February 22, 2012

James Dean. Rudolph Valentino. Heath Ledger. All of them were saved from the embarrassing fate of outliving their beauty—but at the cost of having their lives cut tragically short. Their early deaths were, ironically, what secured their immortality, a paradox in which Alan Hollinghurst revels in his fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child. In the new book, Cambridge lad Cecil Valance, “not a very good poet, and not a terribly nice person,” becomes immortalized following his death in World War I, the event that robbed a generation of youth’s blithe imperative. From his entrance, Cecil gives the impression of a puffed-up but charming fop who has seldom been refused anything—and if he has, he’s learned not to take such refusals seriously. The myth of his youth is as immortalized as his mediocre phrases; Hollinghurst makes an inconclusive point of Cecil’s sexuality, which will be glossed over, debated about, and dissected for the rest of the book, spanning roughly a century and sketching a loose historiography on the outness of homosexuality, which was, in part, catalyzed by the Great War. “It was so unprecedented,” the 57-year-old Gloucestershire native says of World War I, which was stamped early on as being more literary—and, by extension, more civilized—than its predecessors. “It was a completely new kind of mechanized, mass war, and people didn’t really know what they were doing. Those in power willfully ignored evidence of the things to which they were submitting the younger generation.” Nor, one imagines, did the younger generation understand how tragically enduring their example would become for a culture already predisposed to romanticizing death at a young age. “It’s that they’re made exemplary by those who survive,” he says. “I was quite interested in the way in which a person who dies young seems to be all potential. It’s terribly poignant, isn’t it? The loss of youth, unfulfilled lives, and so forth.” Those mourning Cecil’s death—his onetime lover, George; George’s sister, Daphne (with whom Cecil shared a brief flirtation); and a curious historian out to broadcast The Truth about Cecil’s place in the queer compendium—can’t seem to get his story straight in the retelling, while the rest of the world can’t seem to decide between lamenting or celebrating the casualties of the war. Cecil is, after all, from the safe vantage point of death, the only one in the novel who is saved from the awful, complex fate of adulthood. It’s a tug-of-war brought on by a literal war, a nexus of tension between the reality of life and Dulce et Decorum est. “Is youth a time of great happiness?” Hollinghurst asks. “Not necessarily. Is later life more interesting and fulfilling? Quite possibly.” Cecil’s transformation from a vivid and selfish young man to a “cold white statue” in memoriam, and then to a nebula of uncertain memories, is something of a kinder, cleaner fate than those suffered by the ones he leaves behind. But it still doesn’t answer the question: From what, exactly, does dying early save young people? “The general trajectory of most of the characters in The Stranger’s Child is a rather sorry and downward one,” he says. “The war left a strange, woman-rich social well after the eradication of so many hundreds of thousands of men. The youthful experience of these characters is by no means ideal, but it’s constantly liable to a sort of idealization by people afterward.”

Instead of whitewashing Cecil’s memory, Paul, a banker-turned journalist, needs to dirty the legend, at least a little, to make it real. The urge is understandable, almost expected in a work by Hollinghurst, and not just because Cecil, in his oblique way, introduces Paul to queerness (he loses his virginity on Cecil’s old estate, decades later, after it’s been turned into a boys’ school). Youth, beauty, and dirtiness have been something of a grand theme throughout the Hollinghurst canon, dominating his work from 1988’s The Swimming Pool Library to 2004’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel The Line of Beauty, and they often come with an orgiastic license. The philosophy of his earlier writings was in high pornographic mode, with fleshy descriptions of bodies, acts, and deeds. The switch from the sodomitic pleasures of The Line of Beauty to the suggestive subtlety of The Stranger’s Child was one on which the literary world—notoriously sex-obsessed—had to comment. “The absence [of sex] amounts to something of a riddle,” wrote Slate’s Juliet Lapidos in her review of the novel, asking, “Why the sudden prudery?”

This time out, Hollinghurst has crafted a style of fictional vagary that Henry James might have envied. Characters in the book, though introspective about sex, lack the revisionist impulse of the modern, Candace Bushnellian urge to replay the scene on loop to figure out what every gesture meant. “To me, so much of the point of the book was about the uncertainty over what people were getting up to, even members of one’s own family. Looking back, we’ve had to reconstruct what happened without anybody really knowing. I wanted those intimate things to remain mysterious and never to be known for sure,” he says. “And, to be honest, I was a bit weary of writing sex scenes.”

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