23 February 2009

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Spell. New York: Penguin, 1998.

I haven't read anything in ages! And I've written even less. How my time's been spent is of no interest to you, surely. My stats on this blog have dropped to where even a sixty-eight-year-old retiree's assisted-living-center contract-bridge blog enjoys more hits than I do. Thank god for wayward Googlers. Welcome credo-seeking carnivores!

What I've been doing here is skimming through introductions of critical texts and traveling to Chicago and reading up on collecting and taking naps. I've been guilt-tripping my own self, thanks. And I've been reading this, which isn't even on my comps list. More guilt. I only wish it'd had been a better book.

I think I've spelled myself out here* as a pretty big Hollinghurst fan, and I am. His The Line of Beauty, which won the 2004 Booker, may be one of the best novels I've read, among those novels in the Forsterian/Jamesian tradition, if such a tradition can exist. You know what I'm talking about. Novels about the lives of interesting people just a shade more fascinating and a shade better looking than average, whose lives fall in the midst of some greater sociopolitical moment. &c &c. What's surprising is how that incredible novel came out of the writer who produced this small one.

It's not a bad book by any stretch. It tells the story of Alex, who is invited up (out? down? westward?) to Dorset by his ex-boyfriend Justin, to spend the weekend at his (Justin's) and his boyfriend, Robin's, cabin. While there he meets Robin's son Danny, who—because this is an early Hollinghurst novel and, thus, every man held within its chapters must be if not gay in full than at least game for some gay sex—is also gay and eventually falls for Alex. So you've got a nicely complex love quadrangle here, and what makes this novel work is that Hollinghurst moves among each man's close-third POV, so that as the novel progresses all four of them become more complicated and interesting.

But that's all they are is complicated and interesting. It's a perfectly competent novel, but I think just a little too small in scope for my tastes. And for Hollinghurst's; he's always better when he's got something larger to anchor his narrative to. In The Swimming Pool Library you can constantly read Hollinghurst trying to get a handle on Ronald Firbank, and in doing so he does a great job of connecting the newer, post-lib gay scene with the older pre-war closeted one. Line of Beauty would be nothing without the specter (and eventual manifestation) of Margaret Thatcher haunting its pages. Like take a look at this passage from that book:
[Thatcher] came in [to the house of one of the central characters, a conservative MP who's been courting her as a guest for the whole novel] at her gracious scuttle, with its hint of a long-suppressed embarrassment, of clumsiness transmuted into power. She looked ahead, into the unknown house, and everything she saw was a confirmation. The high hall mirror welcomed her, and in it the faces of the welcomers, some of whom, grand though they were, had a look beyond pride, a kind of rapture, that was bold and shy at once. She seemed pleased by the attention, and countered it cheerfully and practically, like modern royalty. She gave no sign of noting the colour of the front door. (328)
Maybe the like majesty of it is lost in excerpting, but my grand point here is that if Hollinghurst were a major league batter I'd accuse him of discovering steroids between 1998 and whenever Line of Beauty was written. It's just on a whole other scale, and seeing as how that latest novel owes as much of itself to Henry James as it does M. Thatcher, I may imagine Hollinghurst's "juice" was the master himself.

Why don't I read more James? Other than the obvious?
* Minutes after writing this I can't figure out what I was thinking. Is this an idiom: to spell oneself out as something? Am I trying to pun of this book's title? Typographical error?


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