Where Has the Sex Gone?
Why Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is missing his usual explicitness.
Around 1980, aspiring Cecil biographer Paul Bryant has no such reservations, aggressively pursuing interviews with everyone who knew his subject. A now-senile George gropes Paul (“a determined little rubbing motion on … my bum”) and blathers about Cecil’s youthful hedonism. A far-more-cautious Daphne avoids divulging information, and thinks to herself “[h]e was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.” But Paul isn’t one for uncertainty. He not only outs Cecil, but also offers all manner of nasty details about Daphne’s sexual history. He alleges that Cecil was the father of Daphne’s first child, that her first husband was gay, that her second husband was gay, and that she cuckolded him. Ill-equipped to evaluate these claims, the reader suspects they are at least partially untrue. It’s a sexy biography about sex-acts that may not have happened.
Which brings me back to the lack of sex. The London Review of Books and the Guardian have both suggested that Hollinghurst’s new reserve is an attempt to appease critics (a slightly strange line of thought, given that Hollinghurst novels have a way with literary prizes). A more obvious explanation is that he’s trying to match style with substance. In this novel that will surely call Atonement to mind, Hollinghurst takes up the unknowability of the past—and the limits, or excesses, of imaginative efforts to retrieve it. We try to write biographies and end up with historical fiction, whether we take a gentlemanly approach or try to dredge up filth. We can’t rely on eyewitnesses, or even on ourselves, since after a while we retain only memories of memories, as Daphne puts it, not the main event. If sex, so vulnerable to misunderstanding, is that main event, mysteries multiply. Dispensing with the tangible act is Hollinghurst’s signal of just that.
Even before time muddies the record, the bedroom is an arena of misunderstanding. Hollinghurst’s characters are confused by sex just as soon as it’s over. Cecil, George thinks, “had a way of distancing himself at once, and seemed almost to counter the bleak little minute of irrational sadness by pretending that nothing had happened.” Sex itself lies beyond the domain of factual description. When Paul and his boyfriend search for a private spot at a prep school where they can fool around, they cross “the line, invisible but potent … dividing the In-Bounds from the Out-of-Bounds Woods.” Then we get a long paragraph break, and we must guess at precisely what happened—like aspiring biographers—aware that whatever took place will be only part of the story.
Though it makes thematic sense for Hollinghurst to pull the curtain—to imitate Henry James instead of Henry Miller—I do miss the old exuberance he brought to sex, the poetic energy he put into describing, for instance, naked men at a gym in The Swimming-Pool Library: “O the difference of man and man. … In the rank and file of men showering the cocks and balls took on the air almost of an independent species, exhibited in instructive contrasts. Here was the long, listless penis, there the curt, athletic knob or innocent rosebud of someone scarcely out of school.” There’s nothing that funny in The Stranger’s Child, which offers in exchange a more thoughtful appraisal of the confusion, rather than clarity, that sexuality engenders.
There’s something missing from this review: The fact that The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s first novel of the gay union era. (Same-sex civil partnerships became legal in the United Kingdom in 2005.) Now that gay relationships are equal under the law to straight ones, some future biographer of Hollinghurst might propose, it no longer seems retrograde to ignore the graphic specifics of sex—as Sebby Stokes ignored Cecil’s “nudist” tendencies. Those can go without saying, which gives Hollinghurst the chance to make us contend with that cliché, there is much more to sex than meets the eye.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.