Thursday, May 26, 2016

Birthday: Alan Hollinghurst and the modern comedy of manners


Nick felt a tear rise to his eye at the thought of the child's utter innocence of hangovers.

Alan James Hollinghurst, FRSL (1954-  )
Poet, novelist

Like the American Michael Chabon, who also burst onto the literary landscape in 1988, Alan Hollinghurst is no writing machine. He wrote his first novel in a desk diary, with a chapter for each month. He figured at the end of a year, he’d be done. It took three and a half.

You will look in vain for the equivalent of “a Christie for Christmas,” as fans of the late Queen of Crime rested assured. No biennial retelling of one story, as John Grisham never fails to provide. Barbara Cartland would have scorned Hollinghurst (Harper Lee, in contrast, might have thought him profligate).

A review of Hollinghurst’s last novel reported,

Hollinghurst is not a writer who rushes his words. His exquisitely poised sentences and vividly realised scenes emerge from a stately process of refinement. He estimates that he completes on average between 300 and 400 words in a day of writing, although there are many days in which nothing is forthcoming other than gestating thought. He is said to have spent two years thinking about The Line of Beauty before embarking on the first chapter.

Yet while the final result of this deliberation is unfailingly polished, it's very seldom precious. Instead, his novels are engorged with a playful wit and a powerful eroticism. Since his stunning debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, which Edmund White labelled "the best book about gay life yet written by an English author", Hollinghurst has been burdened with a reputation as an explicitly gay writer. If he finds the designation annoying, he has maintained a largely diplomatic stance in public.

"I only chafe at the 'gay writer' tag if it's thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I'm writing," he said following his Booker win. "I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well."

The Stranger's Child is indeed about all sorts of other things. It begins in outer-suburban Harrow in 1913, the last summer before the First World War, and spans the following century. At its centre are two families and a poem that is destined to resound with personal and social significance.

With its rarefied atmosphere, multi-generational timespan, depiction of the intrusion of war and the unfolding drama of a literary conceit and a disputed event, the novel is bound to be compared with Ian McEwan's Atonement. The similarities, however, are superficial and what stands out is Hollinghurst's distinctively delicious style and acuity of social observation.

He notes, for example, the strange familiarity and alienation of a young valet in the presence of a distinguished guest. This beady-eyed ability to cut through to the defining peculiarities of social relations is something that Hollinghurst displayed right from the outset with The Swimming-Pool Library, but it was often said that it was restricted to male characters. That criticism was comprehensively answered in The Line of Beauty, a fabulously elegiac account of the 1980s that featured several compelling female characters.

Hollinghurst has written five novels to date. The Swimming-Pool Library, the story of a promiscuous young idler, mixes rich, ­witty prose with cheerfully graphic descriptions of gay sex. William Beckwith, the ­novel’s ­rakish narrator, strikes up a friendship with an elderly aristocrat named Lord Nantwich, who asks Will to write his biography; in the process of reading Nantwich’s diaries, Will is offered a glimpse of an earlier gay generation’s passions and oppressions. In both The Folding Star and The Spell (1999), a man in midlife nurses an obsessive love for someone several years his ­junior, in the first case with tragic consequences, in the second to comic effect. The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, has been called Hollinghurst’s masterpiece; it’s a funny, furious, sad ­novel about a young James scholar who falls under the spell of a glamorous and powerful Tory family during the Thatcher years, at the height of the aids epidemic.

The Stranger’s Child has a wider scope than any of Hollinghurst’s previous books: it begins on the eve of World War I and ends in the present day. In 1913, a young bisexual poet named Cecil Valance spends a weekend at the suburban villa of George Sawle, a fellow Cambridge student with whom he is secretly having an affair, and writes a verse inscription in the autograph book of George’s sister, Daphne. The poem becomes famous after Cecil is killed in battle, and over the following decades, the facts of the weekend and the sexual lives of the characters are concealed, guessed at, misremembered, distorted, and reinterpreted. The novel picks up a thread that has run through Hollinghurst’s books since The Swimming-Pool Library: the ways in which the present ­devours the past.

Hollinghurst joked that upon the release of The Swimming-Pool Library some interviewers expected to meet “this tremendous, gorgeous stud, and were visibly disappointed at how scholarly and reserved I was.”

He was an only child, which suited him down to the ground. He credits long periods of solitude as good training for the sort of slow, methodical writer he became. Like many gay men of his age- he turned 62 today- Hollinghurst grew up in a highly compartmentalized family:

He has said that his was "not the sort of family that spoke openly about feelings, but there was quite a deep sort of bond between us". He never announced to his parents that he was gay. "It just sort of seeped out, which seemed to me a perfectly satisfactory way of doing it."

Hollinghurst added, in his Paris Review talk:

In my later teens, when I was sure that I was gay, I couldn’t find any way of telling my parents, and my relations with them were probably more remote than I now like to think. As I was away for a lot of the year at school and then at university, that remoteness became in some sense institutionalized. I developed a habit of keeping things to myself, and of thinking that my significant life was all going on away from home.


Were you conscious of gay people around you as a child?


Within our own social world, not at all. No one in the family, no one in my parents’ circle of acquaintance—a lack that made coming out all the harder. I don’t think I met an unquestionably gay adult until I went to university.

His father, a bank manager, scrimped to send Alan to private school, where the boy indulged the teen rage for Tolkien, who was then exploding to international fame:

I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I made charts of the kings of Rohan and so on. I used to write letters to my friends in dwarfish runes. The English master took a dim view of this and made me read Barchester Towers as an antidote, when all I wanted to do was to get back to Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party for the seventh time. I’ve never been able to read Trollope since.

