Alan Hollinghurst: Beauty, Love, and Literature
Author: Curt Weber
November 2, 2011
“I tend to write about people, who like myself to some degree, are loners by temperament, or live in their own sort of imaginative world. I think I tended to do that a fair bit actually. That has more interest to me than writing a happy love story…”
The five novels Alan Hollinghurst has published since 1989, which all explore some aspect of British gay life, have drawn in American readers with their lyrical approach to the subject. Carefully constructed from start to finish, his books reflect a writer who composes what he observes with an architect’s precision; echoes of an early desire to be an architect.
With the arrival of his fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst has once again aroused the reviewers. It is the third of his novels to be Long-Listed for the Booker prize, the last one, The Line Of Beauty, having won it in 2004. His new work spans the last century from just before World War I, examining the short life, and long aftermath, of English poet Cecil Valance, the people around him, and how his poetry affected them and their descendants. Daphne, whom Cecil enchants in their youth, stands as a somewhat central figure. Cecil mirrors the real-life story of Rupert Brooke, an English poet who died in WWI. As with another icon of the sensitive-romantic youth 40 years later, James Dean, Brooke died too young to be demythologised.
Partly as a desire to not repeat himself, Hollinghurst has moved away from writing predominantly gay novels and extended descriptions of sex. His latest have included central gay characters whose lives, like those in reality, are incorporated into the heterosexual mainstream with their place in the world at large.
Alan invited me to his North London home overlooking the gloriously green Hampstead Heath, with its vistas, crannies and possibilities. We sat down to talk on the main floor with its generously-sized, classically English-styled, sparsely-furnished living room. From the pictures on the walls to the small television in the far corner, everything has, and seems to be in, its place.
We talked about how poetry informs his writing, swimming, publishing, the triumph of money and, of course, beauty.
You’re about to embark on a publicity tour of six American cities, but no Boston or Chicago.
I think I am starting in Austin. I had a happy semester teaching at the University of Houston, so I got over some primitive objection to Texas. I go to New York, Philadelphia and then to Atlanta, which I am rather excited about. There’s a gay bookstore where I will read, it’s got a sort of punning title [Outwrite]. I then go to Minneapolis followed by the San Francisco area. Another friend told me the place in Corte Madera is the best place to read in the whole Bay Area. My ex lives in SF, so I’ll have a bit of downtime there. Then I go to Toronto. It’s odd, no Boston or Chicago or LA. I would love to go back to Seattle. I love cities and miss the idea of going to Chicago.
Do you visit the US often?
I love going to the US. I first went in 1983 and I think after that, for twenty years or more, I went at least once a year. I haven’t been to New York in six years, since the paperback for the last book came out.
You seem to have a fondness for writing about the past.
The Spell was more or less contemporary. My original design for The Stranger’s Child was that the last section was going to be much longer. Someone would have an affair with someone who was a soldier in the gulf war. I thought it would be too dramatically heavy to bring that soldier/war motif back again, and then I had run out of money so I settled on a short last section. I do dwell on the past. Perhaps it has something to do with when I grew up as well. I have always been interested in writing about gay life. Gay life is more interesting as a subject when it was more problematic. I don’t know that it can’t be written about now, but that it perhaps presents less of an interesting challenge for me. That may be one reason why I go back to more periods when it was sort of a hidden or difficult subject to a much greater degree.
I felt that with each progressive section of this book the characters were more at ease in their homosexuality.
That’s right. In the first part it’s something that can’t be spoken about at all in polite society. There’s a sort of liberalisation in that rather frenetic mood of the 20s where the terrible damage of the war was seething underneath this mad-cap social life where all sorts of things can be said. The 60s section of the book takes place just on the eve on the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, in July of 1967 which decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales between two men in private.
Did you have that date in mind?
