Chafing at labels

Alan Hollinghurst, winner of this year's Booker Prize for "The Line of Beauty," says there's much more going on his novel than gay sex.

Stephen Moss
October 22, 2004 5:25PM (UTC)

"I've tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position," Alan Hollinghurst says. Hollinghurst is a cheap date. Cornered in the Groucho Club in London's Soho Wednesday, sleepless, exhausted, utterly Bookered, he looks as if he is going to collapse. I insist that he eat something as we talk. He opts for vegetable spring rolls, the cheapest thing on the menu. Winning 52,500 pounds the night before clearly hasn't gone to his head.

Why on earth have Man Booker's publicists chosen the Groucho? Hollinghurst hasn't been there for years; it is clattery and not conducive to intelligent conversation about the state of British fiction. Maybe it's some sort of clever allusion to his winning book, "The Line of Beauty," which gives the hedonistic, coke-fueled, sex-and-money-obsessed '80s a clever kicking. Who knows? Anyway, the spring rolls revive him. He even talks enthusiastically about trial-by-sofa with Dermot and Natasha on "BBC Breakfast News."


He really is delighted to have won. Not just for the dosh, which, as he says, "buys a big chunk of time," but because the writer, solitary, toiling away, producing a book every five or six years, sometimes starts to doubt whether he exists. The prize means someone has noticed.

He didn't know he'd won when he sat down to dinner on Tuesday, but he spent the evening cannily trying to divine the result from the way the cameras were positioning themselves. Shortlisted in 1994 for "The Folding Star," his second novel, he knew the score.

The protagonist of "The Line of Beauty," Nick Guest, is writing a thesis on Henry James. James is a hero of Hollinghurst's. How would the great man have reacted to winning the Booker? "He would have been very pleased with the money and the recognition, but he would also have thought the competitive element deplorably vulgar."


Much as Chris Smith, the chairman of the Booker judges, tries to gainsay the fact, Hollinghurst is a gay novelist. This is a gay novel. In fact, all four of his novels -- "The Swimming-Pool Library: (1988), "The Folding Star" (1993), "The Spell" (1998) and now "The Line of Beauty" -- explore a century of gay experience, and tell their stories from a gay perspective. The award is as much recognition of that groundbreaking quartet as of the new book, which has so many echoes of its forerunners.

"From the start I've tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position," says Hollinghurst. "To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position. When I started writing, that seemed a rather urgent and interesting thing to do. It hadn't really been done."

He doesn't, of course, want the "gay writer" tag to be turned against him, to be an excuse to marginalize his work. That, clearly, is why Smith felt the need to say protectively that "the fact that it was a gay novel did not figure at all in the discussions." Smith perhaps anticipated the Daily Express' brief story bizarrely headlined "Booker Won by Gay Sex," the Sun's "Gay Book Wins" and the sly dig in an editorial praising the winner in the London Evening Standard that Smith, as a gay man, would naturally have been drawn to Hollinghurst's book. But there must be some midpoint between Smith's panel sitting around, painfully not discussing the book's gayness, and the Daily Express failing to see beyond it.


"I only chafe at the 'gay writer' tag if it's thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I'm writing," says Hollinghurst. "I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well -- history, class, culture. There's all sorts of stuff going on. It's not just, as you would think if you read the headlines in the newspapers, about gay sex."

Hollinghurst is usually seen as an austere, detached figure. When he worked at the Times Literary Supplement in the 1980s he was known as "Basso Profundo" because of his extremely deep voice. It all seems a bit affected, stuffy, put on -- the obsession with Wagner and Gothic architecture. The last time I had seen him was at Lewes station a couple of years ago, waiting for the train back to London after a performance of "Jenufa at Glyndebourne." I remember that rich bass voice hanging in the night air, making some elaborate operatic point despite the lateness of the hour -- and the train. That experience had made me fret about this meeting.


