Something is missing from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. He’s left out the explicit sex scenes that were a signature feature of his four previous novels, and the absence amounts to something of a riddle. Why does Hollinghurst avoid the fleshy details? Why the sudden prudery?
Hollinghurst’s 1988 debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, is embarrassing to read on the subway. If the nosy person next to you glances over, there’s a good chance he’ll see the words “cock and balls.” A substantial portion of the novel is given over to describing, in pornographic minutiae, the young Will Beckwith’s exploits in pre-AIDS London. He picks up men on the tube, at the gym, in public restrooms—everywhere. And then he tells us everything. It would be difficult to explain why The Swimming-Pool Library is literature, not just well-written smut, if it weren’t for a subplot in which Will befriends the elderly Lord Nantwich. The aristocrat clues us into gay life before the relatively liberated 1980s, turning the novel into a subtle secret history of 20th-century gay manners and mores.
Hollinghurst’s follow-up novels, The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), and the Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004), continue the project of documenting gay society, mostly through self-involved, randy Oxbridge types. And these works are comparably (if not quite so extremely) heavy with erections. In The Line of Beauty, we learn that the protagonist’s lover “wasn’t big but he was very pretty, and his hard-ons, at least until the coke piled on too deep, were boyishly steep and rigid.”
By comparison, The Stranger’s Child seems appropriate for a Victorian teen. A work of historical fiction—not exactly a departure for Hollinghurst, who dabbled in the genre through the Lord Nantwich character—it begins in the summer of 1913, when George Sawle invites his Cambridge pal Cecil Valence home for a weekend visit. Ostensibly close friends, they’re also lovers. But Hollinghurst gives us lacunae instead of physical lovemaking, relying conspicuously on innuendo (“a bit of Oxford style”) and Latin (membrum virile). Cecil, whose sexuality is flexible, also takes an interest in George’s young sister Daphne, kissing her one night in the garden. On the day of Cecil’s departure, the Sawle family discovers that he’s written a long poem in Daphne’s autograph book called “Two Acres” (the name of their property). Daphne thinks Cecil wrote it for her. George thinks it was intended for him.
After Cecil dies in the war, “Two Acres” becomes famous—every British citizen seems able to recite a line or two—prompting curiosity about the events that led to its composition. The first “reconstruction” occurs in the mid 1920s, on the eve of the General Strike, to be precise. (Hollinghurst likes momentous backdrops, a signal of his social-documentarian ambitions.) An admirer of Cecil’s, Sebby Stokes, starts gathering thread for a collected edition of his poems. He takes a gentlemanly approach, with no interest in exposing the Cecil whom George remembers: “the nudist, the satyr, the fornicator.” Of course no one actually expects him to pry. We’re on the Nantwich side of the Nantwich-Beckwith liberation divide, and it’s understood that Cecil’s proclivities are not suitable for print.
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.