Yes, absolutely. It is discussed in the book at a garden party where there is caginess about the new sort of freedom that this is going to bring about, thus changing a lot of things. Partly about not only what can be said about gayness, but also what can be said about gay lives by biographers and we see the attempt to write about Cecil Valance, in the second part of the book, is going to be heavily controlled by the family. And nothing truthful was going to be said about it at all. Michael Holyrod’s biography of Lytton Strachey, with uncanny timing, came out after this change in the law in the autumn of ‘67. It was really the first book that wrote openly and un-embarrassedly about the details of life as a gay writer. A very important book. Through the following decade you could write about somebody as gay, and not say they were a criminal, which made rather a lot of difference. This was partly one of the things I was doing when I wrote my thesis in the mid 70s at Oxford on gay lives. Forster had died in 71. Maurice, his gay novel, came out shortly afterwards and that seemed quite significant. Henry James – was he or wasn’t he. Various people were outed by a newly invigorated gay movement, sometimes rather wishfully.
Your early novels were very frank in their depiction of gay life and homosexuality. You seem to be pulling away from that in the last two. Now they are more chaste, more like a dance, an allusion. Did you set out to challenge yourself in this way?
I suppose I felt I had done it. And it had been very much part of the point of the books, my first book in particular. It was in that horrible mood of the late 80s through which I was writing. There was a sort of political point to it, too. I thought there was something important in being more defiant. There was also, in literary terms, the novelty of it because writers in this country hadn’t really written openly about gay sex and it was rather fun to do, actually. [laughs] I thought about integrating the sexual part of gay life into the story, which hadn’t really happened before. It was happening in straight fiction, like Updike in the 60s had been writing this extraordinarily explicit literary fiction about heterosexual lives and I thought writing about homosexual behavior was just as valid a part of human interactions and something worth going into. My first book had straight characters but didn’t have any female characters. The Spell was very much a gay book, the inter-relations of these four gay men. I did feel that I didn’t want to keep on doing that. I wanted to write about gay people in the large heterosexual sort of context. Saying anything like this makes the whole thing sort of more deliberate and programmatic than it actually feels to me writing it. The books come to me in some mysterious way that I can’t quite describe.
In your writing, you seem to be interested in class structure, particularly people who benefit from association with the upper-classes. Do you see yourself in the same fashion artists as of old who were dependent on patrons, [he laughs] and if so, how does that relationship inform your writing?
I am not kept by some rich, wealthy aristocrat, sadly. That would have been marvellous, but no. I think it is hard to write a social novel about England without writing about class and the strange manias and perversions that social class anxiety brings about. In The Line of Beauty one of the main ironies of the book is that the naïve young person is drawn into this world of wealth and power and is very glamourised by it, and it reveals itself to be a rather pitiless sort of machine that spits him out. Daphne is glamourised by the Valances and the country house and ends up in a state of dependency.
Quoting from the new novel: “I feel there’s room in the world for more than one kind of beauty.” Talk to me about beauty and how you find it in the everyday.
I think I have always been quite susceptible to beauty or good and finding it. One of the things I was perhaps trying to write about in The Line Of Beauty was to address this over-susceptibility to beauty, to create a character in whom the aesthetic sense is much stronger than the moral sense and point out the problem inherent in such a disposition. I think I am very easily seduced in writing by trying to convey the interest of something. But also there is something deliberate, in a Wildean sort of way, on making aesthetic considerations. There’s a sort of moral dimension to championing a certain kind of aesthetic thing over that which everybody else takes frightfully seriously. A way of subverting certain types of expectations.
This book is largely about a poet and the work that he leaves behind and features poetry both by him and another character. What is your background in poetry?
I wrote masses of poetry, all through my teens and student life. I think the ideas, images and things I had been pondering with a view to putting in poems was redirected into the larger container in which I was putting things that might go into novels. I hope that I kept rather good habits from writing poetry: sense of riddle and interesting imagery and recurring patterns and words with images, shaping sentence in the paragraph in some musical way. One could easily start sounding vague and pretentious about such matters.
Why did it take so long for you to include poetry in one of your novels?
The bookish, youngish man in The Folding Star is like me in having a head full of bits of poetry, not necessarily good poetry, but growing up with lots of anthologies, having a lot of Victorian and Georgian poetry in his head and I think it‘s a sort of world I am quite familiar with. I did not really read grown up fiction much at all until I went to Oxford. Partly to do with getting older and thinking about, not my own, but other writers’ reputations and what happens to a writer after they die – what is said, what can be said about them and the way they are going to be remembered is shaped – is very fascinating. I wanted to write something not directly about, but the effects of the first world war, so the idea of a poet and the one poem in particular which would sort of impinge on the lives of a lot of people was quite interesting. There’s not actually much of Cecil’s own poetry in it. Like everything else in a novel, you don’t have to show the whole thing. If you allude to it confidently enough, people believe it exists.
