst makes it clear that Cecil Valance is not considered a ‘Major’ poet, such as Yeats, Blake, Passos, etc.
Still Cecil’s death is considered heroic and he is entombed (his likeness sculptured) in his large family estate at Corley Court in the Chapel.
In the end the book actually is all about those who knew Cecil or those who later come to admire him. There is a sense of the Valance family, tragically losing its greatest son, of a brother Dudley who is surely a Bore, talented but ultimately jealous of his older and far greater sibling. Dudley who married Daphne Sawle, is a writer himself, just not as good a writer as Cecil his dead brother and who as now older, is a bit mean, cold and snappish!
“Dudley Valance …?” “Oh, good morning, Sir Dudley—it’s Paul …!” It was simply the sort of contact he had dreamed of. There was a moment’s thoughtful and potentially worrying silence, and then a completely charming “Paul, oh, thank god …” “Ah …!”—Paul laughed with relief, and after a second Dudley did the same. “I hope this isn’t too early to call you.” “Not at all. Good of you to ring. I’m sorry, for a ghastly moment just then I thought it was Paul Bryant.” Paul didn’t know why he was sniggering too, as the colour rushed to his face and he looked round quickly to check that no one could see or hear him. “Oh … um …” It was as bad as something overheard, a shocking glimpse of himself—and of Dudley too: he saw in a moment the intractable delicacy of the problem, the shouldering of the insult was the exposure of the gaffe … and yet already he was blurting out, “Actually it is Paul Bryant, um …” “Oh, it is,” said Dudley, “I’m so sorry!” with a momentary bleak laugh. “How very unfortunate!” Still too confused to feel the shock fully, Paul said incoherently, “I won’t trouble you now, Sir Dudley. I’ll see you at your lecture.” And he hung up the phone again and stood staring at it incredulously.
Daphne Sawle, the younger sister of George Sawle, who begins the book by bringing his young gay lover, Cecil home to meet the family, does marry Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley Valance by the next chapter. It’s somewhat disconcerting when this occurs. Here we are just getting to the second chapter and then suddenly there are all these new characters and Daphne at the Valance Manor married to Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley! It’s rather a jolt as we realize that George and Cecil’s love affair is well over some 13 years later.
In this 2nd chapter many who knew Cecil come together at his families estate at Corley Court to be interviewed by a biographer, Sebastian Stokes. It’s really a sad little chapter, as Daphne has seemingly married a man, Dudley, Cecil’s brother for some odd reason. Dudley in these younger years is said to have had “A Bad War”. Which means he ‘Saw Too Much” and is having trouble incorporating his war experiences into the reasonable landscape of England circa 1926.
There are two children from the union between Daphne and Dudley one of which dies of cancer and the other who is something of a disappointment to his family.
The Stranger’s Child is a depth charge to the future I’d say, a treatise on what happens when someone with one, a future that is, ends up dead and buried… so much is hinged upon the undercurrent of popular notions in large nations, still there is some fact in the finding, although society is far too large and at a loss to define who’s who anymore, they (the ‘general’ public) still manage to find a jewel a time or two. Into that maelstrom of Fame these Famous go, where they generally lose themselves, but enjoy themselves and are diverted from boredom essentially.
Hollinghurst does a very fine job at bringing these ‘outside’ lives touched by brilliance (Cecil Valance) to life. It is the usual sad old climb that the unfamous (ordinary people) have to make… that trudge to old age and the grave with too many memories of what could have been.
This is very much what Alan is getting at here in Strangers.
He looked through the first chapter again, which was her “portrait” of Cecil: On this fine June night, which was to be the last time I saw him, Cecil took me to Jenner’s for a Spartan supper of the kind which seems to a love-struck girl to be a perfect love-feast. Pea soup, I remember, and a leg of chicken, and a strawberry blancmange. Neither of us, I think, cared a hoot what we ate. It was the chance to be together, under the magic cloak of our own strong feelings, out of the noise of war, that counted above all. When we had done we walked the streets for an hour, down to the Embankment, watching the light pass on the broad stretches of the river. The next day, Cecil was to re-embark for France, and the mighty thrust that we knew was coming. He didn’t ask me then—it was to be in his last letter, a few days later—if I would marry him, but the evening air seemed charged with the largest questions. Our talk, meanwhile, was of simple and happy things. He saw me into a cab which would take me to my train at Marylebone, and my last sight of him was against the great black columns of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, waving his cap, and then turning abruptly away into the future we both imagined with such excitement, and such dread.
Daphne is surely the biggest loser here, let’s not mix metaphors. She was young and so very sprightly. She is essentially a nobody, but has met with brillance. She’s a ‘country beggar’ in English terms she’s that ‘house Frau’ a simple and plain woman who ends up living with her slightly mentally challenged son, Wilfrid.
A new Biographer, gay as gay can be and stiff, invades Daphne’s old age. She’s not MAGIC anymore at 83 or so, and Paul Bryant the Biographer of an upcoming Bio on Cecil Valance sees that Daphne isn’t the same ‘sprite’ that she used to be. Fact is he doesn’t like her anymore than she likes him. But there is that old Brit policy of politeness that must keep it’s chin raised to the atmosphere.
Paul came in with a cheerful “Hello, Mrs. Jacobs,” determined not to show his shock at the state of the room. She was sitting almost with her back to him, in a wing-chair covered in shabby pink chintz. All around her was an astounding chaos of junk, so extreme that he knew he must simply ignore it. There was a worrying sense of the temporary grown permanent, piled-up objects adapting into furniture, covered by tablecloths and tipsily topped with lamps and vases and figurines. “It’s all right,” she said, half-turning her head, but not looking at him, “Wilfrid’s put me right about you.”
Then he saw he’d got it wrong again—or else she was brusquely shutting him out from her unexpected turn of feeling. She said, “To tell the truth I sometimes feel I’m shackled to old Cecil. It’s partly his fault, for getting killed—if he’d lived we would just have been figures in each other’s pasts, and I don’t suppose anyone would have cared two hoots.” “Oh, I think they might have done …!”—was he teasing her or reassuring her? “I understand you were planning to get married?” “Well … Even if we had I don’t imagine it would have been a great success.”
That was just it, Daphne was surely going to marry Cecil, the times would demand that Cecil as a gay person marry a woman as he continued upon his male affairs with George Sawle, et al.
It’s a tragedy then, but one in which Hollinghurst has deviously not allowed us to carry on about. Here in America there is a dirge every time a murder makes the airwaves, great moments of silence for murder/suicides or what have you. It’s a Pride thing that demands a hearing or a finger from a footballer thrust up at the Diety. These are the lowest depths of despair that is Modern Living. Cheap screams and whistles is all that is left.
But here in The Stranger’s Child Hollinghurst looks at those left over where it’s not on the box or the social mind. But in the undercurrent of social traffic and time. We only remember what our television allows us, we are not real anymore, is what I mean.
This Death of A Poet.
Hollinghurst has put together a very fine work here, but be warned the book isn’t Entertainment. You won’t be running towards it each night like you do with lesser attractions. I did enjoy not getting to the Punch lines this time, as the surrounding ‘players’ were the ones who carried the book along.