Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel cannily critiques a century of literary politics and punctiliously chronicles the decline of two elite English families. The title is a nod to Tennyson’s “In Memoriam’’ and here “The Stranger’s Child’’ is played by Paul Bryant, a working-class auto-didact who cracks codes of social privilege and artistic reputation. Paul barges into the lives of the Sawles and the Valances, first as poetry fan and then as biographer. Paul’s subject matter and his life lucidly illustrate the shifting mores among gay men on the British arts scene.
Hollinghurst, winner of the Mann Booker Prize and other honors, is known for elegant, explicit novels about the love that dares now celebrate its name. “The Stranger’s Child’’ documents an expanding freedom of self-expression as the public performance of gay identity has shifted from closeted pleasure-seeking to publicly eccentric behavior to campy exhibitionism to spotty assimilation to cultural vanguard.
The first of five sections in “The Stranger’s Child’’ opens in 1913, when the fabulously charismatic Cecil Valance journeys from Cambridge to visit his friend George at the Sawle family home, Two Acres. Cecil charms George’s mother, Freda, and entrances his 16-year-old sister, Daphne. Hollinghurst assiduously sets the claustrophobic scene, with precise details about clothing, conversation, wine, and cigars. As flirtation heats up between George and Cecil, Daphne glides into deeper fascination with the visiting Adonis.
When the boys have sex in the woods, their pleasure seems largely in the performance. “Cecil maintained a provoking half-smile, arousal masked in amusement.’’ Indeed, everyone but Daphne seems to be embracing a role. Even she grows aware of the domestic theater, observing Freda “. . . with her heavy morning face, and her bright morning manner. In fact her manner was flustered; there was something behind her smile.’’
Cecil leaves behind several broken hearts as he heads to war. Sudden death ensures his permanent place in their myths. Daphne glows over a poem he wrote for her, “Two Acres.’’ The poem not only memorializes his visit, but shapes their identities, their occupations, their very futures. The Sawle family members become guardians of the beautiful martyr’s (increasingly exaggerated) reputation.
In scope and erudition, “The Stranger’s Child’’ recalls some of Iris Murdoch’s trenchant narratives about British society and intelligentsia. Hollinghurst shares Murdoch’s arch, tough curiosity. But he lacks her witty philosophical incisiveness. Too often he portrays his self-consciously urbane characters with inapt superciliousness.
The second section shifts to the 1920s when Daphne has married Cecil’s brother and is now parading around as Lady Valance. George, retired or retreated from homosexuality, is married to drab academic Madeline. Cecil’s “Two Acres,’’ his early death, his quirky lusts, still claim their attention and, to some degree, devotion. The Cecil Valance Industry is well underway in Daphne’s living room as people plan a memoir about the alluring enigma.
The pace picks up in part three, as if Hollinghurst has been released from the tentative fragility of tracing paper to the vitality of personal testimony. In 1967, we meet callow Paul Bryant, who embodies a sexual hunger and social ambition worthy of D.H. Lawrence. Paul has an exciting and opportunistic affair with Peter Rowe, a teacher at the fancy school housed in the former Valance estate. Like Cecil, Paul exudes a certain seductiveness. Peter reflects on his perplexing attraction, “In the days since he’d kissed him at the Keepings’ party, his face had become a blur of glimpses, pallor and blushes, eyes . . . grey, surely, hair with red in it under the light, a strange little person to be so excited by, young for his age, slight, but hard and smooth under his shirt, in fact rather fierce.’’
About a decade later, in part four, Paul is doggedly researching his biography of Cecil, who has become his own gay icon. He interviews the aging and cagey Daphne and George, who hope to use him for their separate purposes. Daphne has already written a (sloppy and poorly received) memoir and has been through several husbands. Paul freelances for the Times Literary Supplement. The fustiness of the editorial office resonates with authenticity from the years Hollinghurst edited there.
Part five is a contemporary, ironic coda opening with Peter Rowe’s funeral in the early 21st century. Mourners represent the gallery of queer culture vultures, including the wonderfully over-the-top Nigel Dupont, just visiting from his post as edgy prognosticating queer theorist at an American university. Paul, now fading in his 60s, has used the Cecil biography to acquire other banal assignments. In the Internet age, Cecil has won an even more grotesque immortality as the darling of antiquarian dealers searching books about his circle online. “Book condition: fair. Dust-jacket, losses to head of spine . . . repaired tear to rear panel. In protective red morocco slipcase. An exceptional association copy. $1,500.’’
Ah, what a peculiar world where so much takes place and so little transpires. Three hundred-fifty pages in, one asks, how much longer? Hasn’t Hollinghurst made his points about arbitrarily constructed literary celebrity, malleable memory, and outmoded class privilege? Yet he slogs on, a bloodless monitor of human mediocrity in this wordy novel. What happened to revision? To editing? Are people afraid to say the writer wears no clothes - or in this case, he’s only wearing the dazzling and impermeable cloak of past successes?
Finally, the reader gets to page 435, fleeing the glittering cocktail party which has nightmarishly morphed into a tiresome dinner and an oppressive weekend. One is relieved to escape and embarrassed at having stayed so long. But that’s the seduction of literary celebrity and the hangover for those who indulge in it.
Valerie Miner’s seven novels include “After Eden.’’ She teaches at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com.