“It was all so new,” the novelist Alan Hollinghurst once wrote, “the pleasure flecked with its opposite, with little hurts and contradictions that came to seem as much a part of love as the clear gaze of acceptance.” The dense beauty of his prose emerges in languorous and knowing cadences, allowing ironies to accrete. Though his literary antecedents include 19thcentury realists (Henry James), proto-modernists (E. M. Forster), and at least one figure so fantastical as to elude any particular era or movement (Ronald Firbank), Hollinghurst’s novels take place in a Britain that is very much contemporary, with all the sex and tragicomedy that implies. The routes of his class-stratified characters often intersect at parties, grand or sweaty, and such opportunities for misbehaviour inspire many of their creator’s funniest, most sensitive scenes.
Born in the Gloucestershire market town of Stroud 61 years ago, a bank manager’s only child, Hollinghurst studied and taught at Oxford before ending up as an editor on the Times Literary Supplement. His first novel, 1988’s The Swimming-Pool Library, adopts the arrogant though charming perspective of a young gay aristocrat named William Beckwith, promiscuously at play during “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be.” Secret histories begin to complicate Will’s many privileges. The Spell follows four interlinked men during another kind of summer entirely, romantic and farcical, as the aging bureaucrat among them uncharacteristically whirls through drugs, dance music and the affair containing both. In 2004, Hollinghurst won a Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty; its shyly corruptible James scholar Nick Guest enters an equivocal position inside a Tory MP’s household, finding himself bemused and then enthralled by the overripe gilt of Thatcherite London.
Published in 2011, Hollinghurst’s most recent book The Stranger’s Child is conventional yet experimental: the familiar form of a country house novel, filled with pastiche and ambiguities. Just before World War I, George Sawle’s middle-class family receives his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, an omnisexual baron-to-be whose seductive guile hardens his mediocre poetry. The two are lovers, but Cecil has an eye on his schoolmate’s sister Daphne too, and the florid pastoral ostensibly written for her that weekend (“The spinney where the lisping larches / Kiss overhead in silver arches”) attains national canonicity after a German sniper catches its author. Hollinghurst traces the poem’s posthumous standing alongside the people Cecil left behind; it doesn’t fare especially well, but they tend to end up worse off still. The only character who really gains from association with Valance is Paul Bryant, a much younger critic with pretentions of biography. The Stranger’s Child eschews traditional protagonists; what animates it is this abstraction, a literary reputation, and one that seems to finally consist of dark, beguiling lacunae.
I met Hollinghurst at a Toronto sushi restaurant that autumn. Inside our shadowy booth, his pale white hair and deep, elegant voice suggested a droller Christopher Lee. The day before, during a local library’s book-tour event, the interviewer had asked how he takes reviews. He replied: “Neat.” In between novels, Hollinghurst spends most of his time working on the next one, slowly—whichever book will follow The Stranger’s Child still hasn’t been announced. After three years of publishing limbo and some light editing, this is our conversation from that night.
I wanted to elaborate on something you mentioned last night, about the erosion of privacy and biography, because people are sharing things that they wouldn’t have even a couple of decades ago, let alone a century, but at the same time there’s less and less chance of finding an old cache of letters somewhere.
It’s true, yes.
Do you think that the biographer’s task has become easier now, or harder, or maybe paradoxically both?
I’m aware of the records that we create with emails, because I always save the emails that I’ve sent automatically, and they’re the most astounding record—when I want to go back to what I was doing ten years ago or something, they’re the equivalent of a very detailed journal in a way. If I was traveling, I would write to friends back home about what I’m doing. Everyone says that with new communication technologies we’re not going to have these documents, but it seems to me that, potentially, we’re creating an ever more detailed record, almost too much for the poor biographers to deal with. It’s a change in the nature of the materials of biography, but I don’t see it being made impossible by what’s happening.
Cecil’s biographers go so far as digging up his juvenilia, so I feel obliged to ask: do you remember the first story that you ever wrote?
