Wednesday, 30 January 2013

'Mr Jameson usually made me happy'

A surprise bonus post because I have finished all my packing for Berlin especially early and am waiting to leave to catch a train... and because this book is so fantastic it deserves to be blogged about. I very much enjoyed Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress, but with After Such Kindness, she has excelled herself. Note that there will be spoilers for this book throughout this post; as the elliptical reviews of it in the Guardian and the Independent indicate, it’s impossible to write satisfactorily about it without spoiling the central twist.

This novel takes as its point of departure the relationship between Charles Dodgson – alias Lewis Carroll – and Alice Liddell, whom he famously photographed as a child in various states of undress. However, other than appreciating the many Wonderland references in this novel, I’m not sure if keeping this historical connection in mind while reading helps more than it hinders. Having read the recent The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Wolf, which forcefully argues that Dodgson was not unusual in his tastes, situating his predilection for innocent little girls within the context of its time, it’s hard to get such debates out of your head if you’re focusing on real-life parallels, and at first I kept trying to assess whether the Dodgson character in this novel, John Jameson, was ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’. Reading the novel in this way is pointless for three reasons. Firstly, Arnold clearly notes that the novel is not meant to be simply a disguised retelling of the Dodgson-Liddell relationship; secondly, she is obviously more interested in the fetishisation of innocence and denial of natural sexual feeling of the times than in indicting Jameson of anything; and thirdly... well, read on.

To build on the second point, Arnold notes in the afterword that Dodgson was not alone in his views on ‘child-women’ as the ideal. As she splendidly analyses in Girl in a Blue Dress, Dickens was also obsessed with innocence, as were Ruskin and Kingsley, and she uses the celebrated diarist the Rev. Francis Gilbert as an example of an ‘apparently well-balanced man’ who also bought into this cult. Therefore, it’s important from the beginning to realise that this book is not about painting John Jameson as a deviant monster – difficult as some of his thoughts are to stomach – but about criticising a culture that suppresses both men and women’s natural expression of their sexuality and subverts it into highly problematic channels. The victim here is the Alice Liddell figure, Daisy, who is eleven when she first meets Jameson and still only twenty when she looks back to her childhood experiences as a young married woman. We realise swiftly that Daisy is dealing with a childhood trauma; she has violently resisted her gentle husband’s sexual advances, has a complete memory blackout between the ages of eleven and fifteen, and is terrified when she rediscovers her childhood diary. As we read the diary along with her and realise that it deals almost entirely with her friendship with Jameson, we feel we know the story that Arnold is telling; the dreadful impact of the predatory Jameson’s abuse upon Daisy and its distortion of her later life.

However, there is a twist in this tale. As we gradually realise during the final third of the novel, Daisy’s trauma does not in fact stem from her experiences with Jameson, but from continuous sexual abuse from her father, Daniel Baxter, over her four missing years. As we already know, Daniel is enraptured by innocence as well; when he first met Daisy’s mother, Evelina, she was fifteen and wanted to join a chaste religious group of young women at Caerwen House. He viewed her as ‘an angel’ and won her by allowing her to ‘convert’ him and end his dissolute life. After a mutually satisfying sexual relationship through many years of marriage, the couple are now irrevocably separated physically because a doctor has ruled that another childbirth would kill Evelina, and Daniel turns his sexual frustration and fixation on purity onto Daisy. Again, Victorian values are implicated in the abuse, but the real tragedy is nineteenth-century society’s inability to hear Daisy’s story or to fit it into their view of reality. Jameson’s photographs are twice at fault in this narrative. A naked image of eleven-year-old Daisy acts as a catalyst for the beginning of her father’s abusive behaviour, and when her husband sees the same image, years later, he is furious with Daisy, although he has already been unable to believe her confession about her father, a reaction that she is unable to comprehend: ‘I’m horrified that Robert finds it so hard to believe that Papa was capable of wrongdoing, yet is so ready to think me a child seductress because I have taken off my clothes, and am trying to look pleasant for a photograph.’ Trapped in the Madonna/whore dichotomy, Daisy cannot account for herself in any way that her husband can understand.

