Embarrassingly English

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel can be recommended sincerely, particularly to those “with an eye for English things”. ELISABETTA VILLA / GETTY IMAGES
01 August, 2011

A LONE CENSORIOUS VOICE stood out from the chorus of acclamation for Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty (2004). For all its elegant prose and vivid renderings of England in the Margaret Thatcher years, said a reviewer in Kolkata’s The Telegraph, it was a “provincial novel, mired in a sort of semi-precious Englishness”.

An audacious judgment, it inspires a certain frisson. How often does a novelist from the imperial metropole get labelled “provincial” by a critic from the colonies? It also suggests a promising line of thought: namely, what is a provincial novel? And why is it to be despised?

Perhaps the essential consideration is geographical, in which case what makes Hollinghurst’s writing—populated by Oxford aesthetes, Conservative politicians and trendy Londoners, all of whom holiday in the south of France—provincial is simply the narrowness of its geographical reach. But surely the greatest of English novels—Emma, Middlemarch, Ulysses—have had a similarly narrow geographical reach. So have Oliver Twist, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as others lower down the canonical hierarchy: Howards End, Brideshead Revisited, The Go-Between. It cannot, then, by itself be a legitimate criticism of The Line of Beauty that it is about English people living in a particular time and place. If anything, it is a sign of an established novelistic culture, and one where the landscapes of fiction correspond exactly with the worlds inhabited by its principal readership. There is nothing at all contemptible in the innocent fact of English readers wanting to read about English characters, and consequently, in English writers writing novels for English readers.

However, as Pankaj Mishra writes, “there does exist, in the western metropolis, the kind of cultural power that determines the artistic worth of...work from places peripheral to the west. Paris with its cultural institutions, publishers and critics was the great arbiter in the past, before being replaced by London and New York.” It is from the desks of publishing offices in these cities that judgements of literary greatness emanate, artificially amplifying the resonance of novelistic voices of essentially limited appeal.

Thus might geography stand proxy for a sort of sensibility: insular, smug, narcissistic. The provincial sensibility comes from one’s novels having little resonance beyond a narrow circle of one’s fellows. It is easier to see what might be wrong with such provincialism, and what Hollinghurst might stand accused of—not so much that his novel has a special appeal for his English readers, but that this appeal comes of features that render it thereby unappealing to everyone else.

The critic Gabriel Josipovici does not mention Hollinghurst by name in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), among other things a broadside against the inadequacies of the postwar English novel. But his strictures are easily extrapolated to include him. Josipovici starts by training his guns at the first generation of postwar English novelists—Angus Wilson, Anthony Powell and Iris Murdoch—for (though he does not use the word) their provincialism. “They said nothing to me,” he says. They “still seemed to be ‘English’ in a way Borges and [Claude] Simon and [Alain] Robbe-Grillet were not Argentinean or French”. However, this charge does not ring true of Emma or Middlemarch or Howards End. How ever did they manage it—this being English without being merely English? And why has their achievement been so seldom recreated since the war?

WE NOW HAVE A NEW NOVEL from Alan Hollinghurst; the critics have declared it his best. The opening section of The Stranger’s Child is set in September 1913. Sixteen-year-old Daphne gives her autograph album to her brother George’s visiting Cambridge friend Cecil Valance. “Do feel free to write some occasional verse,” she says. He does, and the poem that results, “an evocation of an England about to change for ever”, as the blurb grandly has it, becomes something of a popular hit. The poem, Cecil’s biographer declares some years after he dies in the trenches, “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things...”

Contemporary English fiction leaves critic Gabriel Josipovici feeling that “I and the world have been made smaller and meaner.” COURTESY LAUREN GOLDENBERG

The judgement of posterity, or at any rate of the early 21st century, on Cecil Valance turns out to be coolly damning: “Undeniably a very minor poet”, “a first-rate example of the second-rate poet”. His life, on the other hand, “dramatic as well as short”, is ripe for the biographer’s prurient scrutiny: did he ever sleep with Daphne, posterity wonders. Or with her brother perhaps?

Hollinghurst’s assured prose is able to capture, as if from intimate acquaintance, the peculiar quality of social anxiety and intellectual vulnerability, shame, guilt and embarrassment. He understands drunkenness, what it feels like on the inside as well as how it appears to the sober observer. He is masterly on the mechanics of desire, able to show how it makes people more resourceful and more stupid. He is insightful on malice, snobbery and self-deception. On the morally ambiguous character of the biographer’s curiosity he is profound. He feels the attractions of the lower gossip, but knows how readily it is mistaken for the higher, how our taste for it is so easily disguised as some more exalted predilection.

