Booker Winner Alan Hollinghurst On Tennyson and Taking Ecstasy
“It was a new thing to do — to write from a gay point of view.“
I look up nervously from my spot on the terrace of the Mount Nelson Hotel. It is cloudy and the table is speckled slightly by rain. But it is not just the weather that concerns me. Interviewing a favourite author poses a terror greater than when you don’t know enough about your subject. There is the sense of inadequacy, of the “right” questions being elusive. The possibility that you’ll be disappointing (or that he will) is inescapable.
I first encountered Hollinghurst’s writing in my high school library when the Englishman’s fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, won the Booker in 2004. As the first gay-themed book to win the prize, it was a sign of either the librarian’s naivety or liberality that it made it onto the shelves. I was grateful regardless. While his depiction of Tory excess and the encroaching devastation of the Aids epidemic in 1980s London was haunting, the book’s frank portrayal of sexual relations between men offered me some kind of solace: it took me beyond the conservative confines of suburbia (and an all boys’ school in which homosexuality remained very much taboo), into a world of possibility and openness — an assertion that somewhere there were others like me, able to live freely.
Sometimes recognition of the depth of Hollinghurst’s talent has been unfairly overshadowed by the supposedly controversial nature of his subject matter (most headlines at the time of his Booker win were something along the lines of “Gay novel wins Booker”). But “gayness” is not what makes Hollinghurst’s novels interesting. They are interesting because their evocation of gay experience and its sometimes-difficult intersections with society — in both the past and present — is eloquent, entertaining and insightful. He combines lush descriptions of place with a piercing discernment of both characters as well as their broader milieu.
The rain appears to have retreated; indeed, soon after Hollinghurst joins me outside, sunshine blinds us like someone’s flicked a switch on a spotlight. Hollinghurst is in Cape Town for Open Book literary festival — his first visit to South Africa, and only the second time to Africa (he visited Egypt 33 years ago).
Hollinghurst seems almost languorously at ease. He politely orders coffee, and we start chatting. With his wry grin, a quiet, deep voice and neatly clipped goatee, he appears like a wise and slightly mischievous schoolmaster.
His novel, The Stranger’s Child, sits between us, fatter than a phone book. The book traces the lives of those who knew Cecil Valance, a fictional poet killed in World War One. From the eve of that Great War to the cusp of the present day, Hollinghurst presents an elegiac exploration of memory and remembrance. As we encounter the poet’s friends, lovers and biographers, the elegant sentences illuminate the way truth is obscured or partially exposed — but never fully known.
The third part of the novel sees Valance’s future biographer, Paul Bryant, visits the poet’s imposing birthplace, Corley Court, while working as a bank clerk in a country town. It is 1967, the year the Sexual Offences Bill was promulgated, decriminalising gay sex in England and Wales.
Then an early teen, Hollinghurst recalls this legislative watershed “as a sort of murmur at home. As I was a practising homosexual at the age of 13 I knew it was somehow interesting but also probably not to be talked about. The extreme ungayness of English provincial life — probably always, but certainly during the 1960s — could hardly be exaggerated,” he says drily.
After boarding school, Hollinghurst studied English at Magdalen College, Oxford. With his second degree completed, he says, with characteristic self-deprecation, that he “just sort of hung about, rather pathetically”. After attempting — and then abandoning a novel — he spent almost a year on the dole. It was “quite a good time — I got tremendously fit, swam vast distances every day, read a lot. I had no money to do anything else.” He began reviewing books for the New Statesman and then the London Review of Books before eventually moving to London, joining the Times Literary Supplement soon after.
“I do remember having a very strong sense when I arrived of London just being a site of endless possibilities,” he says. “Oxford was too small, really, and one saw the same people on the street and in the pub and in the library every day. That sense of being somewhere where no one knew who you were was very, very liberating somehow. And because I’m very interested in buildings and cities generally, London seemed to represent a new physical terrain to explore — which I did a lot.”
Hollinghurst says his first novel (The Swimming-Pool Library which was published in 1988), “grew out of the graduate thesis I had done at Oxford which was about gay writers like [EM] Forster and [Ronald] Firbank who hadn’t been able to write openly about their sexuality.” He wanted to explore “the kinds of concealment and cryptic deployment of their gayness in some of their work but also the question of what happens when those restraints are removed,” he says. “I think the idea of contrasting a life very freely and hedonistically in the present with another one which had been conducted under all sorts of social and legal constraints seemed quite fruitful.”
