Close to Me

In a scene about halfway through Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel The Strangers Child, Paul Bryant, a bashful bank clerk in his early twenties, spends a solitary Friday evening in his rented Wiltshire bedroom reading a copy of Films and Filming magazine he’d hidden in his wardrobe. That the virginal, homosexual Paul is squirreling away not gay pornography, but merely a popular publication with mildly risqué photos of movie stars, seems a pointed comment on life in the closet in the mid-’60s, and its modestly subversive spirit of “making do.” This, however, is just one detail of several Hollinghurst employs to set the scene. With its close description of Paul’s “lonely ritual”—performed in a room filled with “things not wanted elsewhere in the house, the scratchy armchair, the wrought-iron lamp, the souvenir ashtrays, the brown wool rug made by [the landlord] Mr. Marsh himself, at what must have been a low moment”—this tragicomic passage informs us of the socio-sexual practices of a certain era, and also draws out our readerly sympathies towards Paul in this specific historical context by granting him, as well as his little routines, a tactile distinctiveness.

In George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede, the author suggests that realism should work to depict not abstractions, but rather “the few in the foreground of the great multitudes, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch.” This “faithful representing of commonplace things,” Eliot continues, should serve to arouse a “deep human sympathy” in readers, creating a bond that would then continue beyond the textual and into the social lives of real men, forming a connection among them.

Eliot’s words are relevant both to our early reaction to Paul as well as to Paul’s own initial reaction towards Films and Filming. As he gazes at the publication’s cover, which features a still from the 1967 film Privilege, he experiences a surge of recognition and longing:

Jean Shrimpton’s pale profile hovered over Paul Jones, whose eyes were closed, and his lips, and teeth, slightly parted. At first Paul had thought she must be watching him sleep . . . Then he’d guessed, with a strange prickly rush, that they must be making love, and that the pop-star’s open mouth wasn’t snoring but gasping in surrender.

The “strange prickly rush” aroused in Paul (Bryant) by Paul (Jones’s) gasping mouth implies an especially corporeal version of Eliot’s “knowing” and “touching”—one in which sympathy tips over into sensation, enabling Paul to happily wedge himself into the heterosexual dyad before him.

But is Jones really gasping? Or is he, in the end, only snoring? As Paul almost immediately realizes, “actually, you couldn’t be sure.” And once this preliminary trust in the particularities of representation collapses, more difficulties follow. Although “there was a suggestion of (Jones’s) naked shoulder and chest, and thus of other things you might get to see if you went to the film,

It wouldn’t come here, of course, he’d have to go to Swindon or Oxford on the bus
. . . In the grey and white close-up Paul Jones’ puppyish neck looked fleshy and pitted. Also he had no earlobes, a weird thing you couldn’t entirely overlook once you’ve noticed it.

The neck’s uninvitingly rough skin; the movie that “wouldn’t come here,” but would require a bus ride to Swindon; the oddly missing earlobes—a series of increasingly ridiculous obstructions comes between Paul’s desire and its fulfillment. Although he wants “to kiss Paul Jones,” Paul Bryant still concedes that he “wasn’t sure” about him. “His mother had fancied him quite openly once, on Top of the Pops, and you couldn’t very easily share a fantasy with your mother.”

No sharing, and so, no caring. If for Eliot, aesthetic representation is what enables the creation of actual ties between people, in Hollinghurst’s novel such a process is always doomed to failure, and Paul’s case is emblematic in this respect. Even if a body is represented carefully, whether in a TV show or on a magazine cover, in a poem or a diary, obstacles will inevitably come up, nullifying the imagined connection to that body and, following that, the possibility of a real bond. Paradoxically, then, although its characters are probably Hollinghurst’s most sympathetic ever—which is to say, his most rounded and realistically rendered, if not necessarily his most likeable—The Strangers Child is the author’s loneliest novel yet.

And Hollinghurst knows from lonely: The Line of Beauty‘s young striver, Nick Guest, whose need to belong to the moneyed, high-Tory world of Thatcher’s London could be taken as completely mercenary if it weren’t also paralleled by his longing for the love and recognition of men more naturally of that world than he; The Folding Star‘s Edward Manners, whose Villette-like cultural dislocation as an English tutor in Belgium is compounded by the weight of his solitary pining for his teenage student; and, perhaps most notably, The Swimming Pool Library‘s famously lascivious gay protagonist, the posh Will Beckwith, whose multiple anonymous sexual encounters correspond to his mostly successful attempts to “keep (his) life clear of interference from the demands and misery of other people.”

Nevertheless, what these books have that The Strangers Child palpably does not are explicit sex scenes. Indeed, much of the critical conversation about the novel so far has focused on this surprising—and for Hollinghurst, unprecedented—erasure. If part of The Swimming Pool Library‘s point was to rub the reader’s face in as many encounters between cocks and assholes as possible, forcing him to recognize these acts as both visible and tenable, The Strangers Child‘s almost complete elision of these same acts has appeared to some critics as a sudden and inexplicable loss of ideological nerve.

