April’s reading

Hollinghurst was born on 26 May 1954 in Stroud, Gloucestershire,
the only child of James Hollinghurst, a bank manager (hold onto that
piece of information) and his wife, Elizabeth. He attended Canford
School in Dorset.

Hollinghurst read English at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1972
to 1979, graduating with a BA in 1975, and a MLitt in 1979. His
thesis was on the works of three gay writers Ronald Firbank, E. M.
Forster and L. P. Hartley (the latter two echo especially early in this
work). While at Oxford he shared a house with Andrew Motion, and
was awarded the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1974, a year before
Motion.

In the late 1970s he became a lecturer at Magdalen College, and then
at Somerville College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1981
he moved on to lecture at University College London, and in 1982
he joined The Times Literary Supplement, where he was the paper’s
deputy editor from 1985 to 1990.

His novels are:-
The Swimming Pool Library 1988
The Folding Star 1994
The Spell 1998
The Line of Beauty 2004 (Man Booker Prize) and TV adaptation
The Stranger’s Child 2011 Man Booker Long Listing)

Hollinghurst’s recent visit to Australia generated a literary chat which has been made available to members. One item which arose
from that interview was his love affair with Tennyson’s poetry and
this is germane to the title and theme of his latest novel.

There is a rather sadly puzzling quote used at the beginning of the
last section of the book “No one remembers you at all” from Mick
Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” while the phrase
and book title “the stranger’s child” comes from Tennyson’s “In
Memoriam A.H.H.” – “Till … year by year the landscape grow/Familiar
to the stranger’s child”. Imlah passed away in 2009, and Hollinghurst
has dedicated this book to him. It is also just possible also that the
character Paul Bryant who lives in the Foxleigh bank in the last
sections of the book is, in some respects, Allan Hollinghurst, also a
bank manager’s son.

Clearly, memory, changeability and its mechanisms are central to
this novel and that memory trace originates in a country house novel
that begins in a garden, in the late summer of 1913. (most of the
following is borrowed from the ‘Guardian’ review). In an inversion
of the Brideshead theme, the outsider, the stranger’s child, is an
aristocrat visiting a middle-class home and seducing the family in
it – the Sawles of Two Acres, a pleasant Victorian villa in Stanmore
Hill, in the outer suburbs of London. (Later on, the Sawles invade his
much grander home and repay the favour.)

He is Cecil Valance, a mediocre Georgian poet of broad sexual tastes,
who, in the course of his short visit, drinks too much, stays up all
night, worships the dawn, repeatedly ravishes the love-struck
younger son of the house (his Cambridge friend George), roughly
kisses the daughter Daphne by the rockery, and then writes a poem
praising these “Two blessed acres of English ground”. When Cecil
dies during the war, the poem is extolled by Churchill, as Rupert
Brooke’s “The Soldier” was, and becomes famous as an evocation
of a country on the brink of a great change: “A first-rate example of
the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more
deeply than many great masters,” as one character puts it.

The rest of the novel consists of four more sections, set at intervals
between 1926 and 2008, while most of the action – deaths,
marriages, births – occurs offstage, in the gaps in between. In the
second episode, Daphne has married Cecil’s “mad brute” of a brother
and is now the mistress of the Valance seat, Corley Court, “a violently
Victorian” country house in Berkshire. At the behest of her forbidding
mother-in-law, known as “the General”, she hosts a weekend devoted to Cecil’s memory. In the third, set in 1967, Corley Court has been
turned into a prep school; Paul Bryant, a bookish young bank clerk in
Foxleigh, the local town, meets Daphne, and has his first love affair,
with Peter Rowe, a teacher at the school. In the fourth, we see Paul,
now a literary biographer, interviewing the survivors from the first
section for his biography of Cecil. The book ends with a coda set in
2008.

This work is very different in structure and organization to
Hollinghurst’s previous novels. I find the language as good as ever
though only occasionally outstanding. The characterisations are more
diverse than before though some are more carefully presented than
others while its primary weakness may lie in the structure which
some are bound to find unsatisfying.

Overall, I find it more readable that most of his work with the
exception of ‘Line of Beauty’ and was quite fascinated by its scope
and evocation of each phase through which the memory trace travels.
I could visualise the TV adaptation as I read it.

Joe Keenan

I chose to read ‘Putting on the Ritz’ as my favourite Keenan. As I
read it again I began to develop the notion that (with apologies to
his devotees) there was something of P G Wodehouse in his work.
I mean that in several senses – the writing is good – the plots are
well-developed with often almost whimsical twists and turns – the
characters are often campy good fun, and the dialogue comes with
lots of zingy similes, insights and just plain throw-away lines.

I got my come-uppance when I checked some reviews only to find
that this was a very common perception of his work and hardly a
novel view. So, I coined my own phrase ‘ Auntie Mame meets PG
Wodehouse.

Keenan has had a bright career as a comic dialogue writer and
screenwriter. He had very great success with the ‘Frasier’ series and
was also a contributor to ‘Desperate Housewives’ the current gold
standard for commercial, fast-paced, campy, witty over-the-top TV
series.

It is interesting to note that some areas of his zingy dialogue could be
classified for ‘insiders’ though ‘outsiders’ are rarely completely left
behind. This applies not just to gay exotica but quite wide-ranging
general knowledge.

The Google books plot summary is as follows:

‘Gilbert Selwyn has fallen in with Tommy Parker, a veritable
Adonis and a magazine editor employed by media magnate
Boyd Larkin. Phillip Cavanaugh’s brief is to spy on Larkin’s
greatest adversary Peter Champion. To this end Philip enters
the Champion entourage a clan so poisonous they make the
Borgias look Amish with his song writing partner Claire
Simmons. Together they are to turn Champion’s talentless
wife Lisa (a woman so rich she ovulates Faberge eggs) into a
chanteuse. As Philip and Gilbert out spy each other in vying
for Tommy’s admiration, plot follows counter plot in a novel
whose comic complications, devastating repartee and cast of
high hat lowlifes is nothing short of dazzling and unforgettable.’

The one thing that can be a drawback with Keenan is his tendency to
develop plot lines that can become rather complicated and difficult to
follow. Nevertheless, he usually manages a skilful resolution and the
Ritz is no exception with a wild take on American TV talk shows as
the means of untangling the knots and generally delivering ‘payoffs’
to all concerned.

~ John C.

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