Nevertheless, perhaps there is a final twist that makes the novel even more interesting than it has been already. As Daisy unravels her past, she comes to realise that her memories of John Jameson are perfectly clear; she believes that he has not abused her, claims he is not at fault, and when, at twenty, she receives an invitation from him to tea, she longs to accept it: ‘I’d forgotten how happy John Jameson always made me with his incapacity to take anything very seriously. Just to read his words makes me feel young and carefree and full of vitality, as if I have escaped into another world’. Given how wretched Daisy is at this point, the reader can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief with her, despite our serious qualms. It seems clear that Jameson did abuse Daisy’s trust, taking advantage of her respect for him to photograph her for his own gratification; he gave no thought to how his actions have seriously affected her life; and he has photographed many other little girls since. In fact, our last sight of him in the novel is his request to a new little girl, Amy, for a photograph, in language which makes a mockery of ‘consent’, even if an eight-year-old could meaningfully give it: ‘I have another question to ask you, but it’s not at all hard, because there’s only one answer and that is, yes’.

And yet, perhaps it is a measure of the bleakness of this novel that this deeply troubling relationship is also one of Daisy’s few sources of happiness. Apart from her devoted nurse, Nettie, who is dismissed early on in the book, there is no other adult who seems willing to listen to her or care for her. As Jameson says when they are forced to part, ‘I hesitated to abandon her to the Scylla and Charybdis of her vicarage life – her clever, cold mama and her wild, distracted father... But I could not force my way into the house, and I could not force Daisy out of it. I had no power at all.’ Despite knowing everything Jameson has thought and felt about Daisy, their parting, and her distress, is still deeply affecting; because we know he is leaving her to four years of hell. Her attachment to him might be written off as a form of Stockholm syndrome, but I think this would do a disservice to her recognition of the value of their friendship; how he listened to her, made her laugh, wrote puzzles and games for her, took her out of her unhappiness. Drawing together these strands, Arnold has produced a thought-provoking and complex novel which is not just about the folk-devil of the abusive stranger, but shows how, for abuse to be prevented and recognised, there must be social and cultural shifts as well as different individual choices. And in the figure of John Jameson, it indicates how relationships with such an unequal power balance can be truly positive and deeply dangerous, both at the same time.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

February schedule

Friday February 1st: [No post - on holiday in Berlin]

Friday February 8th: Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

Friday February 15th:  Laura Rereading: The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs

Friday February 22nd: Farthest North and Farthest South #2: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman

Friday, 25 January 2013

Tigers Six: 'Bengal tiger a serious problem'

As I wrote earlier on this blog, I avoided reading Life of Pi for so many years because I mistakenly believed it was a magical realist novel about a magical tiger. I say ‘mistakenly’ about both these things because, not only is the tiger, Richard Parker, not remotely magical, I think to read Life of Pi as an example of magical realism is a profound misreading of the novel. Rather than incorporating magical elements into an otherwise realistic setting – if we’re going with the Wiki definition of magical realism – Life of Pi instead explores storytelling, allegory, and belief in the widest sense of the word, and, to my relief, doesn’t depend on anything supernatural to work.

One major reason this novel does work, perhaps, is because it’s utterly charming. I fell in love with Pi from the moment he decided to shed his hated childhood nickname, ‘Pissing’, and enacted a cunning plan when arriving at a new school, writing on the board ‘My name is Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as Pi Patel.’ The scene where he is confronted by a Christian priest, a Muslim imam, and a Hindu pandit, all of whom think he is a new convert to their faith, is charming in a very different sense; with the three men and the three paths to choose from, it recalls folktale choices, and illustrates both Pi’s idealism but lack of irritating naivety, as he knows he’s in trouble but refuses to acquiesce to their conception of faith. The novel avoids sentimental anthropomorphism with Pi’s father, a zookeeper’s, lesson on the innate savagery of animals, but nevertheless, when Pi is marooned on a lifeboat with Richard Parker, I grew to love him as well. Pi’s struggle to survive after the shipwreck is riveting in itself, putting aside all allegorical considerations, and his eventual discovery of the algae island takes his story to a new level of surrealism but avoids loosening the narrative’s grip.

