Issue 199, Winter 2011
Alan Hollinghurst lives on a street of semidetached red-brick houses at the edge of Hampstead Heath, the eight-hundred-acre park in northern London. Much of the heath is lush and untamed, but Hollinghurst’s living room windows look out over the neatly mowed fields at the foot of Parliament Hill. We conducted our interview in this room over the course of three bright July days. He answered each question after a few moments of reflection, during which he would gaze out the windows as though magnetized by the landscape.
Hollinghurst was born in 1954 and grew up in Faringdon, a market town twenty miles from Oxford surrounded by farms and chalk hills. His father managed the local branch of Lloyds Bank; the family lived upstairs. Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, published in 1988, was a celebration of the thriving gay subculture he discovered when he moved to London in his twenties and of the “freedoms and possibilities” of city life. But later novels, including The Folding Star (1994) and this year’s The Stranger’s Child, are in part pastoral reveries that gesture back to his semirural English childhood.
Hollinghurst’s prose has been described as “impeccably textured” and “ravishingly measured” (Geoff Dyer), as “lavish, poised, sinuously alert” (James Wood); Nicholson Baker opened his review of The Folding Star by pointing out that its author trumped Oscar Wilde at describing bees. (Wilde’s bees improbably “shoulder” their way through grass, while Hollinghurst’s fittingly “dropped and toppled” on a bush.) The bookcases in Hollinghurst’s study are devoted to the writers who have meant the most to him, many of whom are distinguished by their own textured prose: there are four shelves of Henry James, substantial collections of Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Waugh, and rare first editions of the novels of Ronald Firbank. Above the wooden desk his parents bought for him when he was at school, and on which he has written all of his novels, hangs an autographed photo of Firbank, in the role of “tutelary spirit.” A long case filled with poetry books is topped by a nearly complete set of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, reflecting Hollinghurst’s lifelong interest in architecture.
Hollinghurst has written five novels to date. The Swimming-Pool Library, the story of a promiscuous young idler, mixes rich, witty prose with cheerfully graphic descriptions of gay sex. William Beckwith, the novel’s rakish narrator, strikes up a friendship with an elderly aristocrat named Lord Nantwich, who asks Will to write his biography; in the process of reading Nantwich’s diaries, Will is offered a glimpse of an earlier gay generation’s passions and oppressions. In both The Folding Star and The Spell (1999), a man in midlife nurses an obsessive love for someone several years his junior, in the first case with tragic consequences, in the second to comic effect. The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, has been called Hollinghurst’s masterpiece; it’s a funny, furious, sad novel about a young James scholar who falls under the spell of a glamorous and powerful Tory family during the Thatcher years, at the height of the aids epidemic.
The Stranger’s Child has a wider scope than any of Hollinghurst’s previous books: it begins on the eve of World War I and ends in the present day. In 1913, a young bisexual poet named Cecil Valance spends a weekend at the suburban villa of George Sawle, a fellow Cambridge student with whom he is secretly having an affair, and writes a verse inscription in the autograph book of George’s sister, Daphne. The poem becomes famous after Cecil is killed in battle, and over the following decades, the facts of the weekend and the sexual lives of the characters are concealed, guessed at, misremembered, distorted, and reinterpreted. The novel picks up a thread that has run through Hollinghurst’s books since The Swimming-Pool Library: the ways in which the present devours the past.
Hollinghurst joked that upon the release of The Swimming-Pool Library some interviewers expected to meet “this tremendous, gorgeous stud, and were visibly disappointed at how scholarly and reserved I was.” In fact, he is warm and gracious, with a jolly, joshing laugh, and a gently self-deprecating sense of humor. At one point he read from a notebook a list of discarded titles for The Stranger’s Child, amusedly singling out which ones were “too abstract” (Recognition) or “too grandiose” (The Nation That Is Not, taken from a Housman poem) or simply “terrible” (Steps in the Dusk). After reading about ten more, he snapped the book shut and smiled. “I think that’s enough self-exposure.”
What were you like as a child?
I was an only child, and I lived quite a lot in my own imaginative space. There was a room on the top floor of our house that we called the junk room, where I used to make houses out of tables hung with old curtains, places I could hide and lose myself in. I remember I was very alarmed by anything collective, by anything that I felt threatened to overwhelm me or coerce me. We used to go to the Christmas pantomime in Oxford every year. The lyrics of a song would come up on a screen on the stage, with a little ball that bobbed along on top of the words you were supposed to sing. Everybody else joined in, but I couldn’t bear it—I would burst into tears.
Did you enjoy being an only child?
I remember my father saying to me, “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters,” and being flooded with relief—it was really the last thing I wanted. I think being an only child created in me a degree of self-reliance, which I’m glad of. It made me perfectly happy with my own company and perhaps was good conditioning for the protracted solitude of writing books as slowly as I do.
In my later teens, when I was sure that I was gay, I couldn’t find any way of telling my parents, and my relations with them were probably more remote than I now like to think. As I was away for a lot of the year at school and then at university, that remoteness became in some sense institutionalized. I developed a habit of keeping things to myself, and of thinking that my significant life was all going on away from home.
Were you conscious of gay people around you as a child?
Within our own social world, not at all. No one in the family, no one in my parents’ circle of acquaintance—a lack that made coming out all the harder. I don’t think I met an unquestionably gay adult until I went to university. But I feel there was a gay presence, of an unusual kind, in my early childhood. On the edge of our town there was a small, eighteenth-century manor called Faringdon House, which was the home, from 1931, of Gerald Tyrwhitt, Lord Berners, a wealthy writer, painter, and composer who wrote smart, French-type music and became known as the English Satie. He was a famous eccentric and dyed the pigeons at Faringdon House all the colors of the rainbow. He had built the last real folly in England—a very tall, almost windowless tower with a Gothic top—and I would play hiding games around it with my mother nearly every day.
Berners died before I was born, but I think the continuing presence of this gay aristocrat made some impression on me. Partly it was his exoticism. The Stravinskys used to come and stay, Salvador Dalí would visit—it was strange to think of them in this sleepy country town. And partly it was that he had lived with his much younger partner, Robert Heber-Percy, who survived him and kept up the Berners traditions. There were marvelous pictures at Faringdon House, and when Heber-Percy was going away he would come into my father’s bank with Cézannes wrapped in horse blankets to put in the strong room. He took other boyfriends and was much less discreet about being gay than Berners had been.
Are you fond of where you grew up?
I loved it. My parents and I were tremendous walkers, and we would drive to the Berkshire Downs nearby and go for long walks on top of them. It’s a numinous landscape full of legends. There’s a great combe where King Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown, and an Iron Age hill fort and long barrows and Neolithic tombs. To an imaginative child, it was a marvelous landscape to grow up in.
What were your early experiences of school?
When I was seven and a half, I was sent to a boarding prep school about three miles away called St. Hugh’s, which was in a lovely old house dating from 1603. I found it very upsetting for the first ten days and then suddenly decided it wasn’t too bad. It had wonderful stairs, which I used to love sweeping up and down, pretending my dressing gown was a cloak. And once I hit puberty, the fact that it was full of other boys had its interest.
Was it easy for you to make friends?
I had quite a few good friends, but I seem to have always had an element of reserve. I was rather a goody-goody as a child. I hated the idea of being in the wrong and dreaded being punished. Everyone at my prep school was being beaten by the headmaster with the back of a hairbrush round the clock, and I was keen to avoid that. It was only later on I discovered that you could be naughty and get away with it.