He had trouble publishing his explicit first book, but by 2004 he’d won the Booker prize. Alan Hollinghurst talks about living alone, the allure of the upper classes and why he’s not just a ‘gay writer’ any more
One line from Alan Hollinghurst’s new book, The Stranger’s Child, is lodged in my head as I arrive at his Hampstead flat. Daphne Sawle, a key figure in the book, whom we follow from a poetically inclined 16-year-old to a tough old boot of 83, is about to be interviewed by would-be biographer Paul Bryant. “He was only pretending to be a friend,” Daphne tells herself, “something no interviewer, probably, had ever been.”
Bryant duly writes his book and uncovers all sorts of secrets about Daphne’s tangled relationship with Cecil Valance, the Rupert Brooke figure at the centre of the novel, whose memory is fought over for decades after his death. I rather like Bryant – a “little wire-haired ratter”, according to Daphne – who becomes increasingly bombastic as the book proceeds. Hollinghurst is perhaps less enamoured of his character, and of biographers who confuse art with life. I ring the bell with trepidation.
Hollinghurst’s large flat, spread over three floors, overlooks the southern edge of Hampstead Heath. He lives alone – he generally has, though there have been “periods of experiment” with live-in partners – and the flat feels monastic. “I’m not at all easy to live with,” he says. “I wish I could integrate writing into ordinary social life, but I don’t seem to be able to. I could when I started. I suppose I had more energy then. Now I have to isolate myself for long periods. It’s all become more of a challenge. I find writing novels gets harder and harder, which is not what I thought would happen. I thought you’d learn how to do it.”
The carpets are beige – I feel an urge to remove my shoes; the walls white; each picture, each object, has its place; a cleaner is doing her weekly rounds – young, dark-haired, Spanish perhaps, the most beautiful cleaner you have ever seen. There is absolute silence, broken only by a loud burst of the overture to Swan Lake on Hollinghurst’s mobile phone when his mother calls. As well as Tchaikovsky’s lush ballet scores, he has an enduring love of Henry James – there is a bookcase of Jamesiana in his top-floor study. James became his art; forswore life to write perfect fictions. My immediate suspicion is that the pupil is taking the same course as the master, though I accept it is a large thesis to hang on beige furnishings.
The Stranger’s Child – the title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam – is Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, and his first since The Line Of Beauty won the Booker prize in 2004. His first four books, written over a span of almost 20 years, form a quartet that explore gay life in the UK, present and past. The Swimming-Pool Library, his sex-drenched first book, published in 1988, mapped the gay world before and after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality; The Folding Star (1994) was a disturbing study of pederastic desire; The Spell (1998) a sex-and-drugs-fuelled comedy of manners; The Line Of Beauty another dark comedy exposing the hypocrisy and cupidity of the 1980s.
Those four books seem like a set of themes and variations: hidden histories, young men’s rites of passage, the compulsion of desire, the fragility (perhaps even the impossibility) of love. He accepts that with The Stranger’s Child he has embarked on a new phase. “I did have a strong sense after The Line Of Beauty of having come to the end of what I rather pompously thought of as a sort of symphonic structure of four movements and coming back at the end to the time at which the first book was set. It did seem to seal something off. This is a book I would not have been able to write 10 years ago, a book about time and its workings, and memory and its failings.”
Did he worry about having to follow a Booker winner? “Not consciously. I’m quite good at shutting out those worries and expectations. But perhaps unconsciously I was. In a way, I was in this marvellous position that I could have done anything I wanted, and I meant to do something much smaller and quicker.” A cash-in book? He laughs. The seven-year gap since he won the Booker absolves him of that charge.
He initially set out to write short stories, but managed only one before another novel took root. “My first idea of it was that it would be a novel about the great war that didn’t actually have the great war in it. I thought it would be a two-part thing: the prewar section, and then you’d jump in again some time after the war and you’d pick up these people and see how their lives had been altered. But then when I added the idea of literary biography into the mix, I realised that I wanted to pursue it through further episodes.”
I wonder if, with the new novel done, he feels bereaved. “Normally, I do have a brief but acute sort of depression when I finish a book, which is to do with saying goodbye to this place you’ve been inhabiting. But I was so desperate to get this thing off that I seem to have escaped that.” He has a deep, drawly voice – so deep he used to be known as Basso Profundo when he worked at the Times Literary Supplement in the 80s – and a hesitant, donnish manner, but his brown eyes sparkle behind his glasses, and he laughs a great deal, managing to take himself very seriously and at the same time not in the least seriously.
One reason he was keen to finish the book was that he was running out of money. “I handed it in at the end of September, which was two years later than planned, so I had absolutely no money left. It was really getting quite hairy.” Winning the Booker netted £50,000, there were foreign rights, a TV adaptation, and then the advance for this book, but even a novelist as successful as Hollinghurst – producing on average a book every five years – is not earning a vast sum annually.