It would be pointless to review this novel without discussing the ending, so look away now if you want to avoid spoilers. From a brief review of internet discussions, it seems that the ending of Life of Pi has caused quite a lot of controversy. In brief, Pi’s original story of himself, a hyena, a zebra, a female orangutan, and a tiger on a lifeboat, the vicious murder of the zebra and orangutan by the hyena, and the tiger’s dispatch of the hyena, transmogrifies into an even more gruesome tale where the zebra is an unknown sailor, the orangutan his mother, the hyena the ship’s cook, and he both boy and tiger. Martel himself suggests one reading of the two stories we are presented with via the two Japanese observers of Pi’s tale, who instantly decide that the original collection of animals simply match up to the humans who actually were on the lifeboat. We are invited to believe that Pi’s tall tale of animals was simply a psychological defence against the horrors he has witnessed, and his double identity a way to separate off the savage, cannibalistic part of himself in a type of psychoanalytical identity split. The book goes further, however, when we return to a theme that was raised earlier in the novel, when the religious Pi considers the plight of a dying agnostic: ‘if he stays true to his reasonable self might... to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.’ Similarly, the Japanese observers decide that ‘The story with animals is the better story’ and this is the one they eventually believe.

It seems that much of the controversy about the ending has arisen from the idea that the novel is pressing a religious message: that we want to believe in the gripping story ‘with the animals’ that we have been following for so many pages, and refuse to accept the horrific, sketchy reality we are presented with instead, but to do this we have to accept Pi’s assertions about God and belief. However, I think such an objection results from a misreading of the novel. It seems to be that both Pi’s stories are as unlikely as each other, for very different reasons, and one has to wonder if Pi ever had any company on his lifeboat at all. He speaks of his ‘fierce will to live’ and the fact that he will ‘fight to the very end’ but this seems, later, to be linked to Richard Parker: ‘he pushed me to go on living... without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story’ and it seems to me that an equally plausible reading of the novel would be to postulate that Richard Parker is an invention, that Pi is alone, and that the story of their survival on the lifeboat symbolises the symbiosis between ‘God’/man’s higher nature – represented by Pi – and the animal energy and will to live represented by the tiger. This also makes sense of the parallels between Pi’s description of how to gain authority over a zoo animal and make it believe that you are the alpha, and the earlier references in the novel to God only existing if you believe in him. Pi’s struggle is to keep both parts of himself in existence, and he realises that if he loses either, the psychological trauma will be such that he’ll lose the will to survive. This reading reminds me strongly of Pincher Martin, William Golding’s disturbing account of a shipwreck survivor’s war within himself, which also features a switchback ending, and seems much more resonant than either of Pi’s inadequate tales.

However, I think something else important to consider is that, even if we accept Pi’s assertion that the tiger story simply is ‘the better story’, this is not a command to believe in God, but an argument that such stories, even if not ‘true’, exert a pull on humanity that is greater than the bare facts of the matter. Again, I was reminded of another novel: Ron Currie’s God is Dead, a collection of interlinked short stories that explore what might happen to the human race if we knew that God had existed but is now dead. In short, Currie’s answer is that we would cease to exist, or find other beliefs: the stories range from a teenage suicide pact to a new society which worships the young. Both Martel and Currie seem to me to be recognising an essential truth: to deny the human need for story and myth is as dangerously fundamentalist as insisting your version of the story is the only one that means anything, and that if religion no longer existed, something as mythical would grow to fill the gap. Perhaps what we're really meant to take away from the novel is that, like the versions of truth offered by the priest, imam and pandit, choosing between the three different versions of Pi's story is not a choice it is important to make.

(As a final note, it was interesting to read this novel alongside Alex Garland’s The Beach – a novel which is in some ways very different, but shares a similar theme of human psychological breakdown under extreme environmental conditions. (And there's a Richard!) It also reminded me how fantastic that novel is, and made me question why Garland has never written anything nearly as good – with the exception of the screenplay for Sunshine, which draws on the same strengths that make The Beach such a gripping read. Readers might remember that I thought he made a terrible mess of the screenplay for Never Let Me Go. End of digression!)

[For further posts in the Tigers series, see the links at the end of this post.]

Friday, 18 January 2013

Laura Rereading: We need to talk about kraken

Or, more precisely, we need to talk about why John Wyndham's tale of deep-sea-dwelling alien intelligences invading the Earth is by far his best novel; outstripping, in my opinion, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, and even The Midwich Cuckoos.

