In Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth and newest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, a secret becomes a scandal, a memory and a meditation on art. These are recurring causes – and effects – in Hollinghurst’s layered narratives, which blossom slowly but to devastating effect, revealing how impossible it is to know the past, and how it can transform us anyway. His previous novels, The Stranger’s Child and 2006’s Booker-winning The Line Of Beauty, play different tricks of time, but achieve the same intimate and heart-breaking disorientations.
Hollinghurst changed the literary landscape in the United Kingdom with his 1988 debut, The Swimming Pool Library, a witty, thorny, exquisitely frank novel about the lives and histories of two gay men. On the book’s thirtieth birthday earlier this year, he was speaking at an event in Australia. “I rather surprised the audience by going into a great reminiscence about how different that world had been from the world in which my latest book appeared,” he recalled. On a visit to Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live festival in November, Hollinghurst spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:
Many readers in this country discovered your work with The Line Of Beauty. Does a big prize feel like a career milestone?
I think that rather depends on your career. It certainly was in mine. The trend had been rather downward before that with my last book, The Spell. To be fair to myself, The Line Of Beauty was well received when it came out, before the Booker nomination. But that really did transform things. I truly hadn’t understood before that, that people all over the world pay attention to it. I mean, I would never buy a book just because it won the Booker Prize, but I think a lot of people do.
Does that matter when you’re sitting down to write – an audience previously unimagined?
I really try to think about an audience as little as possible.
But is that possible?
I’m pretty good at shutting myself away – because what are the expectations you are then trying to meet? Who amongst all these masses of new people reading you might you be trying to please? I always feel it’s best to perform the task you’ve set yourself to do to the best of your ability. I think I just took it as licence to do exactly what I wanted.
Speaking of audiences, could we revisit the intellectual mood in which The Swimming Pool Library was produced?
I think defiance was a strong part of it. I’d done work as a graduate student at Oxford on writers like EM Forster, who hadn’t been able to write openly about their homosexuality, so I was very interested in that literary history. I had the idea for the book in the early 1980s – a book, I thought, which hadn’t been written before, a sort of literary novel about gay life and history and culture in Britain. It’s fascinating how slow people were to embrace the freedoms that came about with the [abolition of] the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 [Note: It partially decriminalised homosexuality in the UK].
I started writing the novel at the beginning of 1984. Then, later that year, a close friend of mine got mysteriously ill and suddenly died. We found we were at the beginning of something absolutely terrible that was, in a way, transforming the world I was writing about. I made a decision to set the book firmly in 1983. By the time the book came out, in 1988, it had already become historic in a way I could never have anticipated when I started writing it.
AIDS had politicised gay life – not to the extent that it had in the United States, but a good deal – in Britain. There were repressive measures from government. The Local Government Act, which was going through Parliament at the time, included the notorious “Clause 28”, which forbade local authorities from funding anything which could be said to promote homosexuality. There were big demonstrations and protests, which perhaps rather helped my book. It was held up as the sort of thing that a local library wouldn’t be able to stock.
Whether my book actually promoted homosexuality was another question. But it happily, immediately became a bestseller. There’d been quite a lot of anxiety about it in advance – “advance” being not quite the right word, because I was paid hardly anything for it.
Were people afraid to publish it?
Yes. I spoke to a very famous agent and she said, there’s no way I can sell this book in the US, I think you should just accept this tiny offer from your publisher. Thank god she did. It all worked out rather well. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but I think it was because there hadn’t quite been a book that wrote so frankly, or that integrated the sexual element of the life of a young gay man with all sorts of other things. And what I aimed to do was to write completely unapologetically, and without explanation, from this gay viewpoint.
Perhaps you really were without a “tradition” in some sense. Your readers tend to connect you to EM Forster, but your work represented a break with his, too.
I’ve made homages to Forster at various points. There’s a scene in The Swimming Pool Library set at a performance of [Benjamin] Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which he wrote the libretto for. And there’s a bit of talk about him in there in The Stranger’s Child. The first part of the book is set in the outer suburbs of London in 1913. As a student at Cambridge, I was very conscious of EM Forster. I found myself at one point almost writing Forster pastiche.
And Rupert Brooke territory, right?
Yes, very much Cambridge in that era [before World War I]. These people were important to me. But there’s chronologically a big gap actually.
So much of your work dwells on the past – how the unsayable becomes sayable. But are you really writing historical novels?
