An Interview with Alan Hollinghurst
Born in 1954, Alan Hollinghurst read English at Magdalen College, Oxford, and stayed on to write a Master’s thesis on the novels of E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L.P. Hartley. He has written a collection of poems (Confidential Chats with Boys, 1982), edited Three Novels by Ronald Firbank (2000), prepared a selection of A.E. Housman’s poems (2001), and translated two plays by Racine (Bajazet, 1991, and Berenice, which will be performed at the Donmar Warehouse later this year). He is best known for his densely textured and darkly comic depictions of twentieth-century gay life. Gritty and erotic, by turns acidly satiric and luxuriantly aesthetic, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), The Line of Beauty (2004), and The Stranger’s Child (2011) are sensuous tales of initiation and obsession. They are about sex, power, and England; about architecture, painting, and literature. In novels full of spiralling ironies, Hollinghurst intertwines conservative and radical positions to scintillating and unsettling effect.
Why did you choose a snippet from Tennyson’s In Memoriam as the title of your latest book, The Stranger’s Child?
The phrase is taken from my favourite section of the poem. It’s incredibly beautiful. The music of the words is absolutely wonderful, marvellously sad and consoling all at once. It fitted exactly with an idea I wanted to pursue in the book about the unknowability of the future. It meshed with my ambition to write the book without a framing narrative or retrospective perspective.
Was Tennyson envisaged as a presiding figure from the start?
Yes, Tennyson was there from the start—partly as an old love of mine, and partly because the book was to be about Victorianism and the waves of reaction for and against it over the course of the twentieth century. I knew from early on that In Memoriam would be read out in the opening section. And that Freda Sawle would tell her anecdote about seeing Tennyson on a ferry during her honeymoon—illustrating the fact that to her generation certain towering Victorian figures were still within living memory. Later on a line—‘No one remembers you at all’—is quoted from Mick Imlah’s poem, ‘In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson’. That rather simple Tennysonian thought—that a hundred years after your death no one will be alive who can remember you—is one of the book’s central preoccupations: what does remembering someone mean from such a great temporal distance?
Victorianism is no new interest for you. Your books are full of references to the period and its architecture. What do that era and its artefacts connote for you?
My adolescence was very coloured by Victorian poetry—Tennyson in particular. The public school I went to—Canford, in Dorset—was a great Victorian house built by Charles Barry for the Guests—Sir John Guest, who was an iron founder, and his wife, Lady Charlotte, who was the first translator of the Mabinogion. Lady Charlotte had a little press at Canford Manor, and was a friend of Tennyson’s. In fact one of The Idylls of the King was first printed on that very press. At Canford a strong romantic, Victorian-Gothic element was married with a very beautiful natural setting: the manor, the river Stour… it was rather like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and very much part of the atmosphere of my growing up. I remember wanting to champion Victorian buildings and objects which were reviled by my father’s generation, dismissed with the infamous ‘Victorian monstrosity’ tag. It was just about this time in my adolescence that the demolition of St Pancras was threatened and successfully resisted by the Victorian Society. I was very excited by Victorian buildings. And I do put them into my books a lot. There’s a Victorian country-house in each of my last three novels. I think I’ve really got to go easy on them.
Do you think of Victorian architecture as a particularly gay aesthetic?
No, I don’t. Does any kind of erotics come into it? I don’t know. But one gets into very dubious territory when tries to speculate about what a gay aesthetic might be. I believe gay aesthetics take so many different forms as to make the very idea of a definition seem almost meaningless. They may, in the vaguest sense, involve certain kinds of camouflage and certain kinds of display. But I myself don’t think of Victorian architecture—or any other kind of architecture—in those terms.
Architecture is a theme in all your books. Do you think of your novels as having an architecture?
I do loosely use the term architecture when I’m talking about a book—referring to my own wish to discover what its architecture is, for instance—but what I really mean by the phrase is style and structure. These might be strengthened and ramified in the books by recurrent motivic images—like the mirrors in The Folding Star. Musical analogies seem to me more apt because of the temporal dimension music and novels share. I used to see my first four books—even before they were completed—as the movements of a symphony. It’s not an analogy that I want to press too hard—these analogies only go so far—but at the time it did seem to me a helpful way of imagining my own project. Writing a book is like going into the unknown—to feel you’re contributing to something which has an overall architecture is rather reassuring. It’s something which writers don’t much, if ever, talk about: they frequently reflect on particular books but rarely comment on how their whole body of work might cumulatively appear to them.
