“Style is to some extent everything to me,” Joan Didion recently said at the New York Public Library, discussing her melancholy new memoir, Blue Nights. Possessing a marked style has become almost a sin in contemporary literary culture: the fashionable line on Didion is that she is “trapped” by her familiar cadences, and the same is sometimes said of Alan Hollinghurst, whose novel The Stranger’s Child explores the biographical enigma of a minor English poet. Can a writer’s prose be too fine, too composed? In an age where language seems to be getting crummier by the minute, I’m inclined to doubt it. Didion and Hollinghurst are vastly different stylists: the one spare and Hemingwayesque, the other ornate and Jamesian. But each serves for me as a beacon or bulwark; I trust the grain of the voice, and am not let down. Their new books are haunted by a past that has taken on golden hues, but neither is an exercise in nostalgia, and what gives the reader hope, amid bleak scenes, is the persistence of style. Whether in Hollinghurst’s lingering glimpses of a destroyed English fin-de-siècle or in Didion’s flickering memories of a troubled child, the beauty of the writing is the thin, strong thread that holds together a tattered world.
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