Monday 30 July 2012

The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst (2011)

In 2004 Alan Hollinghurst made literary headlines by winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Line of Beauty. Set in Thatcher’s 1980’s Britain it courted mild controversy with its depictions of cocaine abuse and graphic gay sex. Seven years later The Stranger’s Child made the Man Booker long list and then fell out of contention, which led to bitter complaints from those critics who believe that Hollinghurst is Britain’s greatest living writer.

I approached this book with optimism. I hadn’t read The Line of Beauty but I knew enough to realize that Hollinghust could be an interesting proposition. The novel begins just prior to WWI and finds the sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle reading poetry and awaiting the arrival of her older brother George and his university friend Cecil Valance - a poet from a wealthy family who also happens to be bisexual. Cecil’s impact over the course of his stay is significant; he upsets George’s mother, who suspects the truth of their relationship, causes a servant to marvel at his collection of silken underwear, frolics with George in the woods and flirts with Daphne. Most significantly he writes a poem, supposedly for Daphne, called “Two Acres”, after the name of the Sawles property. After his death in the war Cecil and his poem become immortalized when Winston Churchill quotes from “Two Acres” in a speech.

The events of this first section, just one of five, set the novel up for an exploration of mythmaking, the changing attitudes to homosexuality and the subjective nature of truth. Hollinghurst also devotes a great deal of space to the question of the moral ambiguity of biographers and their trade, particularly during the latter half of the book. Such a concentration of weighty themes seems more than enough to make the novel both entertaining and philosophically intriguing. Disappointingly The Stranger’s Child mostly fails in both regards, although it does have its moments.

The novel’s strengths lay in the way it depicts the evolution of British culture during the twentieth century and how it affected people’s lives. In this regard the scope of the novel is ambitious and does at least move the plot forward. The naivetĂ© and pleasures of the pre war section give way to the bleak post war section, in which Daphne has married Cecil’s brother – Dudley, who is beset by mental problems due to his part in the war. Everyone suffers, including the children, Daphne and an old German woman who comes to an untimely end (a parody of Agatha Christie?). The third and most pleasing section, set in 1967, finds several gay characters, including the future Cecil biographer Paul Bryant, discussing the impending decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. By the novel’s close, set in 2008, everything’s changed and significantly the gay characters are marrying each other and can now live their lives in the open.

Despite the novel’s initial promise and Hollinghurst’s ambition I was quite often utterly bored with The Stranger's Child. Turgid is a good adjective to use. There is simply too much dialogue, with endless boring interactions between characters at parties and dinners. During these extended scenes the characters are regularly nervous to the point of being neurotic. Often they appear to be hamstrung by politeness and therefore never say what they really mean. Hollinghurst is probably making a point about what it is to be English or even human, but unfortunately it happens so often that you begin to tire of it and start to feel that way yourself.

With many of the major events taking place outside of the narrative the plot is stretched thin and therefore there is virtually no tension generated and no real desire to find out what may happen next, or to invest emotionally in the characters. The novel is also overwritten to the point of exhaustion. No character can speak without a description of their facial expression or how they are looking narrowly at another character or off into the middle distance. Hollinghurst’s writing is incredibly detailed, which is sometimes quite startlingly effective, but his obsession with the minutiae of everyday interactions does not make for riveting reading.

As a literary monument to the cultural history of Britain over much of the twentieth century The Stranger's Child succeeds to an extent, but it is ultimately hamstrung by its flaws. As with most books some readers respond well whilst others do not. A handful of my book club members absolutely loved this book, but most either marginally appreciated it or thought that it was too long and tedious. In the end The Stranger’s Child simply made me yearn for the succinct brilliance of Carson McCuller’s writing. Despite Hollinghurst’s fine reputation my advice is to approach this novel with caution, or perhaps not at all. It seems that the judges of the Man Booker prize were right after all.

Sunday 15 July 2012

New Blog - Closed Groove

There are, fortunately, quite a number of things in life that make it all worthwhile. Books and literature are certainly up there, there’s no doubt about that. But in my opinion music listened to on a vinyl record is one of the greatest pleasures offered up by this crazy culture we find ourselves living in. In many ways the humble LP can say just as much about humanity as a well-written novel.

I've been collecting and listening to records since my early teens. When I thought about starting up a blog records appeared to be a more obvious choice than books, but for some reason it didn't feel right at the time. Since then I've been visiting many blogs run by vinyl obsessed collectors and I've realized that not only is it fun to read about records and view pictures of them, but it must also be great fun to write about them.

But still, why write about music? There are plenty of critics out there and perhaps even more so than books records are subject to unending criticism. There are a number of good reasons to write about music – for one it is a challenge! It’s actually really hard to write about music and I admire those critics who can write a well-considered review of a record.

