In Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, time and legacy spar over literary reputations and land glancing blows at each other. Over five rounds of gapped chapters that cross nigh a century, time thrusts to swipe out reputations but legacy parries with changing fads. And if the sheer force of time is overwhelming, legacy feints and evades time with a tome like this one.
The novel begins in the gloom of the impending World War I. Young Cecil Valance, aristocrat, poet and libertine (though not a “womanizer”, deemed code word for obdurate heteros) visits his Cambridge collegiate lover George Sawle’s home. At unassuming Two Acres, Valance dallies with George and his younger sister Daphne and, it is insinuated, the young houseboy assigned to weekend valet duties. He also manages to pen a poem, named for the house, in impressionable Daphne’s mauve silk autograph album. The verse is destined to have a lifespan longer than his.
As time elapses, dear dead Cecil presents an even easier target for his heirs, familial and literary, than he did for a German sniper. To his damned handsome brother, Dudley, he is a punchline; “Heir to three thousand acres, he should be best known for his ode to a mere two.” To his critics, and later editors, he is “An epigone of (Rupert) Brooke” or “the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters”. To his biographer he becomes a fountainhead of salacious yesteryear scandals. Yet Cecil thus enshrined, is not the likeness of the virile, arrogant boy whose Byronic posturing remains rather repellently endearing.
Here Hollinghurst feels out a fundamental, fictional truth about ineffable youth. Seen in their salad days, characters can lay claims on our affection that are never quite forfeited by the trials of time. A certain persistence of vision blurs later perceptions of the effacing compromises of adulthood and the mean paralipsis of advanced age.
The Stranger’s Child: Alan Hollinghurst Picador, 576 pages, Rs 499
Literature, or in an even broader sweep, the constituents of culture, architecture, art, music, Hollinghurst contends, do not have as easy a time of it.
Points of plot are practically beside the point in this book about books. Even with the agenda of allusion, to authors Hollinghurst clearly adulates, he manages a breathtaking inevitability of prose, a seductive sense that the novel was penned as it happened, which is staggering given its expanse. It is an impression created by the mimetic of finely observed detail and the colloquy of language and situation. People, places and things reappear over the years casually linked; events are essentially elided.
Daphne is a regular, cued by her changing hats, those inscrutable items of English apparel. First as Lady Valance rechristened Duffel, in that inscrutable English way, and after an absent spell as Mrs Revel Ralph, reincarnated as the widowed Mrs Jacob. On that cusp of faded beauty and final decline, she is either “real or theatrical, truly sophisticated or simply embarrassing” but always with an underpinning of 16-year-old Daphne’s “feeling of doing things that were only just allowed”.
An octogenarian Daphne is more cerebrally linked to the past, when she wakes, “in the dark out of dreams of her own mother, very nearly a nightmare...Daphne kept the light on for a little while longer, with a barely conscious sense that in childhood she would have done the same, longing for her mother but too proud to call for her”. While the recollection is replete with childhood anxiety renewed in old age, as evocative as passages from J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, Hollinghurst always, but always, has a literary allusion lurking. Here, compare Alfred Tennyson’s passage from In Memoriam A.H.H., from which the book’s title is drawn, “So runs my dream, but what am I?/An infant crying in the night/ An infant crying for the light/And with no language but a cry.”
Finely drawn as she is, Daphne is also a well-calibrated valence for the brothers Valance and literature at large. Her sensitivity to the old Victorian estate she briefly, tenuously presides over, her real pleasure at a piano recital tinged with the self-consciousness of performing her role as audience, all establish her as such. Yet memory fails and damningly, “books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art—she could remember nothing about them at all”.
Forcefully summoning a legacy is a grotesquerie like the séance sessions through which Cecil’s mother tries to recall his presence. Near the close, circa present day, technology, not nature, emerges as “red in tooth and claw”. A digitally recreated Tennyson mouths “in a cheesy melting and setting” his own sonorous recording and appeals to be released from this unseemly fate with “a peculiar look...of almost belligerent anxiety (from) the shame that was being inflicted on his lower features”.
Though the dead cannot be reanimated, Hollinghurst doesn’t as ineluctably consign art and achievement to oblivion, as P.B. Shelley did in his epigraph on Ozymandias. Some, he concedes, will burn on the pile of the final conflagration, but what endures is granted the boon of perpetual youth. The Stranger’s Child is a novel that will endure.