You’ve mentioned style and structure. Plot also seems to play an important role in your books. Many of your novels read as detective quests. They present the reader and the characters with clues and enigmas. Yet their endings raise more questions than they answer. They offer not so much a conclusion as an opening or vanishing point.
Yes, I suppose I do enjoy playing with or thwarting narrative expectation. But the truth is that I’m not much interested in plot. It’s always what emerges last in the planning of a book, and the actual writing of narrative is not my favourite part of the enterprise. The section of The Line of Beauty which I least enjoyed writing was the third part in which everything unravels and comes to light. Colm Tóibín reviewed the book and said what a shame it was that it had to have all this plot stuff in it—and I think I rather agreed with him.
This relative lack of interest in plot seems hard to square with the gripping and perfectly plotted ironic trajectories of The Swimming-Pool Library, for instance.
But in technical terms that book in particular was tremendously unsophisticated. Partly because of the trap of writing anything in the first person, and the necessity, in such a situation, of somehow working all sorts of information relevant to the plot into the narrator’s version of events—a necessity which explains why Will Beckwith finds himself reading Lord Nantwich’s journals, amongst other contrivances. The same kind of problem arises in The Folding Star—there is so much that needs explaining. In the end one character (Paul Echevin) simply tells the narrator (Edward Manners) a great chunk of the story. After the book came out, my old friend Lawrence Norfolk said to me: ‘you’re a most marvellous writer—but why do your books have these appalling plots?’ And I partly saw what he meant. The Spell was a great release from the trammels of plot and the trap of first-person narration. I wanted to write a book which didn’t really have a plot so much as a design.
Design as a series of romantic and sexual permutations?
Yes, a design perhaps loosely resembling that of Schnitzler’s La Ronde. It was rather a relief to escape the necessity of having to reveal things. I was weary of the kind of plot in which there is a secret—something knotty which has to be denoué. I became rather suspicious of the device—it just didn’t seem to me to be enough like life. That’s why there’s much less of an attempt to untie, to reveal, and to tidy up in The Stranger’s Child. The book has its own kind of plot of course, but it’s a plot made out of a desire to escape from a certain conception of plot and a certain degree of contrivance.
You seem very interested in blindness, whether it stem from the irremediable unknowability of the future, or from personal tendencies to obsession, narcissism, self-delusion?
Yes, I have always been interested in the degree to which people fail to know themselves or to understand their situations. And am rather resistant to the idea that the machinery of a book will necessarily bring them to a state of understanding. Will Beckwith finds out certain things as the events of The Swimming-Pool Library unfold, but does the knowledge change him at all? I see Will Beckwith’s and Edward Manners’s blindness as being constitutional rather than a condition of youth which they might outgrow. But the reader sees around or over the narrator’s shoulder. At least I hope he does. All sorts of ironies are brought off by the author at his narrator’s expense.
Another kind of dual perspective is in play in The Stranger’s Child—in the opening section, in particular. Most sentences are simultaneously legible as highly sexual and witty on the one hand, straightforward and naive on the other. As readers, we ‘hear’ conversations both from Daphne Sawle’s innocent point of view and from George’s and Cecil’s more knowing positions as they banter over her head.
I hadn’t thought of it as being quite so thoroughly-goingly sexual.
There are bursts of comical sexual sous-entendre in the narration of the earlier books, but in the opening section of The Stranger’s Child innuendo infiltrates the dialogue between the characters, and in general becomes a markedly more pervasive phenomenon.
I think I must do a lot of it unconsciously. It’s just a form of irony. It’s not something I deliberately work at, but I do enjoy creating a tone of voice which has all sorts of quivers of irony in it—that’s how I want to write.
