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The Respectable Mansion

The Stranger's Child 
By Alan Hollinghurst 
(Knopf, 435 pp., $27.95)

As one looks back to the founding years of literary modernism in Europe, it is possible to discern a parting of ways that occurred on or about the eve of World War I. Along one twilit and at times tortuous path ventured Yeats and Henry James at the head of their few stragglers, while down the other broad thoroughfare strode the forces of the avant-garde, led by Pound, Joyce, and Eliot. Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” was a clarion call to stir the blood of young men already feeling the ground quaking under their boots. Was it not the old ways that had brought the world to the unpretty pass at which it found itself? Then away with them! In the midst of such clamor, few had ears to hear Yeats’s gathering revolutionary rhetoric or James’s murmured subversions, or, on the other side, Eliot’s traditionalist throat-clearings or Joyce’s insistence on the essential medievalism of his sensibility. Newness was all the rage.

And here, as in the case of all artistic instaurations, newness of method was mistaken for novelty of insight. The deceptively amiable Robert Louis Stevenson was one commentator who saw clearly the hubristic nature of all literary innovation. In an essay called “A Note on Realism,” in 1883, when modernism was still no more than a gleam in the eyes of a few French decadents, he wrote: “This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art.” For “realism” in Stevenson’s observation one may substitute any -ism: the soundness of the caveat will hold.

Still, by the mid-1920s, after the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses, the bifurcation of the modernist ways was complete. While progress continued triumphantly du côté de chez Pound-Joyce-Eliot, the other path was petering out, and surely the last gate was closed with the publication, in 1924, of Forster’s A Passage to India--a modernist masterpiece in its way--the final novel by a writer who was to live for nearly another half a century. Of course, a few determined travelers clambered over the stile and ventured on. Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen were more or less of the Jamesian stamp, and quite a few poets of the interwar years continued, for a time at least, to be mesmerized by Yeats’s rocky-faced stare. But the romance was with the revolutionaries.

Now the romance is dead and gone, it’s with Pound-Joyce-Eliot in the grave. The high road of modernism has proved an unmarked way, and many novelists and poets in Europe today, looking about for guides and finding none, see no other option but to turn back and retrace their steps to the place of forking paths and set off along the one less taken. Among the retreating vanguard, few see their way so clearly and with such a sure sense of direction as Alan Hollinghurst, whose new novel, The Stranger’s Child, might be one of the books that Forster did not dare to write in those frightened and fallow years between the publication of A Passage to India and his death in 1970. Indeed, Hollinghurst takes one of his epigraphs from Forster’s The Longest Journey, which reads in part: “I see the respectable mansion. I see the smug fortress of culture. The doors are shut. The windows are shut. But on the roof the children go dancing for ever.”

WHAT WE ARE led into at the opening of The Stranger’s Child is not a mansion but Two Acres, a solidly middle-class domicile—it even has a rock garden. It is the home of the Sawle family, the widowed Freda and her three children, Hubert, George, and Daphne. The period is the lead-up to the Great War. One summer weekend young George Sawle brings down with him to Two Acres a Cambridge friend—a special friend, as we shall discover—named Cecil Valance. Cecil is something of a toff, whose family home is Corley Court, a middle-England Victorian pile of what most of the characters agree is a hideous ugliness. But Corley is Corley, and Two Acres, gripped in the relentless claws of its bourgeois parentheses, is not quite the thing, comfy though it be. All the same, Cecil, a silver poet of the Rupert Brooke stamp, writes an ode to the place, inscribing it in Daphne Sawle’s autograph book. Following Cecil’s untimely death in the war, the poem, “Two Acres,” will become famous as a celebration of and a threnody for the England that died on Flanders fields.

Hollinghurst, among other things a brilliant impersonator, gives us early on a taste of Cecil’s verse, when a servant at Two Acres finds a draft of “Two Acres” in a wastebasket: 

Within that thronging singing woodland round
Two blessed acres of English ground,
And leading roaming by its outmost edge
Beneath a darkling cypress myrtle privet hedge
With hazel-clusters hung above
We’ll walk the secret long dark wild dark path of love
Whose secrets none shall ever hear ...