1. It's scary. The most frightening thing about The Kraken Wakes is the fact that we never encounter an actual kraken. One of the most terrifying scenes in the novel is the most low-key: when a group of scientists lower two men in a deep-sea submersible vehicle, or 'bathyscope', to investigate reports of strange objects falling from the sky into the Earth's Deeps (where the bottom of the ocean is more than four or five miles down, or three thousand to four thousand fathoms). Unsurprisingly, this doesn't end well; at a depth of twelve hundred fathoms, the screens go blank, the men's voices are cut off, and 'The sound of the winch outside altered as it speeded up... It takes quite a time to reel in more than a mile of heavy cable... At last, the end came up. We all, I suppose, expected to see the end of the wire-rope unravelled, with the strands splayed-out, brush-like. They were not. They were melted together. Both the main and the communication cables ended in a blob of fused metal.' The Captain comments: 'Imagination staggers a bit at the thought of a creature capable of snapping through steel hawsers... When, however, it comes up against the suggestion that there is a creature capable of cutting through them like an oxy-acetylene flame, it recoils.'

2. Did I mention it's scary? Alongside utilising the power of his readers' imagination as they visualise the unseen menace in the deep, Wyndham uses the innately creepy setting of the depths of the ocean - more inaccessible to man than the moon - to amplify the horror. The faux-scientific tone of much of the novel is incredibly effective at sending a shiver up the spine. Because of the inaccessibility of the krakens' location, our experts in the novel have to continuously make educated guesses about what they are doing down in the deep. Dr Bocker, the most prominent expert, argues, when new currents of sediment are noticed in the oceans, that the krakens are engaged in mining operations: 'having settled into the environment best suited to them, these creatures' next thought would be to develop that environment... the fact that something is undoubtedly taking place in that strategic Trench leaves me with little doubt that whatever is down there is concerned to improve its methods of getting about in the depths...'

3. And nowadays it's particularly scary... One of the most chilling features of this novel for a modern reader is its anticipation of the impact of climate change, as the krakens begin to deliberately melt the ice-caps so they can flood the earth and take over the entire planet. Much of the science in the novel, of course, is laughable, but occasionally Wyndham is frighteningly prescient. Our narrator describes: 'suggestions that the great Ross Ice-Barrier itself might be beginning to break up. Within a week came similar news from the Weddell Sea. The Filchner Barrier there, and the Larsen Ice-Shelf were both said to be calving bergs in fantastic numbers.' While the Ross Ice Shelf currently appears stable, despite increased iceberg calving, the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf is deteriorating and, most famously, much of the Larsen Ice Shelf has already broken up; Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B, very suddenly, in 2002. Wyndham's description of the reportage of such events is also depressingly familiar: 'the more sober illustrated weeklies ran rotogravure views of great masses plunging into seas already dotted for miles with gleaming bergs... above such captions as "Nature's Majesty"... '

4. It's not (too) offensive. One of the most painful aspects of reading Wyndham's novels in the twenty-first century is his incredibly misogynistic portrayal of women. Strikingly, in The Kraken Wakes, the first-person male narrator, Mike, behaves patronisingly towards his wife, Phyllis, but there appears to be little evidence to back up his assumptions. Indeed, it is Phyllis who drives much of the couple's trajectory in the novel; from extracting information from key players (although her husband attempts to write this off as a woman's knack for flirting and flattering) to having the foresight to brick up a store of food for them in their Cornwall cottage for when the worst comes to the worst. Mike also attempts to portray Phyllis as a typical emotional female, stressing that only she needed to recover after the death of their baby, but his over-protectiveness backfires on him in one memorable scene. After Phyllis and Mike are involved in a kraken attack, Mike forces her to see a doctor as she cannot sleep; the doctor recommends that Mike should also see the specialist that Phyllis has visited, who tells him that he has been talking in his sleep: 'Phyllis had been spending most of her nights listening to me and dissuading me from jumping out of the window to interfere in these imaginary happenings.' The traditional plot-line of female madness is reversed, with Mike becoming the one unaware of his own fragile grasp on sanity. Sadly, given Wyndham's track record, it's unlikely that this positive portrayal of Phyllis was deliberate, but it does make the novel more palatable to read.

5. It manages 'Blitz spirit' humour. This is not the type of novel you would expect to be funny, but Wyndham manages some genuinely amusing digressions; the fact that his two main characters are both journalists means that he spends much time taking potshots at lazy journalism; for example, when a ship is krakened and all the major newspapers refer to the Marie Celeste. Mike explains this phenomenon: 'nobody has the ghost of an idea why the Yatsushiro sank. Consequently she has been classified as a Mystery-of-the-Sea. This gives her a natural affinity with other Mysteries-of-the-Sea, and the Marie Celeste was the only specific M-of-the-S that anyone could call to mind in the white heat of composition.' And who could forget the ridiculous song one of Mike's colleagues makes up while they are waiting on an isolated island for a kraken attack, which begins: 'Oh, I'm burning my brains in the backroom/Almost setting my cortex alight/To find a new thing to go crack-boom!/And blow up a xenobathite.' This also illustrates how Wyndham handles his humour, ensuring that it does not distract from the central chill of the narrative; when a recording of this song is played later, after the attack has claimed several lives, it becomes horrible, not funny, both to us and the characters who are listening.

