Alan Hollinghurst, the prize-winning UK novelist, once said that, after reading hundreds of English novels that featured only straight characters, it occurred to him to write one in which almost all the male characters were gay. The result was The Swimming-Pool Library, published in 1988. It was an immediate and sensational success, and Hollinghurst has since followed it up with four more novels with a similar focus — The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), The Line of Beauty (2004), winner of the UK’s Man Booker Prize, and most recently The Stranger’s Child (2011).
This last book has been perceived by some critics as an attempt by Hollinghurst to join the fictional mainstream — it certainly contains both more straight characters and more women. But, treating as it does a poem penned 100 years ago by Cecil Valance, an aristocratic young man of ambiguous sexuality, and then following his reputation, and the fortunes of his and other families, down into the 21st century, the gay theme remains crucial, if at times submerged.
Hollinghurst is currently on a tour of China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
Bradley Winterton: Do you construct the whole plot of a novel before you start writing it?
Alan Hollinghurst: Pretty much so, yes. I’ve always wanted to have a fairly clear idea of what’s going to happen. It would be deadly, of course, if every detail were fixed beforehand, but having a plot complete at least in outline gives me a welcome sense of security. Books grow, however. The Stranger’s Child ended up being twice as long as I’d originally envisaged.
BW: In his review of that novel in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn talked about the gay as an inevitable and permanent outsider, and wondered whether you were abandoning this perspective in favor of a cozier relationship with upper-class life. What do you think of that?
We have three copies each of The Stranger’s Child and The Line of Beauty, all signed by Alan Hollinghurst, to give away. To apply, send an e-mail with “book offer“ in the subject line to email@example.com. Six winners will be drawn at random on Saturday at 4pm. Terms and conditions apply.
AH: Permanent outsiders — you mean we have to have sex out of doors? [Laughs]. Well, that wasn’t untrue in past times. Nick and Leo do it in The Line of Beauty and so do George and Cecil in The Stranger’s Child. I think my books tend to be critical of the upper-class world, which is often brutal, futile, and of course self-preserving. As for outsiders, they’re useful to the novelist as observers who, like Nick in The Line of Beauty, enter an unfamiliar milieu and register its characteristics for the first time.
As for changing my perspective, some readers no doubt want you to keep on writing the same sort of novels again and again. But every book’s a new beginning, and they accumulate in mysterious ways. The Stranger’s Child, for instance, could be said to begin by indulging the reader’s fantasy of a pre-Great War [World War I] world, and as the book goes on progressively dismantles it. Ambivalence is an important aspect of that book — I was nostalgic for past eras but at the same time glad not to be living in them. Mendelsohn is perceptive in many ways, but there’s something about fiction that eludes him, I think. He repeatedly describes my work as allegory and satire, which makes it unrecognizable to me. A good novel conveys the moral complexity of life as it is, and that’s something rather different.
BW: Sexual promiscuity and comedy seem to be related in your books. Are they?
AH: Well, there are often farcical aspects to the adventures of monomaniacal searchers after sex. Edward in The Folding Star is in the grip of the impulse, leading him into some absurd situations. It seemed to me from the start that comedy would be a necessary ingredient if you were going to write in any detail about the sexual life. It became less of a preoccupation later, and indeed in The Stranger’s Child much more is left to the reader’s imagination. Both readers and characters are involved in a degree of uncertainty — did Cecil and Daphne sleep together? No one’s ever quite sure.