The pleasure of the code is something many of your books explore—The Swimming-Pool Library and The Stranger’s Child especially. One gets the sense that two paradoxical positions are in tension in these books. On the one hand, the books exude a sense of excitement at the idea that things were changing along the span of the twentieth century—that people could come out, that truths could be spoken, that one could be franker or more candid (to use a term favoured by the characters in The Stranger’s Child). On the other hand, the books seem to conjure a certain nostalgia for a time when gay people had to work in code—for the secret thrill of the underground, the double life. Is this an issue you’re in two minds about yourself?
Yes, perhaps I am. It’s certainly something that I’ve been very interested in—the idea of a character being inducted into a code, into a way of reading the world and living in it. It’s a recurring theme in the books. In The Spell young Danny becomes a kind of guide to the older Alex, for example. I’m sure it happens in many spheres of life, but certainly in gay life you’re quite likely to need a mentor to show you how the culture works. To a novelist such codes are very alluring—the secrecy makes for rich material. From the social point of view I would unambiguously prefer to be living in the liberal present in which things can be said. And indeed the early novels were attempts to write about things that hadn’t much been written about before—I’m very much aware of the excitement that goes with the laying bare of things that had previously been coded. So I think I probably am quite deeply ambivalent. And I have noticed that I find contemporary gay life less interesting to write about. I keep going back to periods when it was more challenging and complicated.
In The Swimming-Pool Library Lord Nantwich says of his distant – secret – sexual past that ‘there will never again be a time of such freedom. It was the epitome of pleasure.’ In The Stranger’s Child, George thinks about his relationship with Cecil as ‘something extraordinary [...] a mad vertiginous adventure.’ There’s a strong implication in both cases that the pleasure and the vertigo have a great deal to do with the need for gay affairs to be carried out covertly—that secrecy is absolutely constitutive of the thrill.
Exactly. But the covertness in both those cases was of course unavoidable.
For a gay writer who’s also happy that things have changed legally and socially, might there be something politically a little bit risky about looking back nostalgically to a time when less was allowed?
I don’t know if nostalgia is quite the word. Perhaps there is such a risk. It’s a risk I feel quite happy to take.
In all your books you have represented aspects of gay life that had long remained in the shadows. It’s striking, given this, that you should have chosen to make some of your gay protagonists quite objectionable on certain counts. Some are stalkers (possibly slightly pedophilic ones), some are interested in pornography (its making, as well as its consumption), and virtually all are complicit in those institutional structures which have historically oppressed gay people. Is there a split in you between a desire to take a position against the status quo which oppressed gay people on the one hand, and a desire to take a position against the queer status quo, which would have gay people automatically depicted as underdogs or victims, on the other?
Well, things change, of course; the queer status quo itself doesn’t sit still. I can’t quite get back into my own frame of mind when I started writing The Swimming-Pool Library twenty-eight years ago. But the idea was partly to write about the way gay people have been wronged and oppressed yet without any of the wearisome mentality of victimhood. And to dramatize the paradox that the older, hidden, gay life, lived under all sorts of constraints, had nonetheless been emotionally and sensually complex and interesting.
Would you agree with a description of your books as both radical and conservative? Radical because you write about sex in ways people had not done before; conservative in that gay protagonists seem willingly or at least unreflectingly to espouse conservative political attitudes?
I can see that a number of my characters have a simultaneous desire to belong and to remain different—the Nick Guest paradox, I suppose. Their inner lives and libidos are important to them but they don’t follow through the socio-political implications of being gay in any radical fashion.
The books can be read as amoral tales. They let it be understood that the ways in which gay people have been treated in the past is in a simple sense immoral, yet they feature protagonists who manifest immoral proclivities of their own. Ultimately these immoral positions seem to cancel out, leaving an impression of stories told from a position of almost Nietzschean detachment. Brute force and its extension in political power seem to be considered as facts of human social life.
Yes—though I should say that I never really thought of it in these terms at the time.
There’s a moment in The Swimming-Pool Library when Will, having been beaten up by a gang of skinheads, looks at the gay men milling around him at the pool as a species endangered by brutal predators. But he doesn’t blame the skinheads—or any group of oppressive heterosexual predators for that matter. He takes the blows, accepting the way of the world with a shrug of the shoulders.
