Alan Hollinghurst Untrammeled
On 'the very boring lives of slightly strange people'
By Sarah Smith,
4:06PM, Wed. Oct. 26, 2011
Outside of the publishing industry, “multigenerational family saga” is not really an utterance that trips off the tongue, but in the realm of novels, it is something of a catchphrase.
Think, after all, of One Hundred Years of Solitude; consider Faulkner; don't forget about James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, or, heaven forbid, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom – all exemplars of what in fiction amounts to a certainty: that families are strange, and that we are inexorably a part of them, and that it is perhaps the business of the novel to represent and tease out these strands of engagement such that when we are stranded around the cheese plate with our aunties we can comprehend the bizarre pageant of family life.
It may at first seem fitting to summarize Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child as more of the same; spanning the Edwardian period through the present day, it does trace the fortunes of two families drawn together by two salacious affairs with the (fictitious) poet Cecil Valance, who would have been a literary footnote save for an obituary by Winston Churchill. Because Cecil dies serving Britain in World War I, his poem “Two Acres” becomes a part of the canon, drawing subsequent interest from biographers when a series of letters revealing his love affair with George, a fellow student from his Oxford days, surfaces. Developing over decades, the story becomes both an informal history of gay life in Britain and a chronicle of generational attitudes toward war, with a healthy measure of literary history as well.
As this partial summary makes clear, the narrative divests itself of the standard tempo of a domestic drama, taking on broader cultural terrain while retaining some of the set-pieces – awkward cocktail parties, especially – more familiar to the form.
While in town last week for the Texas Book Festival, Hollinghurst spoke with us on the expectations native to such a story: “When [The Stranger's Child] was first sold,” he said, “whatever the trade journal it was described [the novel] as a 'multigenerational family saga.' I thought I wanted to write a multigenerational family saga with the multigenerational family saga bit left out. As you know, it's very much a book of omissions. I knew I wanted to write a book that was very much about the impact of wars, but … what I suppose I've always done is write about the very boring lives of slightly strange people. I have the bigger questions in the background.”
Such territory is familiar for Hollinghurst, who, by the way, won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for The Line of Beauty, set largely in the home of a wealthy family at the height of Thatcherism observed by Nick, something of an outsider by virtue of being gay and middle class. The difference this time is that the family dynamic is interior:
“I write about family relations more in this book than I ever have before. My earlier books, the first two, certainly, which were written in the first person – they both have these gay protagonists and sort of not being trammeled by family as part of their thing of dividing themselves as gay people; they've got somewhere else to do their own thing.” As word choice goes, “trammeled” is a particularly apt descriptor of the ways old jealousies and conflicts encircle these characters. Hollinghurst uses vast chronological leaps to show the likely and unlikely ways in which George, his sister Daphne, and the historical caricature of Cecil shift, a technique perhaps more common in short stories scaled up for a novel.
Hollinghurst cites the interconnected stories in Alice Munro's Runaway as an influence, saying, “It was one sort of model I had in my mind when I was writing this, that one way of illuminating the shocks and ironies of time.” Some of that armature still shows in The Stranger's Child, although its five sections read more like novellas than short stories: “After I finished The Line of Beauty, I planned the whole business – it was so exhausting, I figured 'I'm just going to write some short stories from now on' – that the finished book does retain something of that. …
“It was supposed to be a book of about 250 pages max, but I got to the end of the first episode and it was already over 100 pages long, and I was in trouble. The thing about not having a framing narrative – I wanted to think very much of everyone living their lives in the moment, with no knowledge of what's going to happen to them. So often, novels do have a framing narrative with someone in old age rediscovering – I want to make something more like life, I suppose, with each episode not seen through the gauze of historical nostalgia.”