And so there you have it; why I can get so enthusiastic about a novel that is, after all, about weird menaces rising from the sea. Having already planned my next re-reading project - The Spell of the Sorceror's Skull by John Bellairs - I'm afraid that the intellectual tone of my re-reads isn't going to improve any time soon. (But that one's fairly terrifying, as well).

Friday, 11 January 2013

Know thy enemy... or, not

I had great plans for this post, which I formulated as I was reading the first quarter of Claire Tomalin’s hefty new biography of Charles Dickens, published to coincide with the bicentenary of his birth. I had heard Tomalin discuss this book at the Cambridge Winter Wordfest, and she gave a cracking talk, full of interesting and amusing anecdotes about Dickens’s eccentricities and indefatigable energy, but addressing the darker side of his life with equal vigour, underlining his cruelties to his wife, his children, and his mistress without trying to excuse them. As readers of this blog know, I hate Dickens and all his works (David Copperfield is possibly the worst book I have ever read, if obvious trash is excluded), but as a product of his time, I find him fascinating, and I was looking forward to a similar reading experience to Tomalin’s excellent biography Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, which turned me from a critic of Hardy into someone who now enjoys many of his novels, and much of his poetry – with reservations. I wasn’t expecting to undergo a similar reversal with respect to Dickens – his writing is too poor and his life too black to change my mind – but I had hoped to gain a greater appreciation of the good sides to him, his strong sense of social justice, perhaps, or his philanthropic endeavours, and maybe, I’d even be inspired to read more of his novels. I decided that I would call this fair-minded post Know thy enemy, and emphasise how I had now rethought Dickens while still disliking him.

Unfortunately, this post has not come to pass – because unlike her Wordfest talk, Tomalin’s biography tries to whitewash Dickens insofar as it possibly can, which had the effect on me of making me hate him ever more. Perhaps my planned post was never going to work – perhaps reading Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress first ruined it. Of course, that novel is not a factual account of Dickens’ life – Dickens isn’t even called Dickens in it – but, reading this biography, I felt the same sense of outrage at Dickens’ actions as I felt while reading Arnold’s novel. This is a man who abandoned his wife at a time when she could hope for no other role other than as a wife, a role she had devoted herself to for decades – but not only that, forbade their children from seeing her, made vicious public remarks in print about her failings, drank too much, and essentially found every excuse to blame everybody but himself for his turbulent private life. Tomalin – who wrote an earlier biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress, called The Invisible Woman, which I haven’t read – might have been expected to be a sympathetic narrator for the women in Dickens’s life. Instead, she writes sentence after sentence that might have been intended to be scrupulously fair but made me gasp in outrage. Nelly gets short shrift, but it is Catherine Dickens who is particularly shafted.

I could give numerous examples, but will focus on one, which, to my mind, exemplifies the tone that Tomalin takes throughout – a tone that sounds fair but is actually biased towards Dickens’ point of view, Dickens’ desires and Dickens’ needs. This particularly weird paragraph pops up after Dickens has an emotional affair with a married woman, Madame De La Rue, whom he tries to mesmerise and was clearly obsessed with for some time, although there is no suggestion that they consummated the affair physically. Catherine, understandably, objected. Tomalin writes – the paragraph is such a bizarre mixture of sympathy and condemnation that it has to be quoted in full – : ‘A saintly wife might have put aside whatever dislike and disapproval she felt about his behaviour and the De La Rues’ part in it. Catherine, pregnant, away from home, faced with her husband’s obsession with his charming female patient, felt vulnerable and showed that she was cross with him. She may have remembered how she had been cross during their engagement, and how he reproached her sternly for it and warned her not to repeat the performance. If his behaviour rankled with her, hers also rankled with him, so much so that he still held it against her and reproached her with it eight years later.’ The second sentence of this paragraph is the only one that is wholly sympathetic towards Catherine, and bookended as it is with a suggestion of what she should have done, had she been ‘saintly’, and a suggestion that she had done wrong in the past, much of the sympathy is lost. The final sentence is the weirdest of all, suggesting as it does that Catherine and Charles somehow hold equal responsibility for the discord in their marriage at this point in time – although there is no fair reading of the situation that could conclude that. Overall, the paragraph gives the impression of sympathy for Catherine, but actually places the reader on Charles’ side – like much of the other comments on their marriage throughout this biography.