The Stranger’s Child covers the war years, the birth of artistic modernism, the coming of mass democracy, the end of Empire, the rise and fall (and rise) of the Victorian aesthetic, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The reverberations of these events are always felt in the novel at something of an angle, Hollinghurst knowing better than to burden his characters prematurely with anachronistic hindsight.

These are only a few of this novel’s many virtues. Its historical and psychological insights, and Hollinghurst’s ability to deliver them in prose of sustained elegance, make for a novel that can be recommended sincerely. None of this, however, is meant to rule out the possibility that it is also—in the bad sense of the word—provincial, that it will do little to win over those without “an eye for English things”.

One can readily imagine an uncharitable critic saying: The Stranger’s Child is a fine example of the contemporary English novel indeed. Consider the refreshing originality of its preoccupations: class, adultery and the Great War. It has a wide geographical spread: London, Middlesex, Berkshire; in fact one character takes a train as far north as Worcester. Scenes are set in a wide range of locations: country houses, suburban gardens, preparatory schools, Oxbridge colleges, the British Library and the offices of the Times Literary Supplement. Its major characters run the gamut, from lower middle class to upper middle class (with a valet and scullery maid thrown in for good measure). Why, there is even a Nigerian character who gets a full page to himself!

But this sort of cheap sarcasm adds little to the critical conversation. Gabriel Josipovici’s remarks here are helpful. Continuing his salvo to include the triumvirate of contemporary English fiction, he writes of how reading Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan

leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. Ah, they will say, but that is just what we wanted, to free you of your illusions. But I don’t believe them. I don’t buy into their view of life. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language, which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism, which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

There are times when it seems as if Josipovici’s remedy for this cultural malady consists solely in a rigorous regimen of European, that is to say Continental, novelists and critics. This is too simple; nonetheless, Josipovici is on to something when he complains of the postwar English writers’ use of language, their irony and their cynicism.

Let us take each in turn. Alan Hollinghurst wields his linguistic facility with the command of a virtuoso, capable of restraint yet given on occasion to showing off. If his prose has faults, they are to be found in his abnormal sensitivity to the cliché, what one of his characters in this book calls the “smug routine phrase”, and consequently its helplessness before the imperative that everything be beautiful. (Martin Amis too famously made the elimination of the cliché the very cornerstone of his own style, though his stylistic flourishes are not those of the aesthete.) This manifests itself in a weakness for what we might call “the smug not-routine phrase”. Triadic constructions of this adjective-adjective-noun form are rife in this novel, as they are throughout Hollinghurst’s corpus: “sharp dry odour”, “amused pedantic eye”, “sweeping, secret promise”. A few more examples to drive the point home: “great pitiless sermon”, “little stifled rumpus”, “mad vertiginous adventure”. Sometimes, we are given variants, of the form adjective-adjective-adjective-noun, as in “sweet high swooping whistle”. Sometimes, we are given adverbs as well, as in “lightly brutal worldliness”, or “surprisingly ruddy moustache”. And all this before we have reached page 100.

One fears that what might once have been a dandy party stunt has become a sort of nervous tic. It makes one long for plainer fare. Sometimes, it makes one watch maliciously for a slip. But Hollinghurst’s stylistic solecisms are disappointingly rare, and mild: as in the gauche rhyming of “the tiny treasured bit of wit”, or the inelegant variation of “junk shops and musty charity stores”, or his eccentric fondness for “lurching” as a modifier.

Hollinghurst’s virtuosity responds to a decent impulse, and an old one, namely, Flaubert’s quest for ‘the right word’. It is the impulse that gives his novels much of their, well, novelty. Every one of Hollinghurst’s virtuosic displays is an unmixed delight. But their sheer oppressive (infectious) regularity begins swiftly to grate. As the critic James Wood put it while writing of another of his novels, Hollinghurst’s triads “act metronomically, regularising the pulse of the book into one beat, and making everything sound like everything else”. The very absence of cliché can turn into its own cliché, and—dare one say it—there’s the rub.

ANOTHER OF THE AMBIGUOUS VIRTUES of Hollinghurst’s prose is its knowingness, its arrant self-awareness. “I don’t make moral judgments,” Hollinghurst said in a succinct piece of self-description. “I prefer to let things reverberate with their own ironies and implications.”

Take this brief passage early in the book, where a mother discusses her son with a female friend:

‘Of course he loves Cambridge. He loves the life of ideas.’

She saw the paths across and around the courts of the colleges as ideas, with the young men following them, through archways, and up staircases. Beyond were the gardens and river-banks, the hazy dazzle of social freedom, where George and his friends stretched out on the grass, or slipped by in punts.

And again a couple of sentences later:

‘... it’s philosophy, I think.... They discuss ideas. I think George said they discuss, “Does this hearth-rug exist?” That kind of thing.’