(He got his own back in The Line of Beauty, set in the boom years of the late Eighties:

“After that they browsed for a minute or two in a semi-detached fashion. Nick found a set of Trollope which had a relatively modest and approachable look among the rest, and took down The Way We Live Now, with an armorial bookplate, the pages uncut. “What have you found there?” said Lord Kessler, in a genially possessive tone. “Ah, you’re a Trollope man, are you?”

“I’m not sure I am, really,” said Nick. “I always think he wrote too fast. What was it Henry James said, about Trollope and his ‘great heavy shovelfuls of testimony to constituted English matters’?”

Lord Kessler paid a moment’s wry respect to this bit of showing off, but said, “Oh, Trollope’s good. He’s very good on money.”)

Afterward, Hollinghurst went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where the young man earned his BA and M.Litt. He made a name for himself in the hypercompetitive world there, winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1974, and producing a daring thesis for its time:

I chose to write a thesis, of which the title was “The Creative Uses of Homosexuality in the Novels of E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L. P. Hartley.” It was quite a new subject then. The Sexual Offences Act had been passed in 1967 and changed what could be said about the private lives of gay people. Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey came out with uncanny timing a few months later, and it was the first book that was openly and unembarrassedly about the life of a gay writer. A new freedom to talk about these things was very much a part of the atmosphere of the seventies.

I think, without wishing to blow my own trumpet, that my thesis was quite an original thing to choose to do. It struck me that here were these gay writers who hadn’t been able to publish anything on the subject that was most essential to their lives. And this repression had all sorts of creative implications, as well as limitations—in Forster’s case producing a number of original twists on heterosexual comic plots, until in the end, or rather long before the end, he decided he just couldn’t carry on writing fiction because he couldn’t write about the thing that meant the most to him. And then what happens when those constraints are removed? Maurice is a very touching and interesting book but as a work of art is nowhere near as good as the novels Forster published in his lifetime. For Firbank, a writer in a quite different tradition, style became a vehicle for simultaneous concealment and display.

After taking his degrees, Hollinghurst was a lecturer at Magdalen, Somerville and Corpus Christi in Oxford, then at the University of London. He jumped to the Times Literary Supplement, serving as deputy editor in the early to mid Eighties. “The new freedom to talk about these things” didn’t last long. After a decade in office, to shore up support Margaret Thatcher’s government passed Section 28 of the Local Governments Act, which told governments not to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality", and forbade schools from teaching "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

Despite being one of the few Tories to vote for decriminalization in 1967, and having a Cabinet and parliamentary backbenches full of closeted gay men, the Iron Handbag was having none of it in public life. She and her policies hover throughout the background of The Line of Beauty, as reviewer Anthony Quinn wrote in The New York Times:

Most audacious of all is Hollinghurst's introduction of "the Lady," otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher, a presence felt throughout the book but, like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness," invisible until near the end. Appearing at a party chez Fedden, the P.M. is mobbed by her courtiers until Nick, emboldened by coke, spots his moment:

"It was the simplest thing to do -- Nick came forward and sat, half-kneeling, on the sofa's edge, like someone proposing in a play. He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister's face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque. She smiled back with a certain animal quickness, a bright blue challenge. There was the soft glare of the flash -- twice -- three times -- a gleaming sense of occasion, the gleam floating in the eye as a blot of shadow, his heart running fast with no particular need of courage as he grinned and said, 'Prime Minister, would you like to dance?' 'You know, I'd like that very much,' said the P.M., in her chest tones, the contralto of conviction. Around her the men sniggered and recoiled at an audacity that had been beyond them."

It is a notable cleverness of the book that, while acutely critical of her period in office, there is nothing but the warmest praise voiced for "the Lady" herself. Moralist that he is, Hollinghurst generally prefers to proceed through subtle modulations of irony, slipping in a dagger rather than wielding a cutlass. This treatment is as true for Nick as for the cast of grandees and gargoyles among whom he moves. His ambivalent character is a vehicle for the novel's central tension -- between private conscience and public display.

Ronald Firbank would be pleased. Exploring life’s private vs public spheres in a gay context- illegal for so long- was happy historical accident for all of Hollinghurst’s books. Of The Swimming-Pool Diaries, he explained,

I wanted to contrast a homosexual life that had been lived under strong legal and social constraints with one being lived rather thoughtlessly in the present by juxtaposing two first-person narratives. And I had a strong sense that I could do something that was unprecedentedly frank. I was very excited by the idea of telling truths that hadn’t been told before and breaking down literary categories. Descriptions of gay sexual behavior had until then tended to be restricted to pornography, and the presence of gay lives in fiction had been scant. So I had the great fortune of being given this relatively unexplored territory.

Of course, views don’t go out of fashion overnight, and Diaries was a nervous-making bet:

Hollinghurst had a tough time selling the paperback rights for the book. It scared off all the publishers. But then the hardcover version of The Swimming-Pool Library was extremely popular and spent months on the best-seller list, and publishers ended up in a bidding war for the paperback rights.

Prescribing no civil or criminal penalties, Section 28 was intended to intimidate and force self-censorship. It proved a galvanizing force for gay rights in Britain, and Hollinghurst’s books- The Swimming-Pool diaries came out the year the bill was passed- figured prominently in school book-banning efforts, pro- and con-. The law was repealed in Scotland in 2000, and the rest of the UK two years later; Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize a year after that.

Honors for Hollinghurst’s work outnumber his books, and include a Somerset Maugham Prize; the James Tait Black Prize; three Booker Prize listings and one win (reporting The Line of Beauty’s selection, a London tabloid headlined, “Gay Sex Wins Prize.” Having helped bring gay characters into the fabric of fiction in roles other than objects of loathing, psychotics, criminals and traitors, he is happy to move on, ever so slowly, to his next book.

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