So, indeed, “not enough filthy sex,” as a colleague of mine griped after reading the book. But even though The Strangers Child is less titillating than Hollinghurst’s earlier novels, I don’t think this has anything to do with an ideological softening. In fact, for all the playful narrative possibilities of Hollinghurst’s other books, with their non-traditional, non-futural, anti-marriage-plot-like couplings—where central love-interest characters sometimes slip out for a quick metaphorical pee mid-plot, only to return, seemingly randomly and with scant comment, literally hundreds of pages later—I’d venture that The Strangers Child is oddly more uncompromising in its vision. Because in forgoing the sexual, this gorgeously written, crushingly poignant book also gives up what for Hollinghurst was the final and only domain of interpersonal connection, and so alerts us to the radically arid vision of human relationships the author is interested in forwarding.

On the face of it, The Strangers Child appears to promise something very different, and more traditional, than Hollinghurst’s previous work. The novel is his first attempt at a historical saga: it stretches from 1913 to 2008, and centers on the figure of bisexual poet Cecil Valance, who, once felled in the Great War, leaves behind a complicated legacy that his family, lovers, and biographers attempt to untangle over the course of the book. The fairly convoluted storyline, mediated by multiple points of view, also implicitly traces the trajectory of homosexual identity in England—from 1910s and 1920s aristocratic libertinism (and its flipside, middle-class repression); to 1960s closeted cautiousness, on the eve of the ’67 Sexual Offenses Act; to early 1980s single gay life; to late aughts civil partnerships. The novel, then, delineates the evolution of 20th-century gay experience as a kind of marriage plot writ large—Victorian narrative device wed to a liberal historical trajectory.

It would stand to reason that the possibilities of sympathetic engagement between the novel’s subjects would grow less rather than more fraught over the narrative’s course; that increasing visibility and representation would lead to easier community formation—from closeted aloneness à la Paul Bryant to out gay unions. And certainly, it’s true that by the end of the novel, even the once lonely Paul, who reappears briefly, is married to “a handsome young Chinese man.” However, I’d argue that this reciprocal model is not the one that ends up animating the plot. Instead, a more vernacular, and certainly more frustrated one does: that of the unrequited crush.

The aristocratic Cecil—whom we meet in the book’s first section when he visits Two Acres, his school friend and lover George Sawle’s middle-class family home—keeps himself busy in Cambridge and beyond trying to “fuck anyone,” as an elderly, senile George notes tartly in a later section of the book. At Two Acres, Cecil’s noncommittal profligacy manifests itself in his seduction not only of George, but also of Daphne, George’s teenage sister, even though she is disappointed to find his kiss “idiotic and unpleasant.” And truly, sex—of both the homo- and hetero- variety—turns out to be a bit beside the point here. Cecil and George’s lovemaking resides somewhere in the unexplored novelistic silence beyond the former “reach(ing) out his arms impatiently” to the latter, while Daphne’s grapple with Cecil comes to nothing more than getting “hurt by the hard shape of the cigar case in his trouser pocket thrusting against her stomach.” She ends up unsatisfied, just as George, too, remains always “longing for (Cecil’s) patient touch and simple smile of shared knowledge.”

While Hollinghurst has dealt extensively with this sort of non-mutual model before (in unevenly stacked love matches between such characters as The Swimming Pool Library‘s Will and Arthur, The Folding Star‘s Edward and Luc, and The Line of Beauty‘s Nick and Wani), these earlier crushes weren’t nearly as unrequited as the one that dominates The Strangers Child. If in the previous books longing was momentarily relieved by concentrated bouts of sex (whether with a crush’s object or otherwise), or at least a productive spot of reciprocal cruising, here the desire for connection remains so insatiable that it structures the book not only literally but metaphorically as well, as its characters attempt and fail to grasp the meaning of Cecil’s confounding poetic and biographical legacy. It’s not just Cecil’s body, but his corpus as well that proves a total tease, once again giving the lie to Eliot’s realist premise. Or as George notes while looking at his dead lover’s marble effigy, laid out at his ancestral estate “in dress uniform, with rich attention to detail,” “Cecil had been much photographed and doubtless much described . . . yet all these depictions were in a sense failures.”

During his early visit to Two Acres, Cecil pens a poem that he names after the Sawle home in Daphne’s autograph book. After his death in the war, this work is taken up as a depiction of a modest gemeinschaft Englishness (“Two blessed acres of English ground”), meant to unify the social and national body; as such, it is cited by Churchill, memorized by schoolchildren, and provides the impetus for the writing of a late 1920s biography of Cecil, which whitewashes his homosexual tendencies. This approach, in which a text is able to form a community only at the price of excluding some of its members, is seemingly revised later in The Strangers Child, when Paul Bryant decides to write a biography of Cecil as a proto-queer poet, whose work offers a chance to examine the hidden history of homosexual bonds. In a section that takes place in 1980, Paul—no longer a bank clerk who sits “half the time . . . [with] a half-erection, seen by no one, caused by no one, under the counter,” but now an out writer for the TLS—becomes intent on piecing together the real story behind “Two Acres.”