What Closed Groove hopes to achieve is to not only be a forum for vinyl junkies to check out records, but also a place for the uninitiated to be introduced to the world of record collecting. I’ll also offer my humble opinion about the music and who knows, maybe you’ll discover your new favorite record or artist. If you are interested then check it out and if not I’ll still be writing about literature here on Excelsior

Monday 9 July 2012

Carson McCullers - Charles Bukowski (2001)

After I finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I was scouting around on the net looking for information about Carson McCullers and I stumbled upon a poem about her by one of my favourite writers – Charles Bukowski. Bukowski was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, in my humble opinion anyway. This poem beautifully sums up McCullers, although how she died is inaccurate, but why let that get in the way of great art? I’m pleased that Bukowski rated McCullers – he didn’t suffer fools, but also I’m not surprised. Anyway, enjoy the poem.

Carson McCullers
she died of alcoholism

wrapped in a blanket

on a deck chair

on an ocean

all her books of

terrified loneliness

all her books about

the cruelty

of loveless love 

were all that was left

of her 

as the strolling vacationer

discovered her body 

notified the captain

and she was quickly dispatched

to somewhere else

on the ship 

as everything

continued just


she had written it


Charles Bukowski

Sunday 1 July 2012

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers (1940)

I’ve long been fascinated by Carson McCullers and finally it was the right time to pull this novel off the shelf. Even a cursory glance at McCullers biography reveals that she led a life beset by tragedy and illness. A misdiagnosed case of rheumatic fever as a teenager led to strokes later in life that eventually killed her at the age of 50. Her tumultuous marriage to James McCullers ended with his suicide (he tried to talk her into a double suicide). Despite such traumas McCullers managed to produce quality work that included poetry, plays, short stories and novels.

The quality of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter suggests that McCullers was one of those rare writers who tackled big issues whilst being free from the excesses inherent in such polemical narratives. McCullers beautiful but pared down style provides an excellent narrative framework to explore the inner psychological worlds of her characters. Her writing subtly draws you into the characters lives and then manipulates you into caring deeply about what happens to them.

The novel opens with the description of two friends who are mutes – Spiro Antonapoulos and John Singer. They live in a mid-sized southern American town. Their relationship is central to the novel, even though Spiro spends long periods as a peripheral figure. As the novel unfolds an ensemble of characters are introduced. The Afro American doctor Benedict Copeland works tirelessly for the improvement of not just the health of his fellow Afro Americans but also of their political status. A teenage girl - Mick Kelly, yearns for the freedom of a life of travel and music; she is also apparently based on McCullers own life. The mysterious Biff Brannon runs the all night New York CafĂ© in which many of the characters meet. Then there’s Jake, a barely restrained alcoholic at odds with the state of America who flirts with communism. These characters all coalesce around Singer, who despite being a mute earns their respect and friendship.

The manner in which McCullers weaves together the stories of this disparate group of characters builds significant narrative power. Dr Copeland is a particularly compelling character, through which McCullers explores the trials and sorrows of racism. Copeland’s Christmas speech to his people, of which is an attempt to help them realize just what the struggles in their lives mean in the wider context of history and politics, is one of the highlights of the novel.

Mick Kelly is an engaging and sympathetic character. Her insightful notion of having an inside room and an outside room when it comes to dealing with life is particularly telling. Her emotional life, with all its yearnings and frustrations, perfectly crystallizes just what it must be like to be a teenage girl. As the novel progresses Mick becomes a character in transformation and just where she ends up helps create a significant part of the emotional impact of the novel’s conclusion.

The novel is aptly titled, with each character looking to other people to fill an emptiness or need within them that simply can’t be resolved on their own. Most of this focus is on Singer, whose silence lends a sympathetic and stoic air to his personality. Essentially The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a brilliant examination of what it means to be an outsider with a need to communicate and connect with someone who understands. It is the loners, radicals, dispossessed, persecuted and downright confused who somehow find solace in friendship with Singer.

With Singer positioned as a savior it is especially poignant when McCullers turns her attention to his inner emotional world. His loneliness, his confusion and his hopes for the future are revealed as he makes his long walks around the town. It is through the life of Singer that McCullers deftly presents a subtle subtext that involves a minority that had no voice and had to stay underground during that era. The manner in which she presents this subtext has implications throughout the whole novel, and would, as suggested by the blurb on the back cover, make The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a rewarding book to re-read.

Although The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has a satisfying plot, it is the brilliance of the characters that really make this novel. Despite the novel having been written in the 1930s these characters are universal, transcending time and place to be relevant for modern readers. McCullers wrote superbly about the human condition and I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. In the canon of American literature both McCullers and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are highly regarded and justly so, and now she’s also included amongst my favourite writers of all time.