Excavating the Closet

11 August 2011

I sympathised with my friend Alan Clark having his debut novel Rory’s Boys launched in the same week as The Stranger’s Child, the latest work by a more well-known Alan (Hollinghurst). What a treat, though, to be able to read both novels in quick succession. Each are interested in the lives of the exquisitely mannered but badly behaved upper classes, set amidst worlds of stately homes, garden parties and a spot of buggery before cocktail hour.

Alan Hollinghurst is a titan of contemporary gay writing, who’s done more to map gay sensibility and bring a gay male perspective into the “mainstream” of literature than any other contemporary British author. Like his literary hero Henry James, Hollinghurst’s novels are elegantly written, astutely observed and drily witty analyses of social behaviour, describing the thoughts of individual characters in minute detail, and moving into wider examinations of how people react and relate to their society and environment. He’s a dab hand at tracking the undercurrents of stale etiquette, suppressed longings, barely contained resentments, social competitiveness and points-scoring lurking beneath the veneer of respectable social behaviour.

Unlike James, Hollinghurst isn’t afraid of strong feelings or the messy business of sex. He’s one of the great gay eroticists of our age, describing love, sex and the murky, confusing terrain in between with candour and apparent fearlessness, in keeping with the sexual boldness of his generation. Whereas James sublimated his character’s sexual desires into exquisite prose and bad behaviour, Hollinghurst has written boldly and unapologetically about male sexual desire, in ways that would have had James reaching for the smelling salts. It’s this combination of high art and raffish, often very explicit gay sexuality that has given him a unique position in English letters: the master stylist who made bum sex in the shrubbery (almost) palatable to the Establishment.

His debut novel, The Swimming Pool Library, published at the end of the 1980s, was a Jamesian character study – following Will, a langorously predatory trust-fund baby, as he drifted happily and aimlessly through the decadence of the pre-AIDS 1980s. A happy stranger to political correctness, Will moved between boxes at the opera to rough sex with working class lads, watersports on the bathroom floor, and unapologetic eroticising of black men as porn star studs. One particularly memorable scene involves Will being fucked roughly and painfully over a wooden bench in a restaurant kitchen, with cooking oil used as lubricant.

This collision between high culture (stately homes, trips to the opera, first editions of Firbank novels) and low culture (bum sex, DIY porn shoots), is central to Hollinghurst’s dual agenda as gay historian and dissident, and the source of his arch, knowing humour. The Swimming Pool Library and the novels that follow underline how male homosocial relationships, both sexual, asexual and repressed, have formed the basis of the English cultural tradition, while pointing out astutely and with a minimum of outraged, Act-Up style flag waving, the ways in which gay men are still excluded from the corridors of power.

When I first read The Swimming Pool Library, I was fascinated by the gleefulness and lack of apology with which Hollinghurst’s characters fucked around, even as I felt slightly alienated by their poshness and snobbery. There was an honesty about his descriptions of life inside a gay man’s skin that felt both comforting and very new in terms of literature. Hollinghurst seemed to relish his ability to shock the moral majority with descriptions of “transgressive” sex. Twenty years later, it probably looks a bit teenagerish, but at the time, it felt exciting and liberating, and a welcome break from all the self-restraint and “good taste” of gay writing of previous generations. or the dreary tragedy of all the AIDS melodramas everyone else was writing. Oddly enough for a writer so steeped in the cultural mores of the upper classes, his approach suddenly seemed so rock n’ roll, with his amoral gay characters as the stars of their own story, happily getting their cocks out.

His subsequent novels, The Folding Star, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty all explored, to varying degrees, the prowling, relentless quality of homosexual desire, rites of passage of gay men (though never the over-narrated coming out story that is the stuff of most other gay novels), and the pain of obsessive and unrequited love. Throughout, he’s maintained a cool observing eye, and a tendency towards moral ambiguity. His protagonists are refreshingly complex, contradictory creations, neither heroic nor villains, usually blessed with striking self-awareness and powers of observation, but happily falling victim to their free-roaming desires. He’s seldom inclined to explain or apologise for his characters or their sexual behaviour. It’s that acceptance of human nature and corresponding lack of moral judgment, combined with his extraodinary eye for detail and a sensualist’s love of beauty, that makes him, for me, one of our great modern novelists, and the chronicler of an era.