‘The big questions,’ said Clara.

This is just right: the bemused maternal indulgence, and its reliance on stock imagery and barely meaningful banalities. Is George absurd for wondering if this hearth-rug exists? Is his mother silly for conceiving of ‘the life of ideas’ in that idiosyncratic manner? No judgement is called for here, and Hollinghurst does not strain to provide one.

Again, in the section of the book set between the wars, George—now an academic in his 30s—stands at his sometime-lover’s grave considering a disquieting counterfactual:

Had Cecil lived, he would have married, inherited, sired children incessantly. It would have been strange, in some middle-aged drawing-room, to have stood on the hearthrug with Sir Cecil, in blank disavowal of their mad sodomitical past. ... And then might there have been... in the study one night... an instinctual surrender to the old passion, George bald and professorial, Cecil haggard and scarred? Could passion survive such changes? The scene was undeniably fantastic. Did he take off his glasses? Perhaps Cecil by then had glasses too, a monocle that dropped between them just as their lips approached.

Hollinghurst’s prose again strikes the perfect note, the word-clusters (“sired children incessantly”, “mad sodomitical past”) as superbly judged as ever. It knows something about love, the tragedy of it and the comedy. It is deftly allusive: the reference to the monocle brings to mind Cecil and George’s literary namesakes, Cecil Vyse and George Emerson in EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1908).

The spirit of Forster—a genial ironist in his way—hovers over this book, with its tragicomic misunderstandings and characters who try and fail to ‘connect’. Hollinghurst’s prose, like Forster’s, can convey sadness, disappointment and frustration. The world of Hollinghurst’s fiction is amply supplied with characters whose misdemeanours provide a focus for his knowing, ironic gaze. But there is a pessimism in him, a tendency to decline consolation, and a coldness, a shrinking from tenderness, that is hard to find in Forster. Consequently, one is frequently left with an empty feeling on finishing Hollinghurst’s books, as after a series of hors d’oeuvres with no entrée. It might be because irony, to continue the metaphor, is a dish best served warm. Served cold, and alone, it is indistinguishable from cynicism.

EM Forster, an ironist like Hollinghurst but a genial one. HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION / CORBIS

The appropriate comparison is perhaps with Evelyn Waugh, that other great English ironist, who shares with Hollinghurst a talent for the unmasking of self-deception, an eye for the spiritual squalour beneath the gilded surface. But Waugh, unlike Hollinghurst, never claimed not to make moral judgments. Consequently, he was entitled to avail himself of the two literary forms that Hollinghurst for the most part spurns: elegy and satire.

Waugh cared enough about his subject—the decline of the old country houses—to write, half-sheepishly, in his Preface to the 1959 edition of Brideshead Revisited (1945), “It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity.” If there is passionate sincerity somewhere in Hollinghurst’s intentions, it is muffled by, or absent from, the rumbling reverberations of his ironies.

Equally, there is nothing in Hollinghurst’s novels like the famous passage in Vile Bodies (1930), published as Waugh was converting to Roman Catholicism: “masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties ... dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity ... Those vile bodies.” It is a fine piece of writing, ascending gloriously to moral seriousness from its comic beginnings. Bodies to Hollinghurst, by contrast, can be beautiful, ugly, and everything in between, but they can never be vile. That would be too much like a moral judgement.

But the writer of satire—to use a cliché Hollinghurst would deplore—must stick his neck out. He is on occasion capable of doing so. Nick Guest, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty, enters its dubious world where too there are parties galore, and drugs and money and power. He regards it with his aesthete’s eye and ironist’s distaste for moral judgements, but leaves it broken, compromised and implicated. The best passages in The Line of Beauty are its moments of pure satire, where the ironic perceptions of its narrator show an awareness of what the critic FR Leavis once described as “the implicit standards that order the finer living of the age, the sense that this is worth more than that, this rather than that is the direction in which to go, that the centre is here rather than there”, and where these standards are allowed to be moral rather than purely aesthetic.

Aveek Sen, the critic who thought the novel provincial, suggests that its great failing—a very English one—is the “wide-eyed and breathless fascination with frightfully grand people, barely disguised as social parody, that Nick shares with his creator”. This is a difficult claim to test, and it is difficult to imagine so painfully percipient a novelist lacking self-awareness with respect to his own snobbery. But there are moments in Hollinghurst’s novels when the one thing that his knowing third-person narrator fails to know is the sound of his own voice. These are the revealing moments when Hollinghurst, usually so assiduous an ironist, shows himself capable of the cheap shot—a feature of the lowest form of satire. At a scene in The Stranger’s Child set at a drinks reception in Oxford, an aged veteran of the First World War struggles

to follow what a young Indian man was saying to him, in fashionably theoretical terms, about life in the trenches.