Many novelists do journalism to top up their earnings. Hollinghurst does the odd book review and literary essay, but he doesn’t do punditry. Isn’t he tempted? “No,” he says, “I don’t really have opinions. After The Line Of Beauty, I was always getting requests from newspapers, asking me what the election meant for Labour, that sort of thing. I said I didn’t have the faintest idea what the election meant for Labour. I just happened to have written a book that had a Tory politician in it.”
Hollinghurst’s hero, Henry James, had three distinct writing periods – early, middle and late. He even seems to have imagined them in capital letters. Does Hollinghurst think in those terms? “No,” he says firmly. “That would be insanely self-conscious and self-important. I’ve always felt I was going gropingly into the future.” Yet The Stranger’s Child, with its wider canvas, excavation of the past and rumination on whether we can ever really establish the truth, does mark a new chapter. It may not be Middle Hollinghurst, in the sense in which James would have understood it, but it is the work of a middle-aged writer, whereas the four earlier novels were the work of a younger man galvanised by his arrival in London and by exposure to a suddenly more assertive gay world after 10 years doing EngLit at Oxford in the 70s. If, as Schopenhauer said, the first 40 years of life supply the text and the next 30 the commentary on it, Hollinghurst, at 57, is now well into the latter.
I like to think his text phase was as exciting as his early novels might suggest, but he gets cagey when I ask if he was indeed “living the William Beckwith life” – Beckwith, the narrator of The Swimming-Pool Library, is a 25-year-old for whom any day without a new sexual partner is a day wasted – when he came to London in 1981. “Not entirely,” he replies, with something halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “But coming to London was a new phase. I didn’t have the capital to live the William Beckwith life, but I arrived with a feeling this was where I was going to be from now on.”
The great game that journalists – me, in fact, in Paul Bryant mode – play with Hollinghurst is trying to imagine to what degree the characters in his books are based on him. It’s absurdly reductive and he elegantly refuses to play along – all people really want to know, he once complained, is have I really fucked as many men as that? – but you can’t help it. Beckwith is a libidinous aesthete with a taste for beautiful young men, Wagner and the novels of early 20th-century gay writer Ronald Firbank (about whom Hollinghurst obsesses); in The Spell, the self-effacing, thirtysomething civil servant Alex Nichols discovers the drug ecstasy at about the same age Hollinghurst admits to having been captivated by it; in The Line Of Beauty, Nick Guest is an Oxford graduate writing a thesis about… you guessed it, Henry James.
Hollinghurst’s own life has to be pieced together from shards of fact; not unlike the way lives gradually, reluctantly reveal themselves in his books. He says he has been “incontrovertibly” gay since he was an undergraduate in the early 70s, but prefers not to say when he first realised he was gay. He was an only child, the son of a bank manager in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which one imagines in the 50s as a sleepy, conservative country town. Just such a town is the setting for one section of The Stranger’s Child; there is even a bank and a bank manager, who is married to Daphne’s daughter and has been psychologically damaged by the second world war. I ask whether there is anything of his own father in that portrait. “They are very unlike my own parents, I’m rather relieved to say, but I spent the first eight years of my life living in a house above a bank and playing in the bank after everyone had gone home, so it was a plunge into memory doing all that, and I rather enjoyed recreating it.”
In The Spell, Alex – who has “contracted the occasional ailment of the late developer, an aversion to his own past” – recalls his horror of the country town in which he’d grown up, with its “old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes [and] photos of fetes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of the newspaper office, which might almost have been the window of a museum”. He also tenderly recalls the solitary child’s “taste for lonely places”, playing hide and seek alone. “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother tells him. “It’s just hide.”
Hard though Hollinghurst tries to hide in public, he drops in clues about himself throughout his novels. He even appears in person at the end of The Spell, “a sympathetic-looking man with short grey hair and a darker goatee”, spotted by Alex when he goes cruising on Hampstead Heath. Another character in The Spell, an unappealing antique dealer called George, is said to have “a delight in artifice and a mania for honesty”. The same might be said for Hollinghurst.
Stroud might have been terminally inhibiting for the young Hollinghurst, but he escaped. At eight his “aspirational” parents took the curious decision to send him to prep school as a boarder. “Neither of my parents had been to boarding school, but they thought it was important,” he says vaguely. From there, he went to Canford public school in Dorset, also as a boarder, and it proved an artistic awakening. “Being in a beautiful and interesting old house made a profound impression on me at an early stage.” The decision to send him away was to be the making of the young aesthete, as well as the beginning of the remarkable voice.