The Stranger’s Child seemed to be a sort of series of short stories that are connected. It is quite different to anything you have written before.
I think it is. There is a three-year gap between the first and second chapters in The Line of Beauty that leaves the protagonist, Nick, at the start of one love affair and picks up with him going into the middle of another one. I like making the reader wonder what had happened in between. This book is a sort of huge expansion of that idea. I was encouraged by a wonderful set of stories by Alice Munro in her book, Runaway, in which she writes about the life of one woman at three widely-spaced periods, again with these sort of extraordinary disorienting shifts with the passage of time between them. I did two short stories in my life, the first when I was 25 and the next when I was 50, so I suppose I may have one more in me. [he laughs]
The idea of jarring the reader was taken to another level in this book.
I wanted to dramatise the shocks and ironies of time. And I thought it would be interesting to give them even more to do. Trust them. It wasn’t capricious game-playing on my part, but because part of the subject of the book are the things that are knowable or not knowable about the past or about other people’s behavior. So I wanted there to be a kind of uncertainty. There are certain things which the reader is privy to. There are other things that the reader only knows by doing their own reconstruction of what happened, or by hearsay, so that you are left with something of the same uncertainty to what actually happens to the characters in this book as you are with people in real life.
That is your style: the reader has to figure things out.
If the reader is prepared to do that. One good thing about a novel is that it is created afresh by everybody who reads it. So the invitation to imagine more and more about the book themselves is quite an interesting idea. I don’t think it’s really been done before, or maybe lots of people have done it.[laughs] That way of telling a story, I thought, was rather original.
Will something you write in the future be more current or do you like going back in time?
I think I like both, really. I think what I know about this next book is that it will do. It will reach back into the past of characters and the present day would be more or less now. The retrospective thing is quite strong in me. After all, a novelist’s most valuable resource really is memory. It is rather interesting to find how a different project will suddenly make or reveal the usefulness of a different area of memory. There were things I hadn’t thought of for decades but I found when I started remembering I could remember vividly.
Did you find yourself getting carried away, the more you remembered?
There is the danger of that, of course. There was a peculiar contrast between writing the first two sections, which were all completely made up, and taking my bearing from other books written in and about those periods. There is something so irreducibly literary about our sense of the past and how people behaved and spoke in 1913 which mainly comes from reading novels. In 1967, when I was 13, I was in a period when I did remember quite vividly and it was much harder. The whole process of selection was difficult. I felt I could write a whole novel set in a boy’s prep school, I am not going to, don’t worry. [laughs] And I am not deliberately trying to write something that would make me seem hip and up to date.
Nothing about a love story set against the riots of the summer of 2011?
By the time I get around to writing it, it may well be historic, clearly.
From the beginning, Hollinghurst was taken seriously, The Swimming Pool Library giving him a splashy introduction. According to The New York Times, “there haven’t been many English debuts more exquisitely executed or scorchingly candid” and Edmund White compared its “literary sexuality to Lolita and Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.” The novel unspools with the chronicling of conversations, the everyday, swimming pools, showers, nudity and sexual encounters, depicted with such graceful precision that they pull the reader into the space between the words: what is left unsaid, unexplained, unanswered. It won the LAMBDA Literary Award for Fiction in 1989, as did its follow-up The Folding Star, six years later.
I am a swimmer so the title alone of your first book was enticing. Does that pool exist?
[He laughs] You’re taking me back a bit, now. The location of the club with that pool was based on the YMCA, not the new one that was put up in the late 60s, but the old one that I actually never saw. The pool itself wasn’t as splendid as the one in the book, which I based on the one at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall [a distinguished member’s only London club], which has this magnificent, marble-column, sort of Roman-styled pool.
Why did you center your first novel around swimming?