I’m not sure I do—I didn’t really write stories very much when I was young, I wrote a lot of poetry. I know I did write a poem when I was about ten—I couldn’t tell you anything about it now. When I was about 14, I started writing a lot of sonnets and things like that, very Wordsworthian in tone. I liked mastering forms. Then I was exposed to The Waste Land, and started producing vast quantities of free verse, and that was very much easier to do in the kind of subjective atmosphere of adolescence. I would churn the stuff out. So somewhere, you know, in the cupboard under the stairs, I guess I’ve still got the poems I wrote when I was 15 or 16. I’m not especially keen to share them with you [CR laughs].
I started—I know I was writing a novel around the age of 16, when I was at boarding school, and I can remember sitting in my study at school, with Mahler playing very loudly, sitting at my typewriter banging away in a manner calculated to impress others. It was a very sort of modernist novel, in which anything went, really. It was absolute chaos. Later on at Oxford I got a grant from some arts association to spend a year writing a novel, and I did write half of a rather creepy Jamesian book about a young man who has an affair with his father’s mistress.
Creepy in the supernatural sense?
No, in the other sense [laughs]. It was set in Venice. I think I also tried to write a sort of gay novel when I was at Oxford; didn’t get very far. I started writing that before I came out, and so it had the charge of being this secret, illicit thing I was doing. I probably still have got that somewhere. But I’m absolutely resisting any invitation to hand over my early papers to any library. They’re best kept locked away. So I have some memory of those things, and perhaps more of the poems—I started publishing poems here and there in magazines and anthologies and things. I’m not advising you to look them out, but they are more readily accessible. I’ve only ever written two stories in my life, one of which was published in a very hard-to-find anthology in the early eighties. The second one I wrote about 25 years later, which was in Granta.
I read that: “Highlights.”
“Highlights.” So at this rate I think I might produce one more, if I’m lucky, when I’m 75 or something. Reluctantly, I’ve come to feel the short story just isn’t my medium. I get too interested in how things connect up over the long span.
You mentioned, last night, Alice Munro, and that is her medium. It seems like you admire her very much—is part of that the way that she’s mastered it?
Yes, absolutely. She does such extraordinary things in the contours of the story. She’s more and more bold in old age: she ranges through time, eclipses a period of 50 years. I think she just has this amazing—what is it?—grasp on life. She just seems to understand so much. She’s mesmerizing. One of the first books I ever reviewed was her book The Beggar Maid, which is a set of short stories about the same group of people. It seems in a way to be aching to be a novel, but refusing to be so. It’s just wonderful that—I know she hasn’t been well, but she keeps producing. I hope she’s a revered figure in this country.
I don’t think she has the public profile here of someone like Margaret Atwood—
No, but she’s never sought it, has she?
She’s never really led campaigns … she seems quite private. But I think she is revered here. We do have a sort of national neurosis about people being recognized abroad, or not being recognized, or being recognized too readily. And I think she may have gotten exactly the right amount.
Yes, yes. Part of the thing about her being purely a short-story writer is that she could never win the Booker Prize or something.
It’s almost willfully perverse now, because everyone says that there’s no way to make a living writing them. There’s a collection of short stories before your heavily promoted debut comes out.
After I finished The Line of Beauty, I was so exhausted by writing a great big novel, and I thought, I’m just going to write a book of short stories, of which “Highlights” was the only one that actually got written. I remember telling my publisher this, and his very wan enthusiasm for the announcement [laughs]. It wasn’t what they wanted at all.
You abandoned poetry in the mid-1980s. What was it like revisiting that medium in Edwardian guise for The Stranger’s Child, with the pastiche of “Two Acres”?
Oh, it was quite fun doing that. I mean, I don’t really think it was poetry. I realized that I didn’t have to write the whole of this enormous poem, I saw the point of it was that it was just something people were going to allude to or know a line or two of. I actually think I could have done—I kept putting it off, and then I realized … But writing pastiche is so much easier than writing one’s own stuff. If you can get into the voice, it does the work for you in a way. Perhaps one day I ought to write the whole thing, have it printed as a priceless limited edition. I don’t remotely feel that I was facing the same challenges that I might have faced in trying to write a proper poem of my own.
It must be odd, though, to have to aim for mediocrity that could have credibly become famous.
Well, I did my best. I think it would be very difficult and very foolish, probably, to try and create a major writer. You have to come up with their major work, and the literary history which we’re already possessed of has somehow got along perfectly well without this major figure. There are all sorts of problems of that kind which you can avoid by writing about a minor figure.
