torsdag 31 juli 2014

High-brow reading that pays dividends

When post-holiday depression hits you even before the summer holiday is over, you know you’re in trouble. Let’s see if I can ward it off with some blogging on further summer reading (nothing much happens on the TV front in summer). I’ve managed one single Ambitious Book Project among all the self-indulgence reading this summer: The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst.

As I’ve argued before, summer is not an ideal time to take on something ambitious in the way of reading. In the case of The Stranger’s Child, though, it worked pretty well. I don’t think it would have been ideal to read it in half-hour-sized chunks during lunch hours, plus a page or two on the bus. Unhurried reading sprawled on the bed seemed the right way to consume it; granted, autumn showers outside would have been preferable to sweltering heat, but when do you have hours of uninterrupted reading time in the autumn? It’s an elegant and beautifully written novel, as well as enjoyable. But it is high-brow. Once more, as when I watched Parade’s End, I felt a bit like an uncultured lout. But at least this time, I was a lout who appreciated the high-brow product in question in my own caveman-like way.

Many of  the best classics work on two levels: one for the unsophisticated reader/audience who simply wants a straightforward story – for instance, when you’re a child and encounter the stories in question for the first time – and one for the reader who wants a little more. I first came across David Copperfield when my mother read an abridged version to me: I was eleven or twelve at the time. During this reading, I never doubted that Micawber was a good egg, and I was scared of Uriah. When I read the complete novel later, I realised the plot and characters were not as clear-cut as they appeared (I suspect, however, that Dickens would have approved more of my child-self’s judgement of the characters than my present one). Since becoming a grown-up, I thought I was well able to find hidden nuances in a novel and read it on a fairly sophisticated level. And so it was a little troubling when I found myself reading The Stranger’s Child very much as if I were a child myself, taking everything at face value.

On face value, the novel starts like a classic country-house novel. In 1913, George Sawle brings home his university friend and secret lover Cecil Valance, eldest son of a fairly newly-created aristocratic family, for a summer visit. Cecil writes poetry and George’s sixteen-year old sister, Daphne, is set on falling in love with him. Naturally she knows nothing of his affair with her brother. The two first parts of the novel are set thirteen years apart, but they both concern the interactions between the Sawle and Valance families. When the novel skips forward forty-one years to 1967, and concentrates on two young men who only tangentially have anything to do with the Sawles and Valances, I for one felt a little disorientated at first. The story moves back to these families eventually, though, only now they are seen from an outsider perspective. Later, in 1980, one of the young men – Paul Bryant – attempts to write a biography of Cecil, but he finds it uphill work to get anything out of the surviving witnesses, including Daphne. The only one forthcoming is the indiscreet George.

Favourable reviews of The Stranger’s Child, cited at the front of the book, concentrate on such matters as the passing of time and the nature of memory. These abstract themes, you feel, are meant to be more important than the plot/character part of the story; many of the most dramatic events happen off-stage. So when I say that I felt for Paul in his tribulations as (admittedly nosy) biographer – social awkwardness is a trait that immediately elicits sympathy if you’ve ever felt socially awkward yourself – and that, as a consequence, I lost much of the sisterly sympathy I’d previously stored up for Daphne, I’m at the same time aware of somehow missing the point. This is not the kind of novel where you should really spend much time debating whether you like a certain character or not. That said, the novel works for us plot/character nuts too, and the author himself seems disposed to think kindly and tolerantly of his characters, which for me is a big plus. For instance, Paul – in spite of not being such an innocent abroad as he seems – does rather better than expected, and a story of a secondary character’s unrequited love that petered out in the book’s first part is touchingly wound up in the last part.

In other words, if you’d like to read something in the Booker Prize league but not be weighed down by language experiments or dismal content, this is a good bet. But be prepared, if you find yourself discussing it afterwards, that observations like “isn’t that Dudley a perfect pain” could cause a few raised eyebrows.