Does the book perhaps occupy a position of undue moral relativity? I don’t know. The escape from any pre-ordained moral structure was important to me. I certainly didn’t want to create idealized gay characters. But I may have overdone it by going the other way, creating a character quite so rich in faults.
Two striking things change between your earlier books and The Stranger’s Child. One is that this latest novel features far less explicit sex. The other is that family comes to the forefront. A deliberate turn?
That’s just how it came out. Since my first book, which was possibly rather different, nothing that I’ve written has emerged from a decision to turn one way or the other. The books creep up on me in a way that I can’t really describe. They accumulate until I find I have the world of a book and its protagonists emerge and then eventually the plot clarifies. There’s a good deal about these things that I neither plan nor understand—I think of this as a positively healthy thing.
Do you think your readership has changed as a result of these differences between this book and its predecessors?
Yes, up to a point. I think there has been a shift in the demographic of my readership. The major change however, came with The Line of Beauty, which was read by a much wider readership than anything I’d written before. At literary events in the old days you’d always get some nice young gay men come and get their books signed and ask you out for a drink. Now I get older women telling me about their reading groups, sometimes expressing shock. There is a particular kind of gay reader who would like me to keep writing the same book over and over again, which I’ve never had any interest in doing. But then again I don’t think I ever made a strategic decision not to have so much explicit sex in The Stranger’s Child. Or, if I did, it was because the book is about how little is known about the private lives of others and how much of our knowledge of the sexual lives of others—even close friends—is merely conjectural. Also the first two sections of the book were designed to be more or less conformable with the literary and linguistic conditions of the periods in which they were set: a wealth of sexual description would have jarred in such a context.
‘Happy the Heart that thinks of no removes’, the epigraph to The Spell announces. Your books often appear to suggest that love is always at a remove—that A is after B as a substitute for C. A phantom person often links two central characters—the phantasmal third in a romantic triangle. In The Folding Star, Edward reflects to himself that ‘I’d have had to be Racine to keep abreast of this convulsive trio’. Do your translations from Racine have bearing on your predilection for such triangles?
Yes, I did think of the mysterious triangle and the permutations of power in The Folding Star as being Racinian at the time. I translated Bajazet just after The Swimming-Pool Library came out—I was heavily steeped in Racine when I wrote that second book. I’d also read that very Racinian novel of Edith Wharton’s, The Reef. I don’t think I was seeking to mimic anything Racinian, but it was certainly part of my mentality at the time.
These triangles also seem to have to do with the Oedipus complex—with an interest, discernible in a number of your novels, in queering the Oedipus complex. There are a lot of absent father figures in your books. In The Folding Star, Edward’s father dies and one gets the sense that Edward’s sexual adventures and obsessions have much to do with a need to rearrange the world after this loss—to find people who might assume certain roles his father would have played. In The Stranger’s Child, Cecil is a ‘Father’ to George, according to the terminology of the secret Cambridge society to which they belong— a fact which rings oddly in tune with George having lost his own ‘real’ father. Do you think that there’s anything to this Oedipal theory?
I do. It must be related to my interest in gay mentors too. In a way my first two books were fantasies about young gay men living their lives free from family restraints and family patterns—the first (Will Beckwith) being insulated by money, and the second (Edward Manners) actually leaving the island to be away from his family—and finding other kinds of mentors elsewhere. Of course I too was escaping the family in a different sense in these books—by evading the very complicated novelistic business of exploring how a family reacts to and absorbs the gayness of one of its members.
The Spell features an extraordinarily dynamic, four-point triangle—a romantic square, or Rubik’s cube, perhaps. One gets the sense that Robin, the father, may be after someone who is rather like his son Danny, and that Danny himself may be after someone who is sexually involved with Robin. A gay couple gets caught up in the cross-current of these impossible desires and the permutations begin.
Yes. Charles Nantwich in The Swimming-Pool Library, Paul Echevin in The Folding Star, Gerald Fedden in The Line of Beauty, are also substitute fathers of various kinds. I don’t really quite know how this become quite so recurrent a theme—how such a Freudian maquette came to govern the books.
Do you believe in Freud?
