Sunday, February 5, 2012

Niceties of expression

Very late getting around to this, but I read the new Hollinghurst book some time ago and have been meaning to post about it. I would recommend it, although it is one of his weaker books, I think, partly because the plot is so unworkable. (In the second half of the novel, the protagonist -- or rather the character that provides the point-of-view -- is a nondescript bank clerk who is obsessed for no clear reason with a half-forgotten WW1-era poet, "Cecil Valance"; clerk quits his job to write scandalous biography of Valance, after bank manager turns out to be married to Valance's niece/daughter who plays duets with a gay schoolteacher -- teaching at a school located in what was formerly the Valance mansion, now modernized -- who of course then sleeps with bank clerk. There is a coda in which we are told that all characters ended up tenured or modestly famous.)

Besides, the bank-clerk protag. is an incongruous mouth for Hollinghurst to put words into, e.g., "he was touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life" (yeah right). Previous novels might have had unpleasant protags but at least they were all meant to be clever.

Nevertheless the writing is brilliant; I particularly liked "Paul woke to the sound of a tolling bell, with a hangover that felt much worse for the comfortless strangeness of Greg Hudson's room" and the phrase "sleek unanswerable jets." James Wood objected to the echoes of Henry James, which I didn't mind, although I was amused by this passage, which could have come straight out of The American Scene:
here the bracket clock whirred and then hectically struck eleven [...] Other clocks (and now she could hear the grandfather in the hall chime in belatedly) showed a more respectful attitude to telling the hour. They struck, all through the house, like attentive servants. Not so that old brass bully the drawing-room clock, which banged it out as fast as it could. "Life is short!" it shouted. "Get on with it before I strike again!"
(There is also a passage about the expected apparatus of a bathroom "intruding" through all the junk stored in it that I cannot find online and will type in anon.)

Other notes:
  • Others have said this but it is almost impossible to write a country-house scene -- even if it's not really a country-house -- revolving around the confusions of a precocious girl without evoking Atonement.
  • The second section, "Revel," was very good in a way that perhaps invites terms like "magisterial" and "virtuosity" too insistently. I thought it was the best thing in the book, and it gains extra points for apposite use of Skeltonics. The delightfully unpleasant Dudley Valance is a memorable character.
  • H.'s female characters are all composed of the same few attributes -- spirited, perceptive, vaguely unstable, given to drink -- and differ primarily in how unstable and how old they are. The very old ones drink especially heavily. But it is a versatile formula: the old woman's part is done brilliantly in the later sections of this book.
  • H. is overly fond of embedded texts. They're always defensible/necessary but I've never liked them. In the Swimming-Pool Library he needed the diary for historical perspective; here he needs it because multiple characters are writers. I esp. cringed at "Love comes not always in by the front door" (in a poem recited by "Valance").
  • I simply do not think H. is versatile enough as a writer to succeed with a protagonist who is partly an object of satire (the bank clerk). Whenever there is a convincing descent into his consciousness the man is very drunk.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn appears to have objected to H's use of Jewish characters (claiming H. is given to use of anti-Semitic tropes) both here and in Line of Beauty. I have not read the article, which is gated; however I was reminded of a truly anti-Semitic poem by Larkin that touches on many of the same themes as the Hollinghurst book -- search for "Balokowsky."
Finally, see also: James Wood, Christopher Tayler, Jenny Davidson, Emma Brockes.

1 comment:

realicey said...

Sorry, but i couldn't quite understand the phrase "sleek unanswerable jets" Do you mind making it a bit clear for me? I'll come and check this page often,

Thanks maybe in advance:D