Five celebrations, five portraits of a family, five windows on the passing of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is his most ambitious yet, a dissection of the impact of the passing of time on a family as their reputations rise and fall, but also on the nature of biography as family secrets are withheld or revealed - or could they even be fabricated? - as the past is picked over.
Cecil Valance is a poet, beautiful, carefree, charismatic, who just prior to the First World War visits the suburban house of his friend and lover George Sawle and kisses his young sister, Daphne. He celebrates the visit by writing a poem to Daphne, “Two Acres”, which later becomes much anthologised. Like Rupert Brooke, on whom Valance is clearly based, his poetic reputation is enhanced by his heroic early death in the trenches. Churchill quotes “Two Acres” in his obituary. His body is brought back and entombed in the Valance’s private chapel in their house at Corley Court, whilst cabinet minister Sebastien Stokes reaches out for the memories of his friends and family in order to write his memoir.
Yet time is a harsh critic, and as it passes Valance’s poetic reputation is re-evalated and his Georgics, seemingly so elegant before the War, seem insipid beside the masters of his age. He is remembered as a dashing romantic figure, a breaker of hearts and for his tragic early death, not for what he wrote. Ironically, his unattractive brother Dudley, whose insensitive alterations have ruined the interior of Corley Court, emerges initially with the stronger literary reputation on account of his acerbic memoirs. Meanwhile shy, suburban George has the sad fate of being known to a generation of schoolchildren thanks to a history textbook he wrote with his wife.
A generation later, and biographer Paul Bryant is trying to uncover the truth about the Valances. He pieces together information from his own boyhood, from a reticent Daphne, from an increasingly senile George. But what information is to be trusted, and can Paul be trusted himself? “And year by year our memory fades”...
Hollinghurst plays with the reader as with a powerful fish – successively letting out line collusively, then reeling in sharply. He writes so carefully with subtle phrases, little hints, that one feels complicit when a character reveals his weakness, shocked but not surprised at the manner in which it is made manifest. Yet, as one moves to each new period, characters from the past are revealed only reluctantly, from their hiding place behind married names and titles, as the reader has to reconstruct their backstories from sparse hints and snippets of information, though at the same time the reader is knowingly aware of information that the new characters are not privy to, such as when the schoolboys reveal Sir Dudley’s sword for their museum, one recalls what use Sir Dudley put his sword forty years before. It is a style at once both subtle and explicit, one cannot escape the sense that one is being playfully manipulated.
The truth is never quite as simple as it appears on the printed page - all the memoirs of the family are unreliable in some way, everyone has an angle. Much is hinted at but little is explicit - not even Hollinghurst's trademark gay sex. But there is an unmistakable sense of sadness and decline that pervades the whole book. It is only latterly that you learn that the mighty Vallances, with such a Norman sounding name, have only received their baronetcy as a result of the fortune created by the first baronet in grass seed. Within three generations the family heir is living in a ramshackle cottage, but apparently not without means.
But their is also a counterpoint - the book is also a celebration of the liberation of gay men over the course of the twentieth century. The hints and occlusions in the early memoirs are an attempt to hide the illicit secret of Cecil Vallance's bisexuality. Harry's love for Hubert is never fully understood until many years later and the George's marriage of convenience to the unappealing Madeleine contrasts with the apparent satisfaction of later relationships such as Peter and his civil partner Desmond.
Hollinghurst never gives his readers the satisfaction of an easy resolution. The trajectory of the family, of their reputations, their properties and the instability of the means of their evaluation all remain elusive right to the end, and you are immediately wanting to go back and reread, to search for further clues. To reread would be a fitting reward for an exceptional book.