Hollinghurst was excited by “the idea that there was this large area of personal and historical experience which hadn’t really been explored in English fiction. It was a new thing to do — to write from a gay point of view: completely, naturally and unapologetically, as anyone might write from a straight point of view. And not everybody likes that of course,” he chuckles. He mentions John Updike, who despite “writing in a very graphic way about straight sexual behaviour” in the 1960s was “rather alarmed and disconcerted” by Hollinghurst’s third novel — 1998’s The Spell. “This famous analyst of sexual mores and behaviour — he wrote the review of The Spell as if everything he knew of homosexuality he’d gleaned from reading my books — [like] he had never come across it in life at all.”
It was a new thing to do — to write from a gay point of view: completely, naturally and unapologetically, as anyone might write from a straight point of view.
In that novel, a docile civil servant embarks on an affair with a wild twentysomething. I ask him if his exquisitely rendered depictions of being under the influence of ecstasy were based on experience. “Totally, yes. I was a very belated discoverer of narcotics; I’m very relieved that I did discover them in time,” he laughs. I ask him when he first took the drug. “November the 13th, 1994. At about 1am.”
“Because so much of a novelist’s chief resource in a way is memory,” he admits his work “inevitably has a quite personal stamp. But I don’t actually think of them as being autobiographical.” While his debut’s gay theme was deliberate, Hollinghurst says, “thereafter I’ve had the experience of books just coming to me in a way that I can’t describe: slowly accumulating in my mind.” He reflects on his books being affected by “a heightened sense of the transience of romantic relations in gay life. I’m aware that I haven’t generally been very interested in writing about tremendously happy, stable or long-lasting relationships. I think of myself broadly as writing in the tradition of social comedy and, of course, infidelity and undecidedness are much more fertile territory than everybody just having a lovely time. It’s the volatility and the contrariness of feelings that’s always interested me.”
I ask him whether homosexuality’s decriminalisation and its slow drift towards acceptability has lessened the transience which surely must have been exacerbated by the enforced furtiveness once intrinsic to gay life. He demurs: “Having spent a lot of time going through the first round of gay civil partnerships and ceremonies and now quite a long way into the gay divorce cycle, I remain slightly sceptical about whether there’s been a deep change.” Technology is partly to blame — men can communicate with each other with “fantastic ease through social networking”, thereby “eroding other social forms”. Bars are closing down as “no one’s going to clubs because they can all just make contact with each other on Grindr” (the cell phone app which reveals men nearby available for hook-ups).
“I think they’re very fascinating — these sorts of changes; to me things seem more transient and unstable than they were before.” I suggest that these shifts may be interesting territory to explore in future novels. He acknowledges this as a possibility but says “I’m being drawn back to periods when being gay was more difficult and complicated because it just seems to have more grist to it for fiction.
Hollinghurst disappears to the toilet at this point; on his return I accuse him mildly of a having just had a Grindr assignation.
“ So quick,” he confirms, almost straight-faced.
I ask him where the impulse to write come from. “I know it’s a sort of necessity to me and it feels to me a betrayal to have a strong impulse to write or describe something and to deny it. It’s almost become like a moral precept in my life to do it. I don’t really want to investigate what’s driving me too closely,” he says, but admits this could include elements of fantasy, compensation, and, he says with a dark smile, “lots of revenge”.
As a boy he loved PG Wodehouse and JRR Tolkien’s books; during adolescence he largely shunned fiction, instead reading huge amounts of poetry — particularly from the Romantic Victorian period, which is where his love of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s work stems from. There are echoes of Tennyson’s keen observations in Hollinghurst’s books, particularly in the way buildings are described. “They’re always quite an early important part of the imagining of the books — the houses,” he says. “I think I’ve been very interested in buildings from childhood and very susceptible to their atmospheres as well as their physical details. And I sometimes think I perhaps overdo it in my books — people think ‘god, here he goes again — another 15-page description of a Victorian country house’. I think there have been Victorian buildings of some consequence in my last four novels. I just can’t help it. Anyway, the nice thing about the novel is that you’re in charge so you can give rein to your own interests and enthusiasms,” he grins.
Aside from the occasional visit to artists’ colonies (such as Yaddo in upstate New York), Hollinghurst normally writes from his study (built with the proceeds from his Booker winnings) at his residence in Hampstead. More than twenty years after moving to London, he still thinks of it as “the most breathtakingly beautiful, exciting city. And it’s lovely to have that constantly renewed sense of the excitement of where you live even though when I’m working — particularly in Hampstead — I live in a much smaller routine of desk and walk and village life as it were. But one can do that as well.”
The photographer summons us. While he does his final preparations Hollinghurst and I cross the chequered sheen of the Planet Bar’s newly mopped floor, and try to guess the subjects of the Cecil Beaton portraits on the wall. I wonder, slightly frantically, if I’ve asked all the questions I should have. As we stand in front of a glossy-lipped beauty debating whether or not she’s Greta Garbo, it no longer quite seems to matter.
This is an edited version of an article first published in the October 2012 edition of Wanted magazine.