The relationship with his parents is hard to fathom, and he is reluctant to speak about them – “I cringe from saying anything that might be used to make them into figures of curiosity or comedy,” he tells me later in an email. It has sometimes been implied that his father reacted badly to The Swimming-Pool Library – he has been quoted as saying, “I believe that what they are doing is against the law” – but Hollinghurst says the remark has been taken out of context. “All my father said to me was that he supposed Will was breaking the law by having an affair with Arthur [his young black lover], who was under the then legal age. It was an oblique but coolly clever way of dealing with what both my parents must have found a rather shocking book. But they were both from the start delighted by the book’s success, and movingly supportive of my freedom to write whatever I wanted.” His father died in 1991, three years before The Folding Star was published, but his mother, though frail at 92, is making steady headway with The Stranger’s Child and calling him with enthusiastic updates on her progress.
Hollinghurst enjoyed his time at Canford, and wrote enthusiastically about it in the old boys’ magazine, the Canfordian, a couple of years ago, recalling with affection two teachers who had opened his mind to poetry, painting and architecture. The critic Peter Parker, who was at school with him, says he “never thought of him as a boy – he always seemed old”. Parker recalls that Hollinghurst had a self-deprecating manner and even then his trademark bass voice, and that the poetry he wrote for the magazine Parker founded was mature and fully formed: “I am rather proud to have been his first publisher.”
Parker stresses that Canford was not Eton, yet there is a sense in which Hollinghurst’s parents’ decision to place their serious-minded son among a certain class of boys determined all that followed. I ask whether he accepts his books exhibit a fascination with upper-class life – a recurring milieu that some critics suggest limits his work – and when we will get his great mining novel. “Don’t count on it any time soon,” he says unabashed. “I’ve always felt rich people have more scope for behaving badly, or for behaving amusingly badly perhaps. Some of those issues were addressed in The Line Of Beauty: the interest in lovely old houses and possessions, inevitably entailing some sort of consideration of the people who live in them and own them. There are habits that I haven’t shaken off. Whenever I go to any place, I go and look at the church, and it’s an interest I put straight into my book. I probably do too much of it. There have been big Victorian country houses in my last three novels. I had to be careful this book wasn’t marketed as a Downton Abbey-type thing, and I hope it doesn’t trade in easy nostalgia and fantasy about the past; rather the opposite.”
Hollinghurst does indeed look tweedy and staid in the school photograph that accompanies his article in the Canfordian. He has described living his life in reverse: hemmed in in his teens and 20s, when he was at Oxford, living in a house with Andrew Motion and doing a thesis on three gay writers, EM Forster, Firbank and LP Hartley, working at a time when it was not possible to write openly about homosexuality; then flowering in his 30s after he came to London.
Though he always had a novel “on the go”, Hollinghurst initially saw himself as a poet. He published a well-received volume of poetry with the provocative title Confidential Chats With Boys in 1982, but says the muse deserted him in 1985 on the day he signed a contract for a book of poems with Faber. In any case, by then the novel that was to establish him was well under way.
He started writing The Swimming-Pool Library in 1984 and it appeared to general acclaim four years later. “It all looked rather dicey before it came out,” he recalls. “No one would buy the paperback rights. People didn’t quite know how to handle it.” Publishers feared that, as a book by a gay author, with a gay protagonist and lashings of gay sex, it might attract only a niche audience, but it did astonishingly well in hardback and suddenly the paperback rights were a hot property. “It changed my life,” he says. Having been deputy editor at the TLS, he went part-time in 1990 and left after The Folding Star was published in 1994.
One question he refuses to engage with is whether he is still pigeonholed as a gay writer. This was the canard that followed him on his promotional tour for The Line Of Beauty, when interviewers asked whether his gayness defined him as a writer and every news piece was headlined, “Gay writer wins Booker”. “I have a feeling it’s changed,” he says. “I spent 20 years politely answering the question, ‘How do you feel when people categorise you as a gay writer?’ and I’m not going to do it this time round. It’s no longer relevant.”
Can he imagine writing a book with no gay characters or gay themes? Pause. “I still slightly feel there are a lot of those around already, and I’m not sure my heart would be completely in it.” He has embarked on his next novel, and says it will “certainly have a gay strand in it, though the protagonists will all be more or less heterosexual.” The “more or less” is significant: sexuality in Hollinghurst’s world is fluid. “There’s a lot in The Stranger’s Child which is rather liminal,” he says. “There’s quite a lot of bisexuality. One of the ideas of the book is about the unknowability or uncategorisability of human behaviour, and I was rather tempted into those ambiguous sexual areas.”
He was never a writer of manifestos, but his early novels were to some extent conscious efforts to bring gay writing and gay life into the mainstream. That phase is now over. “With the first book, I was deliberately choosing the subject of the homosexual world and history. Now books come upon me in a more sly and roundabout way. Themes emerge in the process of writing.” But some of the old imperatives still assert themselves. “Sexual behaviour, sexual mores and sexual psychology are fascinating, and I will always write about them.” Hollinghurst’s mania for honesty means that intellect, the hankering for order and beauty, will always be subverted by the messy realities of desire.
• The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is published by Picador at £20. To order a copy for £16 (including UK mainland p&p) go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.