January 29, 2017 12:00:36 am
As it is sometimes, with events that have taken place in the past, it seems rather difficult now to imagine that for quite a while, Alan Hollinghurst was unable to find an American publisher for his fourth novel. It was called The Line of Beauty (2004); and was about Nick Guest, a young, middle-class gay man who goes to live with the Feddens, a rich political family, in 1983, soon after Margaret Thatcher’s second victory in the general election. Divided into three parts, the novel explores aristocratic privilege and the sexual freedom of the Eighties, against the backdrop of the emerging AIDS crisis that would wreak havoc in the years to come. “I was very disturbed by the greed and the selfishness that had reared its head in Thatcher’s Britain, and I wrote the book after I’d had some distance from those years. But by the time I finished the book, every American editor turned it down. One of the most depressing things I ever heard was when a leading literary publisher said, ‘We can’t expect an American audience in 2003 to be interested in Britain in the 1980s’. Happily, they were proved wrong,” says Hollinghurst. The next year, The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Award and if the 62-year-old British writer ever had any reservations about his readership, all was set to rest.
In the Pink City for his second visit to the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (he was at the JLF in 2011), Hollinghurst is a bit out of sorts, no thanks to a cold. But at his sessions, a slightly fidgety audience is lulled into quiet submission by his deep bass baritone, a la an older Benedict Cumberbatch. “The rumour that my nickname is ‘Basso Profundo’, from my days at the Times Literary Supplement, is so widespread that there’s no point denying it anymore. But it’s fake news,” he says with a laugh.
To listen to Hollinghurst speak is almost akin to reading him — the slow, measured pace of his prose unspools across the pages like a dance, the sparkling clarity and cadence of his words resonate long after the last page has been turned. “The idea of form in fiction is a sort of a nebulous one. I’ve found that there are certain structures in classical music that are present in art forms all over the world. Such as the three-part structure, fast, slow, fast — present in plays, too. Or four movements of a symphony. I find that I’ve taken that idea with my first four novels — a big first movement and a big finale and in between you have a fast movement and a slow movement. The slow movement was The Folding Star (1994), the scherzo was The Spell (1998),” says Hollinghurst. The musical structure, he says, has given his work a certain tempo. “As well as wanting the prose to be musical, I want the sound of the novel to be symphonious. I write very slowly and I certainly hear everything inside my head,” he says.
Born to parents who were interested in literature, history and the opera, and who put their pennies together to send him to boarding school, Hollinghurst always wanted to be a writer. So, it came as no surprise to anybody when he published his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, in 1988, four years after he began writing it. Instead, what shocked the British reading public were the sexual exploits of its gay protagonist, Will Beckwith, almost leading them to believe that the plot was based on Hollinghurst’s life. “Early in my career, I was asked rather intimate questions. It was quite interesting in those days, when gay fiction as a genre was getting going. People would come up to me after a reading and say, ‘I enjoyed your book and I just want to tell you about this experience I had last week…’. I became a confidant to whom people told lurid things about their lives, which I really didn’t want to know about,” he says.
The origins of the novel, however, were rather academic. “My thesis at Oxford in 1975 was called ‘The Creative Uses of Homosexuality in the Novels of EM Forster, Ronald Firbank, and LP Hartley’. I have the greatest fascination for Firbank, he was an exceptional Modernist novelist, with an extraordinary, fragmented style. He also wrote about lesbians; Queen Victoria had said she didn’t believe lesbianism existed, so they weren’t included in the list of sexual offenders. I was interested in how these gay writers had to conceal their sexuality but used various cryptic ways to reveal it in their work, by writing new kinds of novels. I wanted to write about what happens when these restraints are removed,” he says.
After writing his first two novels in the first person, Hollinghurst moved away from that narrative device. “I put a lot of myself and my preoccupations in Will and Edward. It’s a peculiar, ambiguous relationship one has with narrators who are wildly dissimilar from the writer. It felt like a fusion of myself and somebody who wasn’t me. There’s a lovely sort of absence of conscience, as you go in and out of their thoughts. But you need things like letters and diaries to bring in new information, and that can get unwieldy. I was very glad to escape from it,” he says.
While homosexuality, the aristocracy, and the pursuit of beauty in ’80s Britain are the themes of his first four novels – The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty – Hollinghurst ventured further into the past in The Stranger’s Child (2011), set on the eve of World War I, and carried it through till the present day. “I’d read Alice Munro’s Runaway (2004) and she’d written a story in three parts, the life of one person, with these tremendously disconcerting jumps of time and points of view. As I’m getting older, the movement through time and the function of memory, especially how we recall our own path and shape our storylines, has become important to me,” he says, adding, “I like to mingle the past and the present because it’s also a way to assert economy. It helps with deciding how much knowledge will you share and what you already have. All fiction writing is the art of selection; and this is selection on a rather large scale”.
London is a character in Hollinghurst’s oeuvre, even though the city is far from what it used to be when he first arrived there in his 20s. “I love London, but it is changing in rather horrendous ways. There’s an enormous new wealth and huge parts of the city are being entirely rebuilt, but there are hundreds of people sleeping on the streets. One has this horrible sense of something going wrong in the fabric of society,” he says.
The city will still hold centre stage in his sixth and upcoming novel, The Sparsholt Affair, out this summer. “It’s partly about a scandal, which is the affair, of the sort of sexo-political kind in the 1960s, which informs the book. This is about what happens before the scandal, and then what happens later, and the lives that are affected by it. It’s a very wide-ranging novel, it starts in Oxford in 1940 with the Blitz going on in London and the blackouts, and then it moves to the 1960s-70s, till 2013 – so there’s quite a lot going on in it. I find it very hard to summarise it just yet; I’m only getting the first reactions from old friends and editors, and they’ve given it the thumbs up,” says Hollinghurst.
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