One thing I looked for but couldn’t find, probably because I’m not in the university system, was your master’s thesis, which—
I’m very relieved to hear that [CR laughs].
I suppose I was interested in that because it was apparently about Henry James and Ronald Firbank and L. P. Hartley, and I believe the last two were rough contemporaries of Mr. Valance.
Yes, it was about E. M. Forster, who is an older generation, and Ronald Firbank, who I think was exactly the same … when was Cecil born?
Firbank was born in 1886, and L. P. Hartley … I’ve rather forgotten about L. P. Hartley, he’s not really such an interesting writer, but he seemed to be a useful case at the time. I don’t know if you’ve read Firbank—
I read part of the collection you did the introduction to, which is apparently completely out of print now.
Do you mean the early Firbank, that one?
The late one, actually. Three Novels. And it sort of broke my heart that almost none of his work is in print, because it seems like nothing else, and it’s so funny.
I’m really pleased you had that reaction to it. He’s blighted by misfortune in publishing history, having been almost completely ignored in his own lifetime and having to pay for publication of his own books, which appeared in tiny editions. And any attempt to do something for Firbank seems to be doomed. It’s actually the sort of thing I had in mind when I was talking about how relatively obscure figures sometimes attract really bad biographers, and how that’s all the more regrettable because they’re not likely to have their lives written again. Firbank attracted this biographer called Miriam Benkowitz, who—totally unattuned to him, she clearly didn’t understand his work at all. It’s almost funny reading her biography, because it’s so bad. For that new edition of the last three novels, I did quite a lot of work on the text, which had become corrupted by various Duckworth editions, and a long introduction, very pleased that he was finally going to be in Penguin Classics. Maybe Firbank’s never going to be a big seller, but at least he’ll be in print. And the year after they published it, they wrote to me and said that they were letting it go out of print because, in their revolting publisher’s phrase, it had “failed to thrive.” I was furious about it.
I went to a local bookstore here and ordered a bunch of books, and that was one of them, and a couple of months later they all showed up except for that. I asked about it, and it was like the beginning of a horror film, almost, where the person says: “No one’s ever lived here!” It was Valmouth, actually, which is only available in this very select—it cost $60 or something, this academic edition.
There have been cheap editions of them which you might find on Abebooks. There’s a very useful book called The Complete Firbank which came out in the early ‘60s, which is just an omnibus volume with all the stuff in it. And I also edited a book called The Early Firbank, which is also quite hard to come by now. It’s his juvenilia. For completists only, that. But he was an important writer—Evelyn Waugh, I think, was deeply influenced by him, as was Henry Green. Waugh later disowned him, as he disowned so many things from his early life. He was interviewed for—I think it was the Paris Review interview that he did in his late fifties, and he was asked about his earlier enthusiasm for Firbank, and he said he couldn’t read him at all now. He said, “I think there would be something wrong with an elderly man who could enjoy Firbank.” And it was partly a repudiation of his own earlier self and probably Firbank’s gayness, which he didn’t want to be associated with any longer.
That reminds me, actually—in most of your novels someone becomes fixated on a long-dead artistic figure, whether Firbank in The Swimming Pool-Library or the thinly disguised James Ensor analogue in The Folding Star. Is that pattern mirrored in your own life?
I suppose I did [pursue] Firbank, and collected him. I tend to go through periods of obsession, have done with one or two writers, of which he was one. I get into that state where everything that they wrote and did and anything that I find out about them is just of consuming interest, and that was very much exacerbated by the poverty of the biographical situation with Firbank. It was tantalizing: he died in 1926, so just out of the reach of memory, really. There were one or two—I feel foolish now, because I didn’t track them down—one or two very, very old people who claimed still to remember him, though doubtless what they remembered were memories of memories. Because his life was so nomadic, and after the Great War lived almost entirely outside England, it’s very hard to follow or pin down.
I love the detail about that famous telegram or letter or whatever that he sent, about Haiti: “They say the President is a Perfect Dear.” And then he apparently didn’t even go to Haiti.
