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Hollinghurst's Search For Lost Time
le 30 septembre 2011
Alan Hollinghurst's fifth and latest novel, The Stranger's Child, which currently awaits a French translation, is a dazzling addition to his already impressive contribution to contemporary British fiction. His last work, the Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, was chiefly set in London in the Thatcher era, and provided readers with an incisive image of what life was life at that particular time and place for a group of intriguing characters spanning a wide range of social categories.
The same thing could be said about this latest novel, though the time frame is much broader, spanning nearly a century, from 1913 to 2008.
The story begins when two Cambridge undergrads, Cecil Valence, a charismatic aristocrat already gaining fame for his lyric poetry, and George Sawle, whose hero-worship of his more illustrious friend goes well beyond the mere platonic, spend a week-end at "Two Acres," the suburban home of the Sawles family. Also present is Daphne, George's sixteen-year-old sister, who falls for Cecil's seductive charm quite as much as her brother, and who, like her brother, sees her interest reciprocated in ways both esthetic and carnal. An elegiac poem entitled "Two Acres," which the versatile Cecil composes during his visit, later becomes a milestone in English literature, though there will always be some doubt as to which of the Sawle siblings was the chief inspiration. Doubt and ambiguity play as important a part in this novel as do plot and character.
The book is divided into sections, five in all, each set in a different era. In the second, which takes place over a decade later, we see what happens when Daphne and George, now both with spouses, move into different social spheres, while still carrying the memories of their momentous association with the now-deceased poet, Cecil Valance. These memories become both a burden and a form of glory with the passing years, and the ways in which memories become magnified, faded or distorted over time is one of the themes of this vast but carefully constructed novel. (In Search of Lost Time could easily have served as the title of this work if Proust hadn't used it first. The actual title, The Stranger's Child, is a quote from Tennyson, yet another author who sought to evoke through his words what was lost to the past.
As the years go by, new characters are added to the narrative, while others pass away. Those who were main characters in an earlier section become minor ones later on, while lesser figures take on a far greater importance than we could have at first supposed. While the focus of the reader's interest shifts, as does the course of the narrative, one never feels the author has lost control or that the action is drifting. What often seem like loose ends throughout much of the book are tied up by the conclusion, in the satisfying way that is a particular pleasure of classic English fiction.
With his gift for piquant dialogue and an uncanny ability to juxtapose words in unforeseen yet gratifying ways, Hollinghurst is not only a superior storyteller but also a remarkable stylist.
The Stranger's Child is the work of gifted artist, writing at the top of his form.