Powers of Observation

Man Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst talks about his career and craft

Many of us came to the work of British novelist Alan Hollinghurst for the sex in his first novel, “The Swimming-Pool Library” in 1988, but we have stayed—as we do in all good relationships—because we found someone who understands us. It is hard to get through a page of his “The Line of Beauty,” just out in paperback, without being rewarded by an insight into human behavior—particularly of the gay men who sprang from his imagination into a story set in the London when Thatcher and AIDS devastated us.

The Iron Lady—at the height of her power—is the only real person among the characters in “Line,” or so Hollinghurst suggested to me during his stop in New York on his U.S. book tour. His own formidable power––of observation—seems to be so keen in his work that I fleetingly worry about, or perhaps lust after, being skewered in some fashion in the next book by the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

“Has a friend ever given you grief when he or she saw himself turn up in some form in one of your novels?” I asked.

“That’s never happened to me, actually” Hollinghurst said. “I’ve never put anyone straight into a book—with the exception of Mrs. Thatcher. I’ve always felt that real people existed in a different continuum from an imagined one. I have to see my characters walking and talking. I never think of them as someone else, so I haven’t had people complaining or thanking me.”

Hollinghurst, now 51, was educated at Oxford where he wrote his thesis on writers such as E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L.P. Hartley, “who were gay, but had not been able to write openly about their sexuality, which in Forster’s case famously led him to give up writing fiction altogether.”

He continued, “I was interested in the way that concealment was a spur to invention and I think that it led Forster to write a kind of novel that hadn’t existed before as it did Firbank.” Hollinghurst looked for “coded hints of their sexuality” and “what happened when the restrictions were taken away.”

“L.P. Hartley’s masterpiece was ‘The Go-Between,’ but later on he let his guard down and wrote books with rather sadomasochistic gay themes that were absolutely terrible.” Now, he said, “gay literature as a genre is pretty much over” after its flowering in the 1970s. “I always write about gay life, but the urgency and novelty has gone out of it for me and I have a feeling that writing about gay life will merge back into the mainstream.”

After trying to write his own novels of concealment, Hollinghurst finally broke through with the explicit and terrific “The Swimming-Pool Library,” which Edmund White called “the best book written about gay life by an English author” in 1988. He followed with “The Folding Star” and “The Spell,” also now out in paperback.

At a time when so many writers and artists were still closeted, especially with the burgeoning AIDS pandemic, was he worried what such a debut would do to his career?

“I was aware that it was a novel thing to be writing in this way, but I always manage to take myself to a private space when I’m writing,” Hollinghurst explained. “I’ve always been good at shutting out anxieties about what everybody may expect of me and want me to say or not to say.”

He added, “I might not have finished it if I thought about what my family might say.”

It is hard to tell the truth, literally and artistically, and we can be grateful that Hollinghurst has had the guts and the talent to convey it.

Gay progress in Britain, with Civil Partnerships set to dawn before the end of the year, “looks pretty good at the moment,” he said. “There’s so much that I deplore about Tony Blair, most obviously on the Iraq War, but I’m obliged to say that his record on gay matters has been very good.”

He cited the repeal of the anti-gay Clause 28 that banned mention of homosexuality in schools and the equalization of the age of consent to16, where it had long been for heterosexuals.

The 2004 Man Booker Prize was “a nice encouraging professional thing,” but it also led to a “busy year touring around the world” and not starting another novel, which he plans to begin “early next year.”

Hollinghurst said he starts his books around particular places or buildings and he is looking forward to getting back to his Hampstead house in which we can only hope more good novels will be built.

Andy Humm’s interview with Alan Hollinghurst will be on “Gay USA” on Thursday, November 10 at 11 p.m. in Manhattan on Time-Warner 34, RCN 107, and simulcast at MNN channel 34. It will be seen nationally on the Dish Network through Free Speech TV throughout the week.

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