Aside from his personal life, I was also left with an unfavourable impression of Dickens’ philanthrophic endeavours, which, again, Tomalin gilds to the extent that I found myself distrusting the whole enterprise. One project that receives particular attention is his setting up of a home for young prostitutes to guide them back to respectable lives, but I did not feel that Tomalin analyses this project, its intentions, methods, and goals, with the scholarly scrutiny it necessitates. The opening to her discussion of Victorian prostitution, and Dickens’ attitude to it (it seems likely that he used prostitutes) is troubling in itself. Tomalin writes, in approving tones: ‘He was compassionate but not simple-minded, and he could be strictly realistic about prostitutes and men’s experiences of them and need for them: for example, he defended Samuel Rogers when he was publicly accused of corrupting girls who became prostitutes by saying they had certainly been willing partners, and commented in a letter, “good God if such sins were to be visited upon all of us and to hunt us down through life, what man would escape!”’ To me, this goes beyond trying to understand Dickens’s point of view on the matter and reads as if Tomalin is condoning his viewpoint. She goes on to describe the way he ran his Home, which she claims was run on liberal lines, not as a place where young women felt they had to ‘exipate their sins’ – but nevertheless, each woman was told that ‘no one would ever mention her past to her’ and ‘advised not to talk further about her own history to anyone else.’ From my own research on Dr Barnardo’s Girls’ Village Home for ‘orphan’ girls, set up in 1874, where this policy was also in place, I know how psychologically damaging such a rule could be for the girls, creating the very sense of shame and guilt that Tomalin claims Dickens was trying to avoid.

Tomalin’s general attitude to Dickens’ failings could be excused as an attempt to read him as a man of his time, to see his side of things and present his case, but ultimately, I don’t believe this argument holds water. It would have been possible, for example, to note that Dickens’ use of prostitutes was certainly not unusual for a well-off Victorian gentleman, while still condemning his hypocrisy, or to argue that nothing in his education would have equipped him to understand Catherine’s point of view, while still realising that he was in the wrong. Of course, at times, Tomalin does write a sentence or two that condemns Dickens, but the way she introduces his faults into the narrative, cleverly sandwiched – as in the De La Rue affair – with justifications for his actions, reduces the impact of these criticisms considerably. I felt that not only Nelly, but Catherine, Georgiana, the women in Dickens’ Home, had become invisible – only his daughter Katey escapes. Because of this, I was very disappointed by this biography, especially when I’d had such high hopes for it. Feminist critiques aside, it’s also not nearly so well-written as The Time-Torn Man – particular chunks, such as Dickens’ childhood or the sketchy details of his affair with Nelly, are gripping, but much of the book simply meanders along in a repetitive manner, with no vivid anecdotes, quotes, or stories to hold the reader’s attention. In the end, I felt that I’d been told a lot about the incredible impact of Dickens as a man and as a writer – but shown very little.

Friday, 4 January 2013

'Read over backwards by the breeze'

Early on in The Stranger’s Child, Hubert Sawle, the dull oldest son of the Sawle family – even his mother thinks that ‘he would surely be completely bald’ before he has the chance to ‘bloom’ – writes a letter. With skilful ventriloquism, Alan Hollinghurst creates a masterpiece of banality: ‘I can never thank you enough for the silver cigarette case. It’s an absolute ripper, Harry old boy. I have told no one about it yet but will hand it round after dinner & just watch their faces!’ For the reader, the situation is even more humorous because Hubert seems to put so much effort into writing this simple thank-you note: ‘the letter ran on pleasantly, and reading it over again he felt satisfied with the touches of humour’ and places so much importance on his correspondence: ‘He stood looking at it for a moment’. As Hubert’s younger brother, George, daringly invites his lover, the poet Cecil Valance, to stay, and plans secret trysts in the garden and woods, Hubert’s concerns seem incredibly trivial. However, at the end of this novel, a hundred years later, it is not a juicy letter to George that an interested young man discovers in a notebook, but all of Hubert’s thank-you notes, copied carefully by their recipient, Harry Hewitt – and other letters to Hubert himself that contain an even more interesting revelation. Hubert is absent for virtually all of this long novel, and the suggestions in these letters are ultimately impossible to verify, but, as with all the characters in this novel, a very different Hubert eventually emerges, contradicting and yet somehow confirming our first impressions.

