The explicit voice of British gay literature has softened, writes CATHERINE KEENAN. When Alan Hollinghurst finished his fourth book, The Line of Beauty, he had a sense he’d brought something to a close. That novel started at the point where his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, had ended: in the summer of 1983, a period of gilded freedom, as his protagonist, William Beckwith, was cutting an explicitly rendered swathe through gay London.
We knew this summer would end – AIDS was coming and Will’s world would brutally darken. In The Line of Beauty, AIDS was just one of a string of disasters to be visited on ambivalent hero Nick Guest. ”I did sort of have a feeling of having rounded off something,” Hollinghurst says in his deep, grand voice, down the phone from his London home.
Then, in 2004, The Line of Beauty won the Booker and this seemed to cement Hollinghurst’s sense of an ending. For two years, he was ”just travelling around the planet, going to literary festivals, going to countries where the book was being published. In the end I came to feel rather shackled to this book. I was sick of the sight of it and felt that it was keeping me away from my desk and thinking constructively about the next thing.
”Anyway, I’m very happy it all happened,” he says, wary of seeming churlish. ”But it was rather an odd, unsettled period in terms of my own writing.”
He didn’t know, for the longest time, what would come next. He writes slowly and says he’s gotten slower as he’s aged. Hollinghurst is 57 and The Stranger’s Child, which took six years to complete, is markedly the work of an older man. His previous novels were fuelled by a sense of possibility, lit by young men blithely certain of their invincibility. The mood of this one is altogether different: freighted with loss, elisions and longing. The title comes from Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam A. H. H., an elegy to male friendship.
The book begins just before the Great War, when middle-class George Sawle brings home from Cambridge his aristocratic, much-adored lover, Cecil Valance. At the end of the weekend, Cecil writes a poem, Two Acres, in George’s sister’s autograph book, and it goes on to become famous: the sort of poem that seems to say something essential about being English and that schoolboys have to memorise.
We are then ripped from that weekend to 1926 and the focus shifts to other characters. The book is structured in five episodes, spaced sometimes by several decades, and often introducing new people, which take us up to the age of civil unions in 2008. Hollinghurst leaps from one to another, in the process vaulting over wars, deaths, suicide, marriages, even sex, all of which take place in the gaps in between. The reader sees the twisting effects of war, for instance, but not war itself.
The effect is to lay bare the unpredictable workings of time: on literary reputation, on society and particularly on character. ”In a way, I’ve always had a reluctance to tackle those big things head on,” Hollinghurst says. ”I’ve been much more interested in showing their effects on the daily texture of people’s lives.”
A reluctance to tackle things head on is not, of course, something Hollinghurst is known for. He was deputy editor of The Times Literary Supplement when The Swimming-Pool Library came out in 1988. Highly literary and extremely explicit about gay sex, it had been almost impossible to sell the paperback rights. Hollinghurst’s present publisher, Picador, was one of many that turned them down at £3000.
Yet the hardback became both a bestseller and something of a cause celebre. At the time, Margaret Thatcher had proposed Section 28 in the Local Government Act, banning ”the promotion of homosexuality” by any organ of government and the book was held up as something that might consequently be banned from libraries. ”It all seemed very topical at the time,” Hollinghurst says. ”I probably shouldn’t blow my own trumpet about it but people hadn’t written literary fiction about the details of gay life before in England. I was quite conscious of having a wonderful new subject to write about.”
His agent eventually sold the paperback rights for a six-figure sum. ”Which rather changed my life,” the author says.
Interviewers often talk about the difficulty of reconciling Hollinghurst the explicit author with Hollinghurst the interviewee, who is exceedingly genteel, evenly spoken and discloses very little about himself. (”I am aware,” he once told an interviewer, ”that there may be a connection between being a constitutionally private person and writing these rather forward books about people’s sex lives.”)
He lives alone in Hampstead, London, and, like his literary lodestar, Henry James, has professed to be more interested in art than life. In the thick of writing a novel he tends to shut out friends and says he’s never been lonely. ”I feel loneliness in the sense of missing a particular person but I don’t feel a sort of existential loneliness that I think afflicts a lot of people. I think I’m quite self-reliant.”
Hollinghurst was an only child and grew up in Stroud, Gloucestershire, above the bank where his father was manager. He was sent to a boarding prep school at age seven and then to a boarding public school in Dorset. Both were in beautiful buildings: a Jacobean manor and a big Victorian pile, respectively, and he used to imaginatively inhabit both as if they were his homes.
”I was always very interested in buildings from childhood,” he says. ”I think going to school in big country houses made an enormous impact on my imagination.”
Buildings, and life behind a bank counter, work their way into the middle and later sections of The Stranger’s Child. When writing the sections set in 1913 and 1926, Hollinghurst was acutely aware of knowing these periods only through books. When it came to writing the third section, set in 1967, he could draw on his own memories, which, oddly, made things more difficult. ”I suddenly had this near-hallucinatory recall of the whole thing, where I’d played as a child,” he says. ”So it’s slightly paradoxical, isn’t it, that I made this book about people losing their memories partly out of my own.”
For Hollinghurst, there is always a lot of thinking time before starting a novel; a lot of listening to Wagner and jotting down notes. ”I never start writing a book until I’ve got a pretty clear sense of the structure of the whole thing … When I feel the first prickle of a new novel, I open a new notebook and put into it anything that might seem germane to the project, which could be anything from a descriptive phrase to a major plot thing. These are lovely phases, I find, when I feel very open and suggestible, and everything reveals itself in the light of its appropriateness or not to my project.”
It took him a long time to come to the episodic structure of The Stranger’s Child and up until the book’s release he worried that people would resent being constantly snatched between periods. ”But I’ve been rather cheered to find that people quite enjoy the mysterious effect of these dislocations,” he says. ”It trusts the reader more than I’ve done before to do work of their own to try and deduce what’s happened.”
Hollinghurst is one of the most literary English novelists. The Line of Beauty was suffused with Henry James and this book nods also to E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and one of his favourites, Ronald Firbank. It is far less explicit than his previous books; much more interested in concealment than revelation.
A review of the book in The Times Literary Supplement related the book’s interest in lacunae to gay history, which has often involved deciphering codes and finding meaning in what is not said.
Hollinghurst agrees but thinks the meaning of certain gaps can never be known. Characters change in his book for reasons that, even to the author, remain mysterious. ”I was rather wary of that model of the kind of novel which turns on a secret, which, when it’s finally revealed, explains everything else,” he says. ”I wanted there to be secrets which couldn’t be known, information which could never be found out. I wanted to recreate for the reader that sense that we have in real life of just not being able to know things, of not knowing things even about people we’re very close to. Even my very close friends, there are certain facts about their lives that I just don’t know.”
The odd thing is you can’t imagine him ever asking. He wouldn’t want to pry.