'Writing is more than a one-issue thing'
The Stranger’s Child,Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel since he won the Man Booker Prize, was yesterday longlisted for the 2011 award. He has been delighted – and baffled – by the reaction to the book
IT WAS BILLED as the UK publishing event of the year: Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth book in almost a quarter of a century, and his first since he won the Man Booker Prize with The Line of Beautyseven years ago.
It’s the sort of advance fanfare that might sweep some writers into panicky overdrive and prompt others to haughty disdain. Hollinghurst, however, opts for mild amusement. “I felt faintly embarrassed by it,” he says in his measured, mellifluous basso profundo. “I just hoped it wasn’t all going to be a terrible disappointment when it happened.”
If it has, it’s the kind of disappointment most novelists could live with. Yesterday, The Stranger’s Childmade the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and bookies make it favourite. Critics in the UK have heaped praise on the novel – one even went so far as to rank it with George Eliot’s Middlemarch– and it barged into the Sunday Timesbestseller list at number one, elbowing Linda La Plante and Tom Clancy out of the way.
Hollinghurst admits to being delighted by the latter, but is somewhat baffled – and not a little miffed – by some of the critical comments.
“I’m slightly resisting the classification of the book as a country house novel,” he says. “Actually only one section is set in a functioning country house – which goes through its own vicissitudes as the book goes on.”
There’s no doubt, though, that the opening chapter, with its idyllic evocation of an upper-crust summer’s evening in 1913, is hugely seductive – and very different to the urban landscapes evoked both in The Line of Beauty, and his debut, The Swimming Pool Library.
“They’re both poles of my own character, I think,” he says. “I spent the first eight years of my life in a little Berkshire town rather like the one described in the middle section of this book. I grew up on farms and walking through woods – and it’s very dear to me, that side of life. But I’m also absolutely magnetised by cities. I moved to London 30 years ago, and had this absolute conviction that from now on that was where I was going to be.”
His 1998 novel The Spellis a kind of dramatisation of this paradoxical attraction. It features a group of gay men, one of whom has a house in the Dorset countryside where he tries to create a self-contained life, only to find that his companions are constantly being pulled towards the bright lights of London. Like all five of Hollinghurst’s books, it also expresses his love of architecture.
“As a child I wanted to be an architect, and spent long hours dreaming up plans for impossibly large country houses,” he says. “Then I realised that being an architect had more to it than that, and that I probably wasn’t cut out for it. But I find it quite easy to dream up houses – and I like to have a sense of all aspects of a book before I start writing it, whether in the imagining of the characters, or the settings. I like to know what it would be like when a character enters the room – their presence and what sort of noise they make. That’s more important to me than what they look like.”
One of the most striking features of Hollinghurst’s work is the acuity – and, sometimes, the hilarity – of his social observation.
It’s probably no coincidence that he began his writing life as a poet, and won the Newdigate poetry prize in 1974. As the son of a bank manager who went to a public school and on to Oxford, did he have a sense of being an outsider among the upper classes, and has this contributed to the delicious subversiveness of his narrative tone?
“I came from an ordinary middle-class professional background,” he says. “My father hadn’t been to a private school and neither of my parents had been to university. They rather scrimped and saved to put me through private schooling, which they thought was important – and I’m very glad they did.
“I had a wonderful education. I didn’t go to a very grand old public school. There were one or two boys whose fathers had Aston Martins and things – but by and large, we were all of a similar social background. So I didn’t have the feeling then of being plunged into a more glamorous social world – except that the school was in a huge 19th-century Gothic house, which meant a lot to me. I was very excited by it.”
At Oxford, meanwhile, he met up with all sorts. “I don’t think I saw myself as an outsider – but I suppose I was always observing these differences. I’ve always had very ambiguous feelings about glamorous, rich, posh people.”
As a writer who happens to be gay, another recurrent theme for Hollinghurst has been what can – and can’t – be openly expressed. At Oxford he wrote a master’s thesis on EM Forster, Ronald Firbank and LP Hartley.
“I wrote about them as gay writers who couldn’t write openly about gay lives – so that was really a study in concealment and covert expression. I was quite fascinated by how not being able to say things creates a sort of tension.” His 1988 debut, The Swimming Pool Library, was a fictional development of that dichotomy. “That was the theme of the book, I suppose. The idea of juxtaposing the life of someone who was living very uninhibitedly in the present, with little knowledge of gay history. And then discovering about the life of someone who was as old as the century, and visiting these episodes in his past.”
Both The Swimming Pool Libraryand the novel that followed it in 1994, The Folding Star, are notable for their frank depiction of gay sexuality. The Line of Beautywas equally explicit as it chronicled changing attitudes to homosexuality among the Tory faithful in the Thatcher era. The Stranger’s Child, however, has very little in the way of full-frontal encounters. Has Hollinghurst felt it necessary to carry a placard which reads “gay writer” – and if so, has he felt obliged to tone it down sexually as the years go by?
“I don’t in the least mind being identified as a gay person – quite the contrary,” he says. “But to me, writing is something so much more complex and interesting than a one-issue thing. When my first book came out, being a ‘gay writer’ was very much the point. Gay literature arose out of protest – out of exploring the new freedoms secured by gay lib and everything – and was almost immediately confronted by the crisis of Aids. So it had its moment and its urgency, which I now feel has passed, really.
“The problem with the ‘gay writer’ tag was that it was assumed that gayness was the most interesting and significant thing about what you were doing. Gays don’t spend their whole time being furiously gay, you know? They’re actually living their lives as richly and fully and complicatedly as other people, with all sorts of other interests.”
To call The Stranger’s Childa gay novel would be as misguided as to call it a country house novel – or even, despite its palpable sense of loss and pain, a war novel. “I wanted to approach it all obliquely,” he says. “One doesn’t want to be plonking on about any of these things.”
But what is it? Is it a gay 'Brideshead'?
OR A LITERARY Downton Abbey? Definitely not, says Alan Hollinghurst of his new novel. If The Stranger’s Childhas attracted these labels, it’s probably down to the sunny pre-war Arcadia depicted in its opening pages.
“There is a huge nostalgia for that period, as is demonstrated by all sorts of programmes on television. Did you have Downton Abbeyin Ireland? I didn’t take to it at all, I’m afraid – and I’m rather suspicious of the hunger for these things. Lots of servants and titles and so forth. I very much didn’t want The Stranger’s Childto be classified alongside Downton Abbey. It subjects the whole genre to a quite different kind of scrutiny.”
As for Brideshead Revisited, Hollinghurst is not a fan. “People assume that I’m crazy about Brideshead – actually, the opposite is the truth. I mean, I revere Evelyn Waugh and think he’s the most wonderful writer. But this was the book in which all the things one values about Waugh – the witty, springy, mischievous dryness – are dismayingly not there. Instead, you get this reverence for the aristocracy, and the Catholic element . . .”
He shakes his head. “I think it’s a rather baleful sort of book.” Looks like The Stranger’s Childwill have to stand on its own literary feet.