The Stranger’s Child marks a slightly more relaxed change of tone, and a less urgent and provocative authorial voice, as well as the embracing of a fuller, more traditional literary style, in the form of an inter-generational epic. Spanning almost 100 years of social and literary history, from a Forsterian English pastoral, to the present day of gay civil partnerships, queer theory and the Internet, it’s a novel about the inevitability of change, the unreliability of memory, and the impossibility of recovering the secret histories of the past.

The first, rather heavenly sections are deliciously eroticised reimagining of the “English country house” novel popularised by Forster and Waugh, with nods towards the homoerotic tendencies of the war poets and the bisexual bed-swapping of the Bloomsbury Group (some of whom, including Lytton Strachey, are referred to in the story). The charismatic, almost mythically sexy poet Cecil Valance, an Oxford graduate and heir to a baronetcy, visits the home of his middle-class friend George Sawle, whom he buggers in the shrubbery at every opportunity. Everyone who crosses Cecil’s path seems magnetically drawn to his very English combination of aristrocratic confidence, intellectual poise and predatory sexuality – especially Daphne, George’s sister, who Cecil feels up in the garden once or twice, later revealing to a jealous George that his sexual inclinations run both ways. Before leaving, Cecil inscribes a poem, “Two Acres”, in Daphne’s autograph book – a slightly tongue-in-cheek pastoral ode to the Sawle’s house, which Daphne takes to be a love-poem to her, despite some coded references to sex with George. Hollinghurst’s writing is at its most gorgeous, luxuriant and witty here, with strong nods to Forster’s Room With A View – men named George and Cecil, a naked lakeside frolic, and a pants-sniffing servant named Jonas who recalls Alec Scudder in Maurice.

Just when we’re getting comfortable with the setting, Hollinghurst makes the first of several jarring leaps forward in time, disorienting the reader with a mildly sadistic use of impersonal pronouns (“he”, “she”, “they”) so that it’s not clear who or where anyone is. Much of the work of reading the novel (or the fun, if you’re that way inclined), comes from piecing the narrative strands back together, Miss Marple-like, with Hollinghurst slowly drip-feeding information so that we can fill in the ellipses and explain the passing of time. This withholding technique forces us into the same mindset as many of the characters, who are busily involved reconstructing or strategically forgetting the past for their own complex reasons.

In the second section, the Great War has been and gone, Cecil has died in the trenches, and become memorialised in body and mind: his body lies in a marble tomb in the chapel of his family home, while he has become a revered, Rupert Brooke-like war poet, and “Two Acres” has become a cornerstone of war poetry, its erotic content either undiscovered or conveniently forgotten. Daphne, not George, is publically acknowledged as Cecil’s muse, and has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, a smiling sadist whose complex pathology is written off by his having “had a very bad war”, while George has settled into a passionless, childless marriage with a dull bluestocking. The Valance and Sawle families gather for a weekend to commemorate Cecil, and be interviewed by a discreetly gay biographer who’s involved in his own private version of Cecil hero-worship. The suppression of the gay narrative continues as Cecil’s mother conceals Cecil’s sexually explicit letters to George, and Cecil’s life and work is re-appropriated to support patriotist propaganda. Hollinghurst characterises the process of rewriting history through the delicious cameo of a predatory lesbian interior decorator, who has started a wholescale modernist redesign of the Valance’s Victorian Gothic home, inbetween making moves on both Dudley and Daphne throughout the weekend.

The next jump is even more brutal, fast-forwarding to 1967, the year of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England. All traces of the Valances and the Sawles seem to have vanished for the first few chapters, as we meet Paul, an aspiring big-city homosexual living in a small country town, who falls under the spell of Peter, a charismatic and cheerfully filthy-minded music teacher with a posh private school background. We learn that the manager at Paul’s bank is married to Daphne’s grown up daughter, and that Peter’s school is located in what used to be the Valance family home. By this time, the ravages of time are showing visibly: once-admired jelly-mould domes in the ceiling have been boarded up, and Cecil’s reputation has slipped from patron saint of the war dead to a slightly second-rate writer of pastoral verse.