As this suggests, Hollinghurst is deeply concerned with how we alter over time, but, paradoxically, how some essential core of our being remains unalterable. Like Tolstoy, he brilliantly conveys the ageing and changing of his characters, but ensures that they remain recognisable, showing their older selves layering over their younger incarnations like Russian dolls. And when characters die young, like Cecil and Hubert in the First World War, they undergo even more complex metamorphoses as they are re-imagined for new generations. A lesser writer would have stuck closely to the wisdom of our esteemed friend Patrick Lagrange from The Sense of an Ending, and focused on the unreliability of all testimony, the mistakes, the misrememberings, the impossibility of finding out anything about the past. Daringly, Hollinghurst has Cecil’s biographer, Paul Bryant, discover important truths about Cecil’s life, although he preserves a clear sense of how memories distort into memories of themselves as Paul interviews two ageing friends of Cecil’s, George and Daphne Sawle. Lies and misunderstandings abound – and Hollinghurst weaves them into the fabric of all social life – but the thrill of Paul’s researches is his ability to gain direct, if brief, access to the forgotten past.

This obsession with the past might explain why some readers have felt that this book tails off after the wonderful first section – set at the Sawles’ home, ‘Two Acres’, in 1913, it vividly depicts Cecil’s visit, and his impact on George and his siblings, Hubert and Daphne. Cecil himself feels so real that the reader is struck by his absence in the second section, set in the 1920s, and the book does seem to falter a little at this point, like an engine restarting and then roaring back into life. (I wondered if this section simply became over-familiar – Hollinghurst triumphantly re-invents the Edwardian country house party, but the Roaring Twenties setting, with slightly forced references to flappers, feels a bit too Fitzgerald-esque.) However, by the third section, ‘Steady, boys, steady’, which rushes forward into the 1960s, Hollinghurst is in full swing again, and reading on, I had the sense that the lull after Cecil’s death was almost deliberate – it brings home, more adeptly than any other structural choice could have done, his sudden loss, and mentally prepares us for the retracing of his legacy that begins in earnest in the fourth and fifth sections.

As the book rushes forward through time, Hollinghurst is able to subtly trace the increasing social freedoms for gay men, without any sense that he’s on a soapbox. The gradual lifting of prejudice and restriction is so palpable that when a young man in the twenty-first century casually receives a text from another man – ‘see u 7 @ Style bar – cant wait! XxG’ – and a reference is made to ‘Desmond, Peter’s husband’ the reader breathes a sigh of relief, remembering George’s terror at being caught in the 1910s and Paul’s surrepitious reading of the coded personal ads in the 1960s, dreaming of ‘bachelor flats.’ This careful mapping of changing attitudes is a microcosm of Hollinghurst’s ability to recreate the specific atmosphere of each decade that he tackles, with – except in the 1920s – no sense of inessential historical detail. His choice to present a series of set-pieces is clearly a wise one, as this allows him to zoom in on the niceties of manners and mores without any conscious scene-setting. It also plays to his strengths – my favourite parts of his previous novel, The Line of Beauty, were the parties, especially Nick’s unforgettable dance with Thatcher – and keeps the reader gripped.

Because perhaps the most important thing to say about The Stranger’s Child, putting aside all meta-analysis of its themes of memory and loss, is that it’s simply a very good read. Hollinghurst hits the big three (Character, Plot and Style), presenting rounded, realistic characters doing interesting things in prose that is never less than elegant and engaging, even when he’s describing something as simple as an old lady chasing after her umbrella: ‘a spoke stuck up at a hopeless angle, the pink fabric flared loose, there was a lull and then a sudden slam of wind which wrenched the brolly out of her hands and off into the road, where it skidded and then leapt away with long hops between the parked cars.’ Hollinghurst’s style is so good precisely because he is not writing to impress; this is a serviceable bit of writing that forms a cog in the plot, an opportunity for a character interaction, and also a perfect description. This novel has been compared to Middlemarch, which is a bit of an exaggeration; to EM Forster, which is not; and to Atonement, where it emphatically comes out better. But enough of analysing it. Read it.