The Economist reviewer definitely did not like AlanHollinghurst’s last book, The Stranger’s Child, but this view seems to be a minority one. Most reviewers have commended Hollinghurst’s latest novel and I tend to side with the latter, even if I did wonder when I was reading it how on earth you could give a satisfactory end to this tale about a second-rate poet who already in the first part of the book dies in the first world war, leaving behind a secretive and controversial legacy of poems, no one quite sure whom he dedicated his most famous poem to. The story starts with Cecil and George conducting a secret love affair on their visits from Cambridge to their respective homes, the one a large ‘pile’ in the countryside, the Corley Estate, and the other a much smaller suburban house with the apt name of ‘Two Acres’. Cecil is brazen, self-indulgent, handsome and clever and a poet, whereas George basks in his attention, the younger and much more shy man who is very much in thrall with the Cecil phenomenon.
As in most of Hollinghurst’s stories, women appear to play a minor role in this story about homosexual men, they are the sisters, mothers, and the wives who somehow procreate and bring up the children, who have unhappy love affairs, whereas every other man seems to be gay, either in or, in later years, out of the closet. Nevertheless, there is Daphne, George’s younger sister, who is one of the major characters and given a prominent role. Cecil, the most interesting of all dies young already in the first part of the book and then the story takes great strides through subsequent parts with different people writing biographies, trying to find out who Cecil was, discussing his poetry and researching the various family relationships. Daphne who became infatuated with Cecil on his very first visit to the family home thinks that he has written his dedication ‘Two Acres’ to her, that they were about to become engaged when he died in the war, however, later on one of the biographers, also gay, manages to get George to talk (when he is in his eighties and becoming senile, and publishes a controversial book which claims that the poem was in fact dedicated to George.
The intricacies of relationships leave you at times slightly puzzled and I found I had to write down the names of the parents, the
siblings, the husbands and wives and children and grandchildren as well as of various intimate friends and acquaintances, to keep track of who is who through the various parts in the book. In the end though, it does not seem to matter greatly, the story is superbly written, moving across the century and picking up the gossip and the threads, revealing a bit more about the relationships and Cecil, but never the complete story.
This is all we can know, Hollinghurst seems to say, time distorts the events, people see things differently, experience them differently and no one seems to come out better, all we have a record of is that first visit by Cecil to Two Acres and the secret goings on, the intimations that an older (well, 36-year-old) man woes George’s brother Hubert, who is then around 24 I think, and the shenanigans between Cecil and George.
The rest is unravelled by what later writers and biographers manage to find out, or sometimes purposely misrepresent. This approach gives an insight also into the changing attitudes towards homosexuality, the secretiveness and denials at the beginning of the 20th century towards the acceptance and a memorial service in 2008 where being the husband of a dead male writer is as normal and acceptable as being the wife. However, with this acceptance some of the excitement of the earlier secretiveness seems to have gone and life appears duller, the relationships less exciting.
Whereas in Hollinghurst’s earlier book (The Line of Beauty), the sex is quite explicit, this book is much less so: there are allusions and references, for example to ‘the Oxford style’, and much is inferred. I loved the ‘Englishness’ of this novel, the high and low life as you also find in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, the marvellous observations that Hollinghurst is so good at. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning, there is a sense that the story does not lend itself towards a natural end, there is not really a main character, or there are no main characters, rather it seems that we have found out all there is to be found out through the various biographers, always slightly wrong, creating their own myths and memories, and so perhaps this is also a book about recreating a past that is a story, not the historical ‘reality’.