There’s a wonderful phrase Henry James has about “the visitable past”. You imagine him sitting at one end of the table, and just sort of calling it up. To me the visitable past exists about as far back as the first period of The Sparsholt Affair [during World War II]. I feel there’s a sufficient continuity of mentalities, and I can enter that world fairly unselfconsciously. I think if I were writing something set in, say, the mid-19th century, it would require massive research. I don’t feel I have that natural understanding of it, and I have no desire to do that particularly. Of course whatever sense one has of it is extremely literary. My sense of how people spoke in 1913 came from reading Forster’s novels and so on. There’s something irreducibly literary about my understanding of the past.
Does revisiting the past relate to the queerness of the work – to unearthing or re-inscribing history with gay characters?
There’s nothing schematic or programmatic about it, I think. I have now revisited quite a lot of periods over the twentieth century (laughs), but not with any comprehensive plan. They must be all related to that initial impulse as a student – with the fascination of gay life in past periods. And for the novelist, all the interest in the unsayable or only very guardedly sayable subject.
Does fiction that reckons with our immediate present hold any interest for you?
I don’t think I’m temperamentally someone who responds in fiction to what’s going on around me, I seem to want to let things settle. Although the last part of my last book is pretty well contemporary. Actually The Swimming Pool Library stopped being contemporary in a way I hadn’t anticipated; The Folding Star and The Spell were set in the present. I’m not quite such an antiquarian as I’m imagined to be.
It wasn’t my intention to suggest that!
No, but I tend to be cast in this role of someone terribly interested in the gay past. The present – of course, I admire writers who can tackle it in ways that are interesting.
Do you read a lot of new fiction?
A certain amount. I’m sent a huge pile by people hoping I’ll endorse it. I give everything a sort of sample. If it’s managed to get my interest and hold it for 20 pages, I might go on. A lot of things won’t pass that test.
What do you read for fun? Is that even possible in the life of a writer?
I read for fun all the time, yes. Things suggest themselves in a rather mysterious sort of way – maybe a new book of poems that has just come out, or something I’ve always meant to read; some novel by Elizabeth Bowen, that sort of thing. I read quite a lot of things about art and art history and architecture. I’m a slow reader, and very culpable of starting a lot of books and not finishing them. I don’t have a puritanical thing about that.
How easy is it for you to guard against the problem of writing nostalgically?
I’m fascinated by the whole problem of nostalgia. What I do hope I’ve done in my last three books is to take a subject liable to be viewed with nostalgia by the reader – this is particularly true of the time before World War I, “the last summer before the war” and so on – and let that be the text, which is sort of deconstructed in the later sections of the novel. It gives the reader a fix, perhaps, for the nostalgic element, which is part of people’s interest in anything historical, in sort of very common forms, things like Downton Abbey. The fantasy of Downton Abbey really is like nostalgia for a period of strong class distinctions, among other things. I get very irritated with that, so it’s rather fun to change the narrative viewpoint.
The tricks of time in your novels, as the narrative switch tracks – they can be very cinematic.
I think perhaps they are. I’m less and less interested in explaining things, I suppose. My interest is in creating a narrative which is sufficiently seductive to get the reader, but which refuses some of the customary consolations of fiction. My first two books had a sort of secret in them, which is revealed in the end and allows everything to makes sense, which in a way is the model of a detective story. Not properly like life, where one knows so little about anything. About one’s own life, which is so difficult to understand, one knows surprisingly little. Even about the pasts of those very close to us: we know very little. So I’ve tried to create that in fictional forms, in which all these uncertainties remain rather than be clarified.
Can you recount for us why you think the gay novel is dead?
Of course I don’t think it’s really dead.
But it’s okay to think so?
You’re referring to something written in the Guardian, I think. I remember going online one day and seeing the rather terrifying headline: “Alan Hollinghurst is wrong”. What I was trying to do, perhaps rather more subtly than it emerged, was to say – you know, gay fiction, Gay Lit, had really come into being in the 1970s and ‘80s in response to new freedoms and new challenges. It had novelty and urgency and a political purpose. As time and circumstances changed, those properties were rather diminished. It didn’t have or didn’t need a clear identity any longer.
Now, the whole way in which we talk about sexuality is so much more complex. That ghettoised Gay Lit was once a really valuable, exciting thing. But I think queerness has sort of replaced “gayness” and so have much more complicated explorations of sexuality. I myself once wrote defiantly, those purposefully gay books. I think my last two books haven’t been so classified quite in that way.
And I think new writers are not emerging as gay writers. They may be emerging as queer writers. One could say that I was almost talking of the gay novel as a genre. I didn’t, of course, mean that gay lives don’t remain of enormous interest.