No, he went to Cuba, and Jamaica. Haiti was under U.S. military occupation, but that wouldn’t be any reason to ruin a good lark [CR laughs]. Henry James, too—The Line of Beauty very much reflected a period of obsession I had with James. Of course he’s infinitely more known about, and unmanageable amounts have been written about him, or written by him, even…
I heard that you have an entire bookcase of Jamesiana.
I’ve got quite a lot of James, but really still only scratching the surface, I suspect. No, that’s an exaggeration. For a while I thought I might try and collect James in a serious bibliophilic way, but I rather lost interest. It’s so complicated with the American editions and the British editions and the European editions. I’m not really a bibliophile by temperament, but because Firbank’s books were published in such tiny and beautiful editions, they were more fetishizable.
What is your process like? You once described yourself as a “slow, pen-and-ink, brick-by-brick kind of writer.”
Slightly changed, to be honest. Still slow. I always wrote everything in pen and ink in large notebooks, then transferred it to the word processor, but with this new book I did find myself more and more—usually starting a chapter on the page, then quite soon moving to the machine, finding that a particular caffeine rush might take me very easily and happily through a scene on this screen. Perhaps I’ll remain in between, I don’t know. I did like the thing of—it sounds rather poncey when you talk about it, but actually making marks on paper. But I’m not inseparably wedded to it. I doubt that I will ever write entirely on the machine. I don’t like its thinly disguised impatience, as if it’s waiting there for you to get on with it. The relationship with the page is a more intimate and restful one.
And do you ever find yourself distracted when you’re on the computer?
Oh, almost every five minutes. Ian McEwen looked at me with incredulity when I confessed that I wrote my novels with the same computer that I access the Internet on. He said, “You can’t do that, you have to have a separate computer in a separate room.” Of course, it’s wonderfully convenient if I want to check some detail in the OED, when a word was first used or something. I’m so childishly distractible anyway, but I can get badly led astray [laughs].
Your dialogue is very intricate: it’s attuned to subtle social gradations, the subterranean grappling underneath a conversation. In The Swimming-Pool Library Will describes one character as speaking in “a uniquely homosexual tone of bored outrage;” in The Line of Beauty you refer to breathy porn talk as binary code. Is all that intuitive to you? Do you find yourself observing real people as they argue or flirt, for research purposes?
I don’t really regard life as research [laughs], but I suppose any novelist worth their salt is constantly noticing things in a way which is redeemable, can be re-accessed. I don’t know, it’s a mysterious process, the fusion of memory and invention in writing. Memory must be one’s main resource as a novelist, so I suppose when I try to pin down how someone is saying something I’m … I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly, it’s terribly hard to define, because it’s not a strategy. I suppose I’m imagining my fictional character doing something which I’ve seen a real person doing. I don’t actually write sitting in front of a mirror, but I do try out shrugs and winces and gestures of various kinds just to try and pin it down exactly. And a writer has to be a good observer. I felt that Henry James gave one a sort of license for that—perhaps I sometimes overdo the analysis of how people say things and how people suggest things they’re not saying by the way they say what they do.
I think it was in The Spell where one character refers to “faces under faces.”
That’s right, yes.
I just read The Spell for the first time last month—
What did you think?
I actually looked around trying to find reviews and contemporaneous reaction to it, and I think it’s the most misunderstood book that you’ve written, maybe because it’s the funniest one.
I’m really cheered to hear you say that. I’m fondest of it of all my books in a way, partly perhaps out of defiance towards all those people who didn’t seem to get it or like it. It’s much the least successful of my books, both critically and commercially, but gay friends, certainly, say it was their favourite. And in the U.S. it got some very uncomprehending reviews, perhaps because my first two books had had in their background these large issues to do with colonialism and [the Second World War]. To me, the whole charm or point of The Spell was that it didn’t—it was just a social comedy about the relations of these four people. That rather irritated reviewers who were hungry for larger significance.
I was a little fixated on Alex’s discovery of dance music, quite apart from the other repressions he shucks off, because it took a while to overcome my own lingering awkwardness and actually move to the beat of songs I loved. That passage where he’s sitting on the couch as a house mix peaks really captures the utopianism of the genre at its finest: “It sounded like a welcome and an absolute promise, the yes of sex and something bodiless and ideal beyond it—what it might be like to float over a threshold into total acceptance…” Did your own musical tastes undergo a similarly radical shift around that time?