When Bryant meets with the by now out-of-it, doddering George to question him about his relationship with Cecil, he does receive some acknowledgment of their shared sexual past (“he had an enormous cock”)—probably the most directly stated admission of the sort that The Strangers Child provides. What’s more, George makes a pass at Paul, “looking me in the eye with who knows what memories and conjectures, his hand appreciatively cupping my backside,” as the would-be biographer later writes in his diary. Paul continues,

for a moment I thought he was going to kiss me, and wondered how I would take it—I almost wanted him to, in a way—but he looked down, and as he did so I thought suddenly, well, this is a history I’m going to write.

This is affecting not just as a recurrence of wanting and not getting—of each side’s inability to tally its desires with the other’s—but also because we later come to learn that the “history” the mercenary Paul proceeds to write (England Trembles) only gets it half right in the end. While the biography reveals that Cecil did indeed share his “enormous cock” with many, both women and men, Hollinghurst presents this late outing as still not truly indicative of its subjects’ sympathies and interpersonal commitments. According to Paul’s book, Cecil not only had affairs with George and Daphne, he also illegitimately fathered Daphne’s daughter; Daphne’s husband Dudley, Cecil’s younger brother, was also gay, and so was Revel Ralph, Daphne’s second husband, who was not the real father of Daphne’s son. The sheer hyperbolic juiciness of all this—and the fact that apart from Cecil’s earlier dalliances with George and Daphne, and, possibly, Revel’s homosexual tendencies, The Strangers Child doesn’t fully reveal which of Paul’s claims are true and which aren’t—suggests that Paul’s biography is simply the flip side of its 1920s predecessor, another representation that can’t be trusted.

Paul Bryant is clearly presented as a hack, but his impulse, specific to his historical moment—to deal with what his TLS editor calls “gay things,” to comb conventional appearances against the grain in order to represent what lies beneath them—very much dovetails with Hollinghurst’s own political schema in his earlier books, especially in The Swimming Pool Library. But if in that first novel a hard-on is seen to undergird every single human interaction represented, from baby dandling to skinhead baiting, in The Strangers Child this is decidedly not the case. Hollinghurst makes Paul ridiculous, and one character’s airy comment to another that “outing gay writers was all the rage then, of course,” seems to align, on the whole, with The Strangers Child‘s own take. The once hot urge has now cooled, and the possibility for connection, however brief, wanes right along with it.

And so the book ends not with a bang, but a whimper. Its final section is focalized through the eyes of an antique books dealer named Rob, whom Hollinghurst uses as something of a device to tie up the book’s loose narrative ends. During a memorial service for a onetime lover he shared with Paul Bryant, Rob cruises a good-looking blond man, but, in line with the rest of the book, his efforts are unsuccessful (he admits to himself that he “felt almost relieved” at this failure). Then he pays a visit to a North London antique shop, where the owner suggests he purchase a letter book belonging to Harry Hewitt—a wealthy businessman who was a neighbor of the Sawles in the 1910s, and got to know Cecil Valance briefly on his famous 1913 visit to Two Acres.

In the letter book, Rob finds evidence pointing not only to the fact that Hewitt was secretly and hopelessly in love with Hubert Sawle—Daphne and George’s older brother—but also that Cecil apparently sent Hewitt some poems (“for your eyes only”), which the latter then kept hidden in a strong room in his house. Realizing that the house is just in the process of being demolished, Rob rushes there, only to find the strong room empty, and its papers (“rubbish, no use to anyone,” in the words of the woman who cleared it), smoldering in a “dense, half-digested fire.”

As George notes early on in the book, Cecil has “a way of distancing himself at once,” promising reciprocity but then immediately pulling back. And this stays true to the end. George’s desire to fully engage with Cecil remains forever unrequited, just as readers, both within and without the world of The Strangers Child, will never be able to read Cecil’s explicit poems (or as Cecil teasingly writes Hewitt  “you will see that they are not publishable in my life-time—or England’s!”). The fact that Hollinghurst chooses to finish his novel with a sudden onslaught of minor characters from different historical moments in the novel—Rob, Harry Hewitt, Hubert Sawle, the man Rob has “a date at seven with . . . for a moment he couldn’t think of his name”—suggests in the context of the rest of the novel not busyness or plot overload, but rather a pointed comment on the radical impenetrability of character as such. For all the distinctive thickness Hollinghurst grants him, a major figure like Cecil Valance, it turns out, isn’t that different from a bit player like Harry Hewitt. Both, in the end, remain unknowable.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author