Yes, I rather do. I grew up at a time when Freud was God. And I read Freud as a schoolboy at roughly the same time as I stopped believing in God. I was very influenced by the writings of passionate Freudians—by Brigid Brophy, for instance. My upbringing was steeped in Freud. I know there are any number of objections to Freud’s methods and conclusions but it still seems to me quite a satisfactory explanatory framework.
You use epigraphs in every book—Henri de Régnier in The Folding Star, Ronald Firbank in The Swimming-Pool Library, an anonymous ditty in The Spell, Lewis Carroll in The Line of Beauty, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Forster, and Mick Imlah in The Stranger’s Child. Imlah seems to stand out as a special case—by virtue of being both a contemporary and a personal friend. Imlah shared your interest in Tennyson and in the afterlives of poets. A line from his poem, ‘In Memoriam Alfred, Lord Tennyson’, provides the epigraph to the fifth section of your book, and the novel is dedicated to his memory. You are also his literary executor—a role which perhaps places you in a similar position to some of the characters in your book, who find themselves in the position of having to curate a poet’s life and works for posterity. Is your book partly about Imlah or in dialogue with his last collection, The Lost Leader (2008)?
I don’t think it does quite work like that. The book was all planned and I wrote a good deal of the first section before Mick got ill. It was just a horrible coincidence that I found myself literary executor to a poet who died far too young whilst I was also writing this book.
Did you discuss Tennyson together? The anecdote Freda Sawle tells of her encounter with Tennyson on the ferry rings in tune with that line from Imlah’s poem which describes Tennyson as ‘an old Jesus with food stains’.
Mick and I realized we shared a love of Tennyson early on in our friendship and probably did talk about him quite a lot. We both loved William Allingham’s diary. Allingham was a fervent Tennysonite. His beautiful descriptions of hanging around outside the walls at Farringford House, and of Tennyson leaning on the rails of the Isle of Wight ferry, smoking a pipe, sank deep into me. Whether the book can be said to be in dialogue with Mick, I don’t know. It grew out of a shared pleasure in Tennyson and Tennysonian lore.
Is the title of Cecil’s poem ‘Soldiers Dreaming’ an allusion to F. T. Prince’s only really famous poem, ‘Soldiers Bathing’?
Yes, possibly. I do have a book of Prince’s called The Doors of Stone. Cecil’s poem may have acquired its title from this verbal model. But I also had in mind that play of Christopher Fry’s, A Sleep of Prisoners. It’s set in the Civil War and is about a company of soldiers sleeping in Burford Church and the dreams they have. My recollection of it is extremely hazy, but like so many things on which one draws as a writer it probably almost becomes more useful by virtue of the vagueness with which it’s remembered. It hovers fruitfully at the back of one’s mind.
The Stranger’s Child features numerous references to a white, English, male, predominantly gay tradition? Have any women writers had a formative or suggestive influence?
The writer who was very important in the shaping of The Stranger’s Child—which made The Stranger’s Child, really—was Alice Munro, a writer whom I revere. In her book, Runaway, three consecutive stories tell the life of the same woman. There are tremendously disorienting gaps of time and viewpoint between them. I was very taken with the way this worked—the importance of the amount it left unsaid. This more than anything else provided me with a formal model for how my book might be crafted.
There’s a little swipe at queer theory at the end of The Stranger’s Child when the narrator notes that readers of ‘Dupont’s milestone works in Queer Theory’ may ‘perhaps be pleasantly surprised to find he could talk in straightforward English when necessary.’
I am deeply untheoretical by temperament. It was a great relief to me that I got out of academic life just at the time theory was coming in. I knew it was uncongenial and I mistrusted it and thought of it as a way of avoiding literature. Of course over the years—my fourteen years spent on the staff of the TLS especially—I lived in an atmosphere informed by theory. I’m sure I’ve benefited incalculably from theory, even though I can’t identify precisely how my mindset may have changed under its influence. Nonetheless, I don’t think theoretically. I have some very theoretical friends who tend suddenly to find something which they think is fascinating but “undertheorized”. And then they seem to have a very happy time theorizing it.
Scarlett Baron is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.