When his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, was published in 1988, the stark honesty, not to mention artistry, of Alan Hollinghurst’s depiction not only of sex but intimate emotional relations between men, had a meteoric effect on a generation of readers, and on English literature itself. At a time when the public status of men who loved and had sex with men balanced unsteadily between the martyrdom of AIDS and a homophobia lurking underneath whispering that maybe they deserved it, Hollinghurst let out a trumpet blast of unapologetic humanity in prose so well wrought it couldn’t help but burst into the mainstream.
He went on to win the Booker in 2004 and each release of his infrequent novels – five more in 30 years since – is a literary event.
But he’s not stood still and his latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, published in Canada in March, is a very different book, not only from The Swimming Pool Library, but from The Line of Beauty, which won him the Booker. And its author seems a very different man.
Hollinghurst is usually described, in the sort of interviews and profiles big-deal authors accrete over a career, as having a surprisingly deep voice and a commanding one, that his personal erudition knows no bounds, that he has vast swathes of culture – English, French, and otherwise – at his fingertips.
The Hollinghurst I met in a window seat at Toronto’s long-time literati go-to spot, Le Select Bistro, did indeed have a deep voice. But the rest of it, though I’m sure it’s all still there somewhere, was only little in evidence. After a brief opening chat about the similarities between Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin and what’s going on in the United States right now, I quickly discovered that this Hollinghurst was less interested in the art of the novel than he was in its life.
The Sparsholt Affair is filled with allusions and what Anglo gay culture once referred to as dropped hairpins, the sorts of things that, in literary novels like one expects from Booker-winners such as Hollinghurst, turn out to be hints, keys that, if you get a handle on them, turn the bolts that unlock the layers. I asked about a reference to an Anita Brookner novel and the spark of a revelation towards the end that two otherwise unrelated characters had actually known each other.
“I’ve turned away from key-turning,” he said, heading off this line of questioning after a couple of scrupulously polite parries. “Certainly The Swimming Pool Library and my next book, The Folding Star, the model for them is that there’s a secret in the background here and it all gets explained just before the end and then it will make a new kind of sense. Then I tended to have a little sort of coda. This is a fundamentally fictional idea, the idea of the detective story, but it seems to me more and more of a narrative convention rather than what life’s actually like, so I’ve been more and more trying to avoid that sort of resolution, closure, or whatever you call it. I try to make it less like a novel.”
Less like a novel, more like life. It’s not a new ambition, but in Hollinghurst’s hands, it’s like watching Wassily Kandinsky or Clyfford Still go from painting what pictures are supposed to look like, and slowly, over a career, turning them into life in the world as they actually see it, a little jagged, a little unexpected.
The book’s very title, with that awkwardly specific name (not Sparshot, or Reinholt, or anything else that would have made readers stumble less) serves as a premonition of the sort of depiction of life this novel has in store.
Take Peter Coyle, for instance, who looks like he’ll be a major character in the book’s first Second World War-era Oxford section, along with his undergrad chums. But then he falls into the decades-long hole Hollinghurst leaves between the novel’s first and second sections. What happened to him?
“I think I would have a pretty vague idea of it myself,” Hollinghurst says, his apple juice left mostly unsipped as he warms to the conversation. “There’s nothing of the novel apart from what’s there. I decided before I started that Peter Coyle would appear in the beginning and would be one of the characters that wouldn’t come back.
“Part of the effect is lifelike. People flaring into prominence for a while and then disappearing and then perhaps 40 years later you meet them again.”
These memory holes can be jarring at first. They occur after each section and we only slowly learn who’s made it and who’s disappeared during the 60 years the novel covers. And then you realize this is more or less how life works, and you roll with it.
Just as he appeared at the forefront of the literary homosexual revolution of the 1980s, it seems Hollinghurst is responding to whatever it is in the ether that made Karl Ove Knausgaard the sensation he and his book My Struggle have been. Though his narrative gaps save him – and possibly the reader – from the sort of saga the Norwegian brought us, his project is largely the same. Fiction has always attempted in its varying ways to present us with life on the page, but Hollinghurst is now using the skills that have made him one of this era’s great writers in English to reproduce the loose artlessness of life, the dropped threads, the maybes and I don’t knows, the whatever happened to’s and the simple forgettings. And instead of whittling a quiver of radical techniques like the post-modernists who had similar ambitions several decades ago, Hollinghurst renders life in art without seeming to.
It’s the more difficult project, but it seems to have freed Hollinghurst. As our hour comes to a close, the conversation spills out onto the bright sidewalk, all very informal, chatty, even. He admits that though he used to love what he calls his “topographical research,” he never actually made it to Nuneaton, the central English town where his title character grew up. And when I ask if he ever sits and listens to people in public places taking notes, like a couple of his artist characters in Sparsholt do with their sketches, he says he once did, “jotting down that something said on a bus,” but no longer feels the need.
Now almost 64, Alan Hollinghurst seems to have got a handle on life; it seems to be treating him more gently and he’s returning the favour. Though his writing is every bit as chiselled as it’s always been – he describes club music as pounding like “a boring threat” parcelling out the crowd into “intimate shouting colonies” – the book and the man are a lot more comfortable with each other.