Hollinghurst has some fun with Peter and Paul, and, as is often the case with his work, the writing sparks and dazzles describing male sexual desire in a way it doesn’t elsewhere. As part of their courtship, Peter and Paul go for a nocturnal ramble through the woods, as we imagine Cecil and George must’ve once done, and the two appear to play out the same roles of hopelessly smitten middle-class romantic (Paul/George) and predatory and heartless aristocratic seducer (Peter/Cecil). The remaining members of the Valance and Sawle families are exhumed for Daphne’s 70th birthday, by which time we learn of Daphne’s extra-marital affairs and remarriage, and some Bloomsbury-esque gossip circulating about Cecil’s sexual history.

The subsequent sections, which grow flatter and less glamorous as the years drag on, show Paul’s self-styled attempts to write a muckraking biography of Cecil, a project once dreamed of by Peter (who has since disappeared from the story) and now considered marketable amid the late 1970s fashion for sexually revealing biographies of the Bloomsbury Group. In a series of acidly-sketched scenes, Paul reveals himself as the world’s worst interviewer, against whom the ghosts of the past close ranks. The now elderly Jonas reveals nothing of his past infatuation with Cecil’s pants; George says nothing interesting but reveals more truth by fondling Paul’s bottom; and Daphne stonewalls his enterprise with a combination of well-bred hostility and feigned old-lady forgetfulness.

True to form, Hollinghurst is more on the side of the frosty, snobbish aristocrats than he is with the voyeuristic young parvenus. Paul is sketched mostly unsympathetically as a grasping social climber and opportunist, with echoes of Leonard Bast from Forster’s Howard’s End, the clownish bank clerk with aspirations to literary greatness. It’s with some relief and glee that we read of his failure as a biographer: his carefully rehearsed questions meet with sullen resistance or silence, tape recorders malfunction or run out of batteries, and the great secrets of his biographical subjects go untapped, only to be rediscovered by his more distingished (and posher) literary rivals. Paul’s leaden-footed style, crippling class envy and ingrained sense of social inferiority appears to be a warning from Hollinghurst to the grasping voyeurs who feast on sensationalist literary biography. Move along, he says icily: you won’t find any satisfaction here.

In a coda, we fast forward to more or less the present day, in a memorial service for Peter. Paul has finally published a sensationalised book about Cecil and the Valances, and is treated with well-bred condescension by the literary lions at the memorial, who view his muckraking work with contempt. Elsewhere, middle-aged gay academics frostily show off their new-found respectability in the age of civil partnerships, to which Hollinghurst raises a cursory eyebrow, though refrains from criticising directly. A new character, Rob, a gay second-hand book seller, stumbles on love letters written to Cecil by a long-forgotten secondary character, and goes in search of more evidence of a secret gay history. The story ends with Rob discovering a secret vault in the gutted shell of the old Two Acres house, which is about to be renovated and turned into flats. Alas, the crass and decidedly unliterary real estate agents have burned the remaining papers, literally consigning Cecil’s history to the bonfire of history.

The implications of the final sections also seem to spell a grander, darker truth: that the past, particularly the gay past, is irrecoverable. Like the “stranger’s children” from Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A. H. H” that Cecil reads aloud in the first section, first love fades from the landscape and is replaced by “a fresh association” by successive generations. Although Paul and Co succeed in re-establishing the homosexual themes of Cecil’s writing, the full scope of Cecil and George’s love affair is lost forever. As we discover through Paul’s follies, truth cannot be recovered through a handful of interviews with (mostly) reluctant old people and speculative readings of letters. What’s lost is lost.

Though elegantly written, The Stranger’s Child was hard to warm to, and became a book I admired rather than loved. The fragmented forward chronology provided an interesting literary puzzle to unravel, but made it difficult to become invested in the characters or their fate, since after a while you knew that the not-very-nice posh person currently in focus would aged 70 years, kill themselves or disappear entirely in the next chapter.

Interestingly, though, for a novel that highlights the limitations of books and writing as a way of recovering the past, The Stranger’s Child stands as its own proof of the way in which fiction can remake time. It’s in Hollinghurst’s own novel – not Cecil’s poem, or Paul’s clumsy attempts at biography, or the fragments of historical information that’s left to us about the lives of the gay Edwardians – that gay histories can be retraced and the lost experiences of the past can be recovered. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Hollinghurst demonstrates the imaginative possibilities of fiction as a way to transcend the ravages of time and the inconclusive and unsatisfying annals of official history. Though the individual characters live, die and are forgotten, there’s a unifying gay consciousness, just below the surface of the story, that seems oddly satisfying.


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