It seemed the Y, and its pool, and gym and showers were very a sexy place in those days. I festered in Oxford for far too long and when I finally moved to London, in 1981, I immediately joined the Y and it was all very much part of my sense of the excitement of having arrived in London at last. It’s the way one’s mind works. Seeing potential, not only in life, but imaginative potential with what’s going on around in that place and the fact that people of all ages races and classes seemed to come together in this nude, or semi-nude, kind of underground world, it seemed very apropos for the book.
You were in your 30s during the 80s when your first novel was written and published. She is a large presence in The Line of Beauty, what effect did Margaret Thatcher have on your work?
The first book was the beginning of the 80s and The Line of Beauty by design came backwards to start where The Swimming Pool Library ended. And there was all this unfinished business that lay beyond just the end of that book that I deliberately would not tackle in it. Obviously AIDS. The great sort of Thatcher boom years of the 80s, which was an amazing turning upside down of things in this country, which I thought was a horrible period to live through. The romance of London, that I felt and tried to communicate in The Swimming Pool Library and the first part of The Line Of Beauty, was sort of soured by those changes. It sounds sort of pompous, but it changed the whole ethical tone of life through the 80s with the triumph of money and greed. The extraordinary and physical impact on the city where everything was knocked down and being rebuilt and these hideous sort of tanky buildings, the huge gaps between the rich and the poor and the new destitution and massive unemployment. It was an awful period, Mrs Thatcher did loom.
You had this vision of London at a time of the most change since the second world war.
That’s right. Politically, socially and physically, London was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 and then it was partially, slowly rebuilt after The Blitz. Then it was massively rebuilt in the 80s. The two young men in the first and fourth books were leading such lives in worlds that are impinged on by all sorts of other things. I was not trying to write a state-of-the-nation book, but none-the-less the background impinges on the foreground.
Everything now is marketable, do you feel slotted into one niche of the publishing market?
The big point is that independence from any kind of expectation as to what I should do has always very important to me, not to write to anybody’s agenda. But I think if you are a gay writer there is a sort of pressure, one that I perhaps felt more strongly during the years of AIDS, when gay writing was sort of at its most focused and political in a way. There are pressures to sort of produce a certain kind of work for a certain kind of audience and to say certain kinds of things I may not particularly want to say. I have always felt it was quite important to shut out, as far as possible, those expectations.
Are there any gay US writers in particular whose work you follow?
Edmund White has been a very important figure. He has been incredibly generous to me and he’s wonderful. I reviewed A Boy’s Own Story in 1983, I think, just after I had joined the Times Literary Supplement. I think I wrote a rather sort of priggish review. I was startled by its candour. I think I hadn’t seen anything like it before; writing with such openness about the sort of things that weren’t good about men, a combination of that candour and that mid-western feel of the book and its rather baroque glittering prose. It was very startling to me. I think it’s a very important book. And I have followed everything else he has done and I think My Lives is really his masterpiece perhaps, a really wonderful book which I did write a rather rave review of here in The Guardian. I would say he was the most important. Michael Cunningham, I loved A Home at the End of the World and his sense that what mattered was writing about people’s lives and behaviour and not categorising one thing or another. He’s a very sort of grown-up gay writer who wasn’t sort of driven by agenda and he kept his head on what he wanted to write–very independent minded. I reviewed his latest–I didn’t think it was a success, very respectfully. I fear there are probably younger writers that I should be aware of.
The sales of your work in the US are not what the UK sales are. Do you get a feeling that some of your work is lost in translation?
My third book, The Spell, which was the least successful critically, failed commercially. It didn’t sell at all well in the States, partly because of the consequences of that and partly because of the changes of book-buying habits after 9/11. The sales of literary fiction went down dramatically and blockbuster-fiction was cushioning that end of the market.
Perhaps as a result of this change, Hollinghurst had a lot of trouble selling The Line of Beauty to an American publisher, which he unsurprisingly found unnerving. Various distinguished editors had asked him to see it, but “they all turned it down flat” and he ended up selling it for a fraction of the advance for what he sold his first book. He says that the response he got was “we can’t expect American readership in 2004 to be interested in England in the 1980s.” It ended up selling the best of any of his books in the US and was very well reviewed.
How do you feel about the US response to The Line of Beauty?