They did rather, yes [laughs]. I’ve always been deeply—always lived in the worlds of classical music. I remember the time at my prep school, when I was about 12 or something and I’d just discovered Wagner, saying to another boy, “sorry, but this pop music’s not for me.” I had to suffer all through my adolescence at boarding school, sharing a study with boys who just wanted to play Creem and Captain Beefheart all the time when I was itching to put on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. That book certainly reflected a period of my life in my early forties when I’d become very … self-enclosed and melancholy. I think the atmosphere of The Folding Star—it was a very difficult period, with friends dying, it feels gloomy to me in retrospect. And then I just happened to meet someone about half my age, became very involved with, who reminded me that there were ways of enjoying myself which didn’t entail a visit to the Royal Opera House. And indeed it introduced me to the whole world of recreational drugs, which I think I’d been ignorant and rather frightened of before. I realized they were really great. I think being naturally a rather shy and physically quite inhibited person, I really felt I got the benefit of it.
How have critics reacted to the Paul Bryant character?
I’m not quite sure. I think the fact that Paul is, first of all, seen rather supportively from his own point of view in the third section of the book. Then the fourth section, we’re again seeing everything through his eyes but gauging his effect on others in ways which he’s perhaps not quite aware of himself. Then abruptly of course in the final section we see him older and from the outside, and not in a very favourable light. I think some people can be shocked by that change in him, and perhaps it was unkind of me.
He is a slightly rodent-like portrait of a critic or a biographer, but there are parts—that paragraph where he has this rising, delusional fantasy about meeting Dudley Valance and his wife and becoming friends with them [both laugh], and having these great times with them … it was hilarious, but it was also a little painful to read, because I recognize nursing somewhat similar …
Yes, I’m glad you mentioned that. No one has mentioned it so far—I was pleased with it myself. I think the book doesn’t judge him, but perhaps readers judge him. The lives of most of the characters in the book sort of go wrong, really, it struck me after I’d finished it. Paul’s written a number of books, he’s had his successes, he’s happily married. He rubs other people the wrong way because he’s a bit of a fraud, but people are like that. He was an interesting character to write.
You’ve also been—not a biographer, but you’ve been a critic yourself.
Yes. Normally I have this lazy habit of endowing my main characters with a lot of my own interests, making them all crazy about Wagner and neoclassical architecture. And I’d decided in Paul’s case to withhold these things. The thing about his being tone-deaf, which was—I’d imagined the scene at Daphne’s 70th birthday party, where Corinna plays the piano, as a sort of antetype to the piano recital in The Line of Beauty where Nick is swooning at the music and all the Tories around him are fidgeting and dying for a drink. This was the other way around, where he doesn’t know what the hell is going on and everyone else seems to be rapt by the performance. I was playing a game with myself in a way, creating him though not giving him the advantages of background and education that other people, Peter in particular, had had. And perhaps seeing him make his way in spite of these things—the idea that he was in a sense conditioned from his childhood to be a fantasist, that like Daphne herself he didn’t have a father, but felt obliged to invent one. His little kleptomaniac—
There is a very good tip for stealing books in there.
I know, I feel rather bad about that. Do not try this at home [both laugh]. So much harder to do in the days of electronic [checkout], I suspect.
The Line of Beauty begins with a nervy, yearning personal-ad exchange between Nick and Leo, while Cecil’s lascivious letters to men and women alike recur long after his death. Nowadays, however, all of that epistolary action would probably take place via some social network or text messages or a mobile application like Grindr, as you imply. Do you see that as a decline?
It certainly is a change, isn’t it? I don’t think it can be a decline from the old thing of sending your letter in in a sealed envelope, inside another sealed envelope, to a sort of P.O. box in a magazine to get them to forward it to the person. It was a tortuous and tortuous process. And I’m not on Grindr myself but there is somewhere wonderful about the fact that you can identify that this rather attractive person is 7.3 metres away from where you are now. It might be said that it’s taken some of the romance out of it, but doubtless it has a different kind of romance of its own. I haven’t quite seen ways to write about it that would please me. I think I tend to be—as I was perhaps saying last night—I’m drawn back to these periods in which being gay, making contact, was so much more occult somehow.