Toe-curlingly awful, perhaps, but it is the kind of thing the Georgians, and the Edwardians, loved. Hollinghurst has caught the tone and the sentiment brilliantly. As this novel attests at every level, in the matter of English usage, manners, and mores its author is gifted with perfect pitch.

Cecil Valance, with his truculent gaiety and his big hands, is a wonderful creation, and there will be few readers who will not regret his premature departure from the book, although his shade hovers palpably till the end. He is the perfect type of the minor upper-class aesthete of the time: self-assured and overbearing--a bully, that is--careless, mocking, and entirely in thrall to himself and his distinctly modest talent. Poor George, too, is enthralled. In fact, George and Cecil are engaged in a summer affair, and are well along the “wild dark path of love.” Meanwhile Daphne, still a virgin and impatient of it and seeing nothing unnatural in her brother’s friendship with Cecil, assumes that naturally she will be the object of Cecil’s affections. She is not entirely wrong, as is proved by a playful encounter with Cecil by the privet hedge one balmy evening. For Cecil is sexually versatile. As he remarks to George, in a rare and nicely timed instance of coarseness, “I don’t share your fastidious horror at the mere idea of a cunt.”

is material quite sufficient for a novel of manners in the Forsterian or even the Jamesian mode. But The Stranger’s Child is a large book, and a long journey lies ahead of us. After Cecil’s death—in a letter from the trenches he had proposed to her by asking if she would “be my widow”—Daphne marries Cecil’s brother Dudley and becomes the chatelaine of Corley Court. Later she has an unwise liaison with a gay artist rejoicing in the name of Revel Ralph. Then we have the wittering ’20s and the grim ’30s, after which we leapfrog to the flattish postwar world of clerks and suburban villas and minor academics and ...

And really it is impossible, or at least it would be tedious, to try to trace the fantastically intricate windings of a plot that carries us from an Edwardian antiquity up almost to the present day, with all manner of alarums and excursions along the way--a sequestered cache of letters, questions of doubtful paternity, clandestine affairs--in other words, all the usual twists and turns and switchbacks that human relations will insist on making. Hollinghurst is a master storyteller, and his book is thrilling in the rather awful way that the best Victorian novels are, so that one finds oneself galloping somewhat shamefacedly through the pages in order to discover what happens next.

The fact that what happens next turns out in more than one instance to be trite to the point of self-parody is not altogether damning: life, after all, is like that. And the writing is superb—I can think of no other novelist of the present day, and precious few of the past, who could catch human beings going about the ordinary business of living with the loving exactitude on display here. Two or three times on every page the reader will give mentally a cry of recognition and delight as yet another nail is struck ringingly on the head—a man at a party queuing for the lavatory “smiled at the woman in front of him and she smiled back tightly and looked away, as though they were both after the same bargain”—or as another piece of period mosaic is slipped into place, “The drapers and outfitters had covered their shop-windows with cellophane to keep the goods from bleaching in the sun. It was the sugary gold of the cellophane on a bottle of Lucozade, and changed all the clothes inside into unappealing greens and greys.” Even Forster, with all his feline eye for detail, could not connect with such accuracy and panache.

Yet for all this, The Stranger’s Child gives a curious impression of inconsequence. This is to some extent the result of the steady forward narrative march through the years with the inevitable engraying of the landscape—the first two parts, “Two Acres” and “Revel,” which make up half the book, are as dazzlingly atmospheric as anything in Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell, but the second half of the novel becomes increasingly dispirited, ending with the rather slack twist that gives the book its title, and everything going up in smoke. As Stevenson remarked in that same essay, “Any work of art, as it proceeds toward completion, too often—I had almost written always--loses in force and poignancy of main design. Our little air is swamped and dwarfed among hardly relevant orchestration; our little passionate story drowns in a deep sea of descriptive eloquence or slipshod talk.”

All the same, that cannot be the last word. For the daring of its setting out, and for the consistent flash and fire of the writing, The Stranger’s Child is to be cherished. 

John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Infinities (Knopf). This article appeared in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.