I believe it sold more than The Swimming Pool Library but I don’t have the figures. They seemed to be very healthy sales, which was a great relief to me. It is related to what you’re saying about my books being difficult to get into [and maybe being lost in translation]. We are so saturated, I suppose, by American culture here that even if American books may be difficult for us to get into [we read them]. It’s part of the point of reading books that come from somewhere else: to find about other places and other times. It’s perhaps not the principal thing, but one of the educative things about reading fiction.
Can you tell me a bit about your relationships with your British and American editors and the respective publishing houses.
They have rather changed. My previous four books were all bought “as-was” by British publishers and then promptly sold to American publishers. There was really no editorial intervention at all. This new book, The Stranger’s Child, was the first one that was sort of pre-bought in both countries, so it was the first time I had the experience of being edited simultaneously on both sides of the pond, which is very interesting, actually. Robin Desser is my editor at Knopf and is absolutely wonderful. I rather expected the American editorial approach was much more interventionist than the British one, at sort of both the macro and micro level, which I welcomed. I am not touchy about it at all. Robin asked me a bunch of questions which I don’t think were necessarily objections but she just wanted to be confident that I had an answer to, like ‘have you thought of this or have you thought of this?’ Editing of that kind in this country has got famously less and less interventionist. More and more things seem to be done by agents and so forth. It’s quite changed from my early books, when one sat down with one’s editor for a day and went through paragraph by paragraph. I never show anything to anybody until I have got a complete draft of the book. Happily I have two or three friends, whom I show it to at the same time as my editor.
So far, only The Line of Beauty has been adapted for the television; were any of the previous books optioned?
The BBC commissioned a 3-part adaptation of The Swimming Pool Library by the playwright Kevin Elyot, which was very good, I thought, way back in the early 90s. They sat on it for a year and then asked him if wouldn’t mind recasting it as a 2-part which he very nicely did. Then they sat on it for another year and said they weren’t going to do it. Channel 4, who were rather more adventurous as to programming in those days, had a look at it but they said they were doing another adaptation of Tales Of the City so obviously they couldn’t have two gay-themed shows [laughs]. It’s been optioned at various times but nothing has ever come of it. So much of the book is about things that can’t be known or never could be found out. Film demands more, unless it’s very sort of avant-garde, it demands knowledge and all sorts of things would have to be clarified.
Were you ever asked or interested in adaptation?
I was never asked and I wouldn’t have known how to go about it. It should be done by someone who knows how to write that sort of thing. My greatest pleasure in writing really is describing things, but I have never imagined writing a play or a screenplay.
Henry James is an author to whom you are often compared and you have spoken of your admiration of his work. What is it about your writing do you think draws comparisons to his?
Partly due perhaps because I had written a book where a character is interested in Henry James in The Line of Beauty.
But there were comparisons before that.
I can’t really say why they compare me to a very much greater writer. There are things in him which I admire intensely. He is very encouraging in the seriousness with which he approaches the whole business of writing fiction. I happen to find the sort of minute analysis of feeling and behaviour and so on as fascinating as he did. I don’t think this new book is particularly Jamesian. The Line of Beauty was sort of Jamesian deliberately in various ways, telling the whole story from the point of view of one person. And that particular sort of money, that rather disreputable social world which I thought was like rather like the world James wrote about in his novels of the 1890s. Rather terrible sort of motives going on underneath the surface of this apparently sort of charming and glittering world which he was more and more struck by and those later things about gilded age America: the triumph of money.
Who are you reading at the moment?
I am tackling, reviewing, E.M. Forster’s diaries and journals, which have never been published before. I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing after finishing a book, so I like a definite task.
Are you a big fan of Forster?
Well, he was a very important to person me long ago and he was one of the people on whom I wrote my graduate thesis about gay writers at Oxford. I was very interested in the whole question of how gay writers who couldn’t write openly about homosexuality dealt with this subject of such central importance to them. I was interested in the concealments and in the coded glimpses, in the new kinds of games that Forster played with the comedy of heterosexual romance, or Firbank, a much more radical artist, played with style. In the end of course it led Forster to stop writing fiction altogether, because of the legal impossibility of writing about what mattered most to him.
Because of the gay subject matter you have been labelled a gay writer. However you write at length about houses and buildings as if they are characters in the book, yet you’re not called an architectural writer.
