Gay London

Alan Hollinghurst casts his latest novel, The Spell, as a masculine novel of manners

Then there is the writing. How, after all, can we forgive the swooning infelicity of such sentences--and such sentences everywhere abound--as:

Lars' features had taken on a marvelous intensity, they seemed to have been cleansed to their essence in a solution of desire...the warm squeezing weight of him was almost a torture of excitement.

Or,

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And then there was the kiss, slow and luscious at first, and then choking and ferocious, as though each was trying to cram his head into the others' mouth.

Or even,

His thoughts emerged from the watery interview or vanishing railway-carriage of dreams, stumbled on for a few forgetful instants, pale and directionless, and then fled towards Danny in a grateful glow of remembered purpose.

Ripped bodice, anyone?

At last, Hollinghurst appears intuitively oblivious to the inherent order of diction and syntax--the rhythms and cadences, tonal harmonies, and appoggiaturas that constitute the internal music of language. He has, in short, a linguistic tin ear, an ear of the sort that leads to his strewing his story with ungainly words like "unrefusable" and "desultorily."

The tone-deafness, of course, is not his fault. What is, is his failure to account for it, permitting the reader to sense the extent of his overreaching, his straining after just the right, faux-voluptuous word. In its most jarring parts, the novel reads like an unfortunate translation. Were this a first effort, one would be reluctant to harp upon the point. In truth, the novel would have benefited immeasurably had its author thought to leave matters of style to the stylists, and opted, instead, simply to write the hell out of his characters.

At last, The Spell remains a curiously mixed bag: on the one hand deeply felt, fully imagined, and admirably character-driven, on the other--as a work of prose--a form of high irritation.

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