‘Yes, I don’t know,’ said Dudley, maintaining a precarious balance between mild modesty and his fairly clear belief that the Indian was talking rot...

‘But would you agree, sir, that, in a very real sense, the experience of most writers about war is predicated on the idea that—’

‘Darling, you mustn’t tire yourself!’ said Linette sharply, so that the Indian, mortified, apologized and backed away from her flicker of a smile.

This is funny enough, but the quasi-judgement it contains is too pat, too harsh. Worse, it is a cliché. It says: What do they know of life in the trenches, these young people, these academics, these colonials? It might be said in Hollinghurst’s defence that these are not his views but those of his characters. But these are among the moments when it is a less than straightforward business to distinguish Hollinghurst’s voice from that of his characters.

It is worth noting that the “young Indian scholar” is the first non-white character in the book. A couple of other non-white characters turn up in the final, contemporary section, most significantly a Nigerian man who reads with artless sincerity from a poem attributed to Cecil Valance at his lover’s funeral. And there is, briefly, an “Indian boy at Magdalen”—Hollinghurst assumes his readers understand the reference to the Oxford college—who teaches one of his characters of “that magical spot called the sacral chakra, which... was the pressure-point of all desires”.

This is, to put it bluntly, embarrassing stuff. But it is, in an odd way, reassuring that Hollinghurst, for all the “camp, exploitative, ironic control”—as the narrator of his first novel The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) put it—of which he is clearly capable, can fall flailing into the oldest of Orientalist traps, the fetishism of the Oriental Other. (Maybe he should have let the young Indian scholar complete his sentence.) It shows him to be human after all, and not the chillingly self-aware eye that sees all yet judges not, which his prose sometimes leads one to expect.

It is a glimpse of fallibility that somehow redeems a novel which, like so much of Hollinghurst’s fiction, otherwise leaves one feeling under surveillance. Like the two passages quoted at the beginning of this section, it lets the feeling show. It brings into clearer relief the consequences of a reluctance to make any judgement at all (lest one be judged?), and of an apparent inability to confront the world except when fortified with several pints of irony. An aversion to these traits is at the heart of Josipovici’s frustration with modern English fiction and the wider cultural tendency to which that fiction gives voice.

That cultural tendency is captured in an influential just-so story. According to this story, whereas the French were prone to fits of political and intellectual fanaticism, the English were shielded from these Gallic ‘enthusiasms’ by their well-developed sense of the absurd. (In the story’s modern variants, the Americans can stand in for the French.) Josipovici writes: “Though there is something appealing in the resolute determination not to be taken in... it soon begins to pall. Taken as a cultural rallying cry, it is little short of disastrous.” And this is exactly right: “the resolute determination not to be taken in” is the defence mechanism of the conspiracy theorist.

Some of the most insightful recent writing on this subject has come from American writers, despite their supposed lack of, according to an influential but mostly false English stereotype, ‘the sense of irony’. The use of irony as defence mechanism, the critic Lewis Hyde writes, has “only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Another American writer, the sorely missed David Foster Wallace, wrote that “sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow... oppressed”. Wallace’s target was the contemporary American postmodern novel and its counterparts in American popular culture. But the ironic tendency is the same, once it is uprooted from its Brooklyn home turf and transplanted into a country house in Berkshire, its T-shirts traded for dinner jackets, its hair smoothed down, its accents clipped.

“Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for,” says Wallace, “ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig.” But this might well be the necessary heresy of our time. And thus does the satirist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh reappear, a resurrected hero. What he stands for might well be hysterical, priggish reactionary rot, but there it is, unvarnished, and we can choose to reject it. Or not.

Alternatively, perhaps deliverance is to be found in the strain one finds in a Forster. Consider this passage from Howards End, where domestic anxieties are inseparable from spiritual ones:

‘I’ve got rid of my house to some fellows who are starting a preparatory school.’

‘Where shall we live, then, Henry? I should enjoy living somewhere.’

‘I have not yet decided. What about Norfolk?’

Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

How naïve, how positively mawkish. But, dare one suggest, how true. Wallace writes, “The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘How banal.’ Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.”

Perhaps it will turn out in some future reckoning that the cultured classes of England in the early 21st century were not, as they sometimes fancied themselves, in the vanguard of human civilisation; their persistent irony and sardonic self-awareness, insofar as they define them as a class, were symptoms of their decadence. The great English novel of the 21st century, when it comes, will risk banality, risk credulity, risk passionate, unembarrassed, un-ironic sincerity. In a word, it will have heart, and heart will redeem it—as it redeemed Emma and Middlemarch—from its cleverness, its Englishness.