But on the questionable evidence of an hour at the Groucho Club, he is far more accessible than his public persona suggests. Even the epigraph to "The Line of Beauty" -- a passage from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" -- suggests a playfulness at odds with his ascetic reputation. And he mocks (in a friendly way) some of my attempts to find easy formulations for his work. Is he trying to put messy lives into perfect prose? "Well, it would be unbearable to put messy lives into messy prose." He also laughs at the Observer's suggestion that he writes about "rackety sex." "What is rackety sex? Sex that makes a lot of noise, I suppose."

Critics didn't much like his third book, "The Spell," perhaps in part because they didn't realize it was a comedy of manners. Behind the basso profundo may be lurking a Figaro-like baritone, as much in tune with the comedy of life as its tragedy. Nick Guest's first sexual encounter is in the private park of a posh terrace with a man he's met through a lonely hearts ad. Is that tragic or comic?

Nick's millionaire, Lebanese-born lover, Wani, is hooked on extreme porn and takes bucketloads of cocaine. One reviewer called Wani depraved, an odd remark to make about Hollinghurst's morally neutral fiction. "I don't make moral judgments," he says. "I prefer to let things reverberate with their own ironies and implications. That was one of the interests of writing this book from the inside and not just writing something that broadly satirized or bashed up the '80s. To tell it from the point of view of someone who was very seduced by it." Nick is as morally compromised as the rest. Or not, depending on your point of view.


Hollinghurst, who is 50, came to London in 1981, just as the jet-propelled '80s were getting underway. The only child of a bank manager in Stroud, he went to Magdalen, Oxford, to study English, started a master's in literature on gay writers such as E.M. Forster who had been unable to express their sexuality in their work (significant), shared a house with Andrew Motion, did a bit of graduate teaching, hung about, wrote poetry, signed onto the dole, started a novel that was never published.

A protégé of Karl Miller, he came to London to write for the London Review of Books and teach at UCL, but quickly gravitated to the Times Literary Supplement, where he worked for 14 years, six of them as deputy editor. He had originally hoped to write poetry, but says the muse deserted him the day he signed a contract with Faber in 1985. "I haven't written a poem since," he says. "I would love to. I would love the quick return of a poem. I just accept that that's gone out of my life now."

AIDS is a central theme in "The Line of Beauty," but it is not an "AIDS novel." Hollinghurst knew he would one day have to confront the subject, but wanted to do so on his own terms. "There was so much expectation put on a gay writer to write about AIDS," he says. "It was a subject of such urgency that it had to be addressed -- and of course it was addressed with great urgency by a lot of writers. But really the urgency was the only thing about most of the literature produced by the crisis. Also, AIDS has a shape. Someone is well, then they get ill, then they get more ill, and then they die -- and I knew I didn't want to write the medical story, the deathbed story." He wanted, perhaps, to write about AIDS as a fact of life rather than a fact of death.


"In "The Folding Star" and "The Spell," he says, "AIDS is dealt with very obliquely, marginally. In "The Line of Beauty," AIDS becomes part of a bigger picture and of that arc from naive romance at the beginning to a more disillusioned and even tragic ending."

Now, he feels, he can move on from that overwhelming decade that "seems to have determined so many things about the way we live now." "The Line of Beauty" brings to an end this sequence of books in which he has consciously explored gay identity and its fight for recognition. "I do have a sense of having completed a quartet of books which, while not a tetralogy in any narrative sense, do cohere in a way." Unusually, he has no idea for a new novel and may develop some short stories instead. No poems, though.

The context in which he is writing has changed, too. "When I began, there was an urgency about it which isn't there now. Things have changed so much over those 20 years; attitudes towards homosexuality are so different now." Hollinghurst is the beneficiary of that change, but also one of those who helped to achieve it. The gay writers he discussed in his thesis are the last (one hopes, anyway) who will have to suppress their sexuality or encrypt it in their narratives. Hollinghurst went to the same college as Oscar Wilde. But he inhabits another world.

Stephen Moss

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