When faced with the challenge of teaching Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child a few weeks ago, I watched the following conversation with Michael Williams as part of my course preparation:
Early in the conversation, when discussing the role of modernist poetry and fiction in his literary education, Hollinghurst explains:
. . . the most pretentious thing I ever did I think was reading the whole of Ezra Pound’s Cantos when I was at school, of which I could have understood no more than five or six words, I should think. . . . Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was a very important book I did for A-level exams. And I suppose in a way you never know a book as well again in your life as a book that you study for A-level. And it made a big impression on me. I mean actually, I read it again before starting to write [The Stranger’s Child] because of its treatment of time and so forth. And it was a sort of spooky experience. As I began a sentence, I knew how it was going to go on.
A lot has been written about time in Woolf’s work, especially as it concerns the middle section of To the Lighthouse, “Time Passes.” In twenty pages or so, the novel sweeps its readers through the ten years following the events of “The Window” (part one). First-time readers probably struggle with this second section, since the majority of the ten chapters comprising it are largely characterless. The setting is identical to that of “The Window”—a summer house on the Isle of Skye—but the house remains mostly empty due to a few events occurring elsewhere. Though the climax of “The Window,” a dinner arranged by Mrs. Ramsay (the grand orchestrator of guests and intimacies and comforts and pleasures) seems to prepare us to learn more of the characters and their lives to come, “Time Passes” largely ignores them, offering nothing but a few bracketed glimpses that hit me—when I first read the novel in 2003—like medicine ball to the sternum.
Here are a few of those infamous bracketed passages:
Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty. (128)
Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well. (132)
A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous. (133)
Mr Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry. (134)
Indeed, time passes, and it does so cruelly, without a care for the Ramsays or the success of Carmichael or the millions dead (whom Carmichael should thank for his success) or, it should be said, for the reader. The third section of the novel, “The Lighthouse,” will have a good deal more to say about time and death and the afterlives of the lost (at least of Mrs. Ramsay), but if we tarry with “Times Passes,” we face what I have been calling a cosmic indifference, intimations of which recur across Woolf’s oeuvre (both in her fiction and her nonfiction).
Though the style of Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel differs a good deal from Woolf’s 1927 novel, time still leaps when readers move from section to section. The following sentences—casually woven into free indirect narration—have an effect similar to Woolf’s sentences above, signaling the sudden end of charming creatures that have dominated the first eighty-one pages (and one of whom will continue to haunt readers to the very end):
Three toes of his father’s left foot had been blown off by a German shell, and the man he had learned to call Uncle Cecil was a cold white statue in the chapel downstairs, because of a German sniper with a gun. (94)
Daphne gave a pinched smile . . . She’d never been fond of Clara, but she pitied her, and since they both had brothers who’d been killed in the War, felt a certain kinship with her. (95)
“Poor Wilfie was haunted and puzzled by phantom uncles. Uncle Cecil at least was in the house, in a highly idealized marmoreal form, and was often invoked, but Uncle Hubert was mentioned so rarely that he barely existed for him—she wasn’t sure that he had ever even seen his picture. All he had to go on, for uncles, was an occasional appearance by Uncle George, with his long words. When most uncles no longer existed, it was natural to co-opt one or two who did. (105)
I want to think a bit more about Hollinghurst and Woolf and time and the afterlives of the dead in the obsessions and wounds and recovery projects of the living, of the resounding indifference of time that leaps without warning and rearranges attentions and attitudes and affections. Of the “spooky experience” of re-encountering something well-known after a lot of time has passed: the memory of Mrs. Ramsay, the touch of Cecil, the sentences of To the Lighthouse. Some day. Reading on . . .