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Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Forster’

Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke-alike. The handsome young poet breezes into the home of fellow Cambridge University student George Sawle in the late summer of 1913, capturing the hearts of both George and his younger sister, Daphne. Before he leaves, he pens a poem about his weekend visit, “Two Acres,” in Daphne’s autograph book. With its paen to the English countryside and lines about lovers’ secret kisses in the shadows, the poem is destined to go down in history, much in the manner of  Brooke’s “The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me . . .), quoted by Winston Churchill and memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

The three days Cecil spends with the Sawles and his composition of the poem, including  ripping up one version and discarding it,  is beautifully detailed in the first section of Alan Hollinghurst’s involving  novel, The Stranger’s Child. In these first hundred pages, Hollinghurst constructs such an impeccable foundation for his sprawling family saga, social comedy/history that after I finished the book — another 350 pages — I went back and read this section again with admiration and appreciation.

Not that the next four episodes, which unexpectedly gallop across a century, leaping decades in the process, aren’t praiseworthy. But they miss the vitality of Cecil, or “Sizzle”, as he is known to his aristocratic family and friends. Of course, that’s one of the points Hollinghurst is making in writing of the vagaries of love and fame and mythmaking.

By the time the book’s second section begins at Corley Court, the Valances’ ancestral home, a hideous Victorian monstrosity, a dozen years have passed. Cecil is long dead, killed by a German sniper during World War II. His marble effigy lies in Corley’s chapel — the hands are all wrong, thinks George Sawles — and Daphne has become Lady Valance. She has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and has two children, Corinna and Wilfred. Also on hand for a “Cecil” weekend are several newcomers to the story, including a young gay artist, Revel Ralph, with whom Daphne is carrying on an intense flirtation, and Sebby, Cecil’s literary executor, who may have been another of his lovers.

Practically every male character in the book is either gay or bi-, and society’s changing attitudes toward homosexuality is a recurring theme throughout the novel. “The love that dare not speak its name” is still muffled in the book’s third section, circa 1970, when the focus shifts to two new characters — Paul Bryant, a bank clerk with literary aspirations, and Peter Rowe, a schoolmaster at Corley, now a prep school. But the closet door is swinging open in the 1980s as Paul pursues Cecil’s aging relatives and friends for a biography that will perhaps out the poet and reveal other Valance family secrets. Is Corinna really Cecil’s daughter? The final section is set in 2008, when domestic partnerships are widely accepted, but questions still remain about Cecil’s life and legacy, which is as it should be in a novel where memory is text and subtext.

Hollinghurst’s writing is lush, lyrical, elegant and witty, occasionally arch and very knowing as he winks at the country house novels of E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh in a series of exquisite set pieces, with a nod to such contemporaries as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and A.S.Byatt’s Possession. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you love Brideshead Revisited and are anxiously awaiting the second installment of Downton Abbey on PBS, find yourself a chintz chair and a copy of The Stranger’s Child.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Knopf) via NetGalley. It expires on my Nook this week, which means I’ll soon be buying my own copy.

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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