Lives tangle and untangle in a literate, literary mystery at the heart of World War I by Man Booker Prize winner Hollinghurst (The Line of Beauty, 2004, etc.).
Cecil Valance is a poet of terrific talent who, according to a guest in a comfortably English countryside house, is “not so good as Swinburne or Lord Tennyson.” In his defense, he is still young. In the defense of everyone he meets, he is irresistible, a Lord Byron with sensitive appetites and a definite awareness of the effect he has on those he meets. George Sawle, scion of the modest manor, is awestruck. So is his sister, Daphne, who melts whenever Cess is around, even taking a puff on a cigar. But Cecil is the real deal as a poet of the Sassoon/Graves/Brooke school, as we learn on reading a heavily edited scrap of paper retrieved from a wastebasket: “Love as vital as the spring / And secret as — XXX (something!).” War is looming, and Cecil, who professes to like hunting out in the fields, seems pleased at the prospect of trying his skills out on the Kaiser’s boys. Alas, things don’t work out as planned. Generations pass, and Cecil Valance’s poems are firmly in the canon, especially a little one left as a commemoration to the Sawle family, with a carefully structured reference to kisses that might pass between the lips of lovers of any old gender. Now a biographer, working with the clues, is making the claim that Valance belongs in the canon not just of modernist British poetry, but of gay literature as well—a claim that, though seemingly well defended, stirs up controversy. Does it matter? Not to Cecil, poor fellow, “laid out in dress uniform, with rich attention to detail.” And perhaps not to those left behind, now gone themselves or very nearly so.
But yes, it matters, and such is the stuff of biography. How do we know the truth about anyone’s life? Hollinghurst’s carefully written, philosophically charged novel invites us to consider that question.