Yes, people would ask, ‘God is it another architectural novel? [jokingly] I don’t like those’ [laughs] I have always been very interested in buildings from my childhood. I am very sort of susceptible to their atmospheres. My father was very interested in buildings, we did lots of driving around when I was a child or teenager looking at castles and cathedrals and such. When I was a boy I had a fantasy of being an architect, which I realised wasn’t as romantic as all that so I rather abandoned the idea. I have always loved the thought of designing houses in my books. I probably bang on about them too much. The Line of Beauty is very much a book about a house. I imagine by the end that the reader has a sort of claustrophobic sense of knowing their way around this house and they’re dying to get out of it. [laughs]
Your books deal a lot with attraction and love. What do you find to be challenging aspects of love?
[His body shifts somewhat and his expression changes to one of a deer in the headlights. Immediately the telephone rings. “A very opportune time,” he says. We laugh and he gets up to answer. It is his mother. She probably asked him if she was disturbing anything, for he responds ”No, I am just in the middle of an interview and you called at just the right time, actually.” When off the call, I try to ease any hesitation by telling him that he does not need to delve too deeply, that it isn’t a trick question. He asks me to clarify whether I meant in “life or a literary subject?” Life.]
I suppose it interested me as an act of imagination, really. So much about the excitement of one’s own feeling, sensations, is imagining the other person and entering into their…When two people are in love there is a wonderful unfelt consciousness about the whole thing, so that writing anything about it seems too deliberate in a way. I am quite interested in writing about the problems of love. I tend to write about people, who like myself to some degree, are loners by temperament, or live in their own sort of imaginative world. I think I tended to do that a fair bit actually. That has more interest to me than writing a happy love story. I have a strong tendency as a writer to make a terrible end to my characters. The power one has as a writer to push him off a cliff or something. With The Spell, I was challenged by the then boyfriend to write a book that didn’t have miserable ending. My general view of life is an open and optimistic sort of one, but my tendency as a writer is often to darken the picture. The Folding Star is a very sort of dark book. It’s not really about AIDS at all, but it grew out of the dark mood of those years when people kept dying. There is melancholy strain in me that is interested in things not quite working out and the experience of people when they are by themselves. I think as an only child I spent a lot of time alone, I adore my friends, but I like being alone and am quite interested in solitude, and happily, because it is so essential to writing.
Are you a fan of Proust?
What talent or skill would you most like to have and why?
Oh are we doing a Proustian questionnaire? Oh God. [laughs] One which I culpably, stupidly, didn’t cultivate would be to play a musical instrument to a reasonable standard. Obviously the piano, but it would be quite nice to play one which is portable-a flute or clarinet. A wood-wind instrument of some kind.
What is your greatest fear? [long pause]
I suppose perhaps contracting an incurable, fatal disease.
What possession do you treasure the most?
I like things but I don’t sort of fetishise them. Possibly collections of sets of books. I have a good collection of first editions of the novelist Ronald Firbank. They have a totemic interest or value for me.
On what occasion do you lie?
Almost incessantly. Mainly not to hurt other people’s feelings. Sometimes so as not to hurt my own.
Which quality do you most like in a man?
[Long pause] It’s so hard to put one’s finger on it. A good sense of humour is very important. Charm. But that’s such a slippery sort of thing. Charm quickly slides into being something else–falseness, a person deluding themselves and other people. I’ll go for wit.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I don’t think I have a great achievement. I just had to read The Line Of Beauty for the first time in 6 years. If I can say this without immodesty, I was relieved to find how impressed I was. I do have this slight feeling of passing on from the book to something else which I hope is going to be better and rather denigrating it mentally and when I go back I think, ‘Fuck, how did I do that?’ When I had to re-read The Folding Star a few years ago, when the paperback came out, I thought the short middle section of that book was the best thing I had written. It seemed to me so natural, and concentrated and poetic, not poncey.
What is your idea of bliss?
The world of bliss I used to know, and used to access so much more readily. That being on the high of writing, which I remember with my first book and writing that part of The Folding Star, which comes less and less often, but sometimes magically does. The feeling of finding myself inventing other things, which sometimes magically occurs, leaves me in a happy and excited state.
To be creating at the top of my powers is my idea of bliss.