'I am interested in bad behaviour'

By Andrew Anthony

Alan Hollinghurst. Photo / Martin Sykes
Alan Hollinghurst. Photo / Martin Sykes

One of the literary world's most keenly awaited events has happened at last: the publication of a new novel by Alan Hollinghurst.

The Stranger's Child will be his fifth novel in 23 years, arriving seven years after his last and most celebrated book, the Booker prize-winning The Line of Beauty.

Hollinghurst is not a writer who rushes his words. His exquisitely poised sentences and vividly realised scenes emerge from a stately process of refinement. He estimates that he completes on average between 300 to 400 words in a day of writing, although there are many days in which nothing is forthcoming other than gestating thought.

He is said to have spent two years thinking about The Line of Beauty before embarking on the first chapter.

Yet while the final result of this deliberation is unfailingly polished, it's very seldom precious. Instead, his novels are engorged with a playful wit and a powerful eroticism.

Since his stunning debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, which Edmund White labelled "the best book about gay life yet written by an English author", Hollinghurst has been burdened with a reputation as an explicitly gay writer. If he finds the designation annoying, he has maintained a largely diplomatic stance in public.

"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," he said following his Booker win. "I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well."

The Stranger's Child is indeed about all sorts of other things. It begins in outer-suburban Harrow in 1913, the last summer before World War I, and spans the following century. At its centre are two families and a poem that is destined to resound with personal and social significance.

With its rarefied atmosphere, multi-generational timespan, depiction of the intrusion of war and the unfolding drama of a literary conceit and a disputed event, the novel is bound to be compared with Ian McEwan's Atonement. But the similarities are superficial and what stands out is Hollinghurst's distinctively delicious style and acuity of social observation.

He notes, for example, the strange familiarity and alienation of a young valet in the presence of a distinguished guest. This beady-eyed ability to cut through to the defining peculiarities of social relations is something Hollinghurst displayed right from the outset with The Swimming-Pool Library, but it was often said that it was restricted to male characters.

That criticism was comprehensively answered in The Line of Beauty, a fabulously elegiac account of the 1980s that featured several compelling female characters.

And it has now been made still more redundant in The Stranger's Child, whose sustaining character and dedicatee of the all-important poem is a woman who grows old with the narrative. Even the Sun newspaper would struggle to describe it as a "gay book", as it called The Line of Beauty.

The other criticism expressed about Hollinghurst's writing is that it lacks warmth, that his characters are essentially unsympathetic, even unlikeable. It's a judgment that serves to reduce the novel to a personality contest. What might be fairer to say is that Hollinghurst does not conceal the less appealing human qualities - vanity, selfishness, jealousy - and nor does he seek to delineate his characters according to their distribution.

"I don't make moral judgments," he has said. "I prefer to let things reverberate with their own ironies and implications."

Yet he is absorbed by questions of morality, which is one of the reasons he is not overly concerned with wholesome depictions of stoical strength. "The problem with nice people is that they're frightfully boring to write about," he told one interviewer. "What I've always been interested in is moral weakness. And, most of all, bad behaviour."

Hollinghurst has managed to avoid the distorting media exposure that tends to accompany literary success. Most of his readers would probably struggle to pick him out in a crowd. He has a loyal group of friends who are protective of his privacy. The writer Philip Hensher says: "He's a very likable person. He's very modest, he's very warm and a good friend. He has certain very strong values about culture and literature and he's just very good company."

Hollinghurst recently turned 57. He was born in Gloucestershire, the only child of a bank manager and his wife. He has said that his was "not the sort of family that spoke openly about feelings, but there was quite a deep sort of bond between us". He never announced to his parents he was gay.

"It just sort of seeped out, which seemed to me a perfectly satisfactory way of doing it."

He was sent to Canford school in Dorset and went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating in 1975 and completing his master of letters (he wrote his thesis on Ronald Firbank, E.M. Forster and L.P. Hartley, three writers who were gay) in 1979. At Oxford, he shared a flat with the poet Andrew Motion.

Hollinghurst was also a poet, winning the Newdigate Prize the year before Motion - he is godfather to Motion's oldest child. He also befriended at Oxford the late poet Mick Imlah, of whose work and life he wrote a moving celebration last year.

The pair went on to work together at the Times Literary Supplement, where Hollinghurst was the deputy editor between 1985 and 1990.

His introduction to London in the 1980s bore little resemblance to the cocaine nights that awaited Nick Guest, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty. "I spent most of my evenings sitting at home, writing a novel," he later said. "I did go to publishing parties, but I rather hated the business of emerging on to the street at 8.30pm, already drunk, wondering what to do next."

According to yet another poet and TLS deputy editor Alan Jenkins, it wasn't the most joyful period of Hollinghurst's life. "Before The Swimming-Pool Library," Jenkins recalled in 2004, "it didn't seem to me that Alan and being gay was particularly happy. A lot of it revolved around opera. After it, life became a sort of party."

The Swimming-Pool Library won Hollinghurst the Somerset Maugham prize and in 1993 he was named in Granta's list of best young British novelists. The following year, he cemented his position as a leading voice of his generation with The Folding Star, a beautiful meditation on love, sex and art that was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker prize.

Hollinghurst has described enjoying himself in a sort of chronological reversal, in which his 20s were his 40s, and his 40s his 20s. Aside from success, another pleasure lubricant was the drug ecstasy, which he has described with characteristic elegance. "I came to it rather late [at 40] but I'm very glad I did. It was ... one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences I've ever had."

The image of Hollinghurst clubbing on ecstasy may sit rather awkwardly alongside his deep appreciation of Wagner, a love of National Trust houses and gothic architecture and the monkish dedication to writing. But perhaps it's part of what Motion has called his "extraordinarily compartmentalised" approach to life.

It's a phrase that doesn't exactly cry out for the proximity of a life partner. Although there have been long-term affairs earlier on in his life, according to Jenkins, Hollinghurst "could be depended on to like boys who didn't like boys". The dalliance with rejection does not appear to have left him lacking in company or in need of one companion. Motion has said that his friend once told him he had never been lonely. "His sense of self is very centred," said Motion.

If there is longing, it's contained in the novels, where the pursuit of love is by turns comic and tragic and always far too dramatic for resolution. It's in this respect, as a genuine if unsentimental romantic, that Hollinghurst is a particularly unusual contemporary literary novelist. He may be coolly knowing but never bleakly ironic.

For while his characters are often promiscuous with their affections, they tend to be in thrall to the idea of a true love that is tantalisingly out of reach. Yet it's not love that's the illusion but the notion of its permanence. What survives is what the search for love can inspire: art.

The meaning of the thematic poem in The Stranger's Child develops and changes over time, buffeted by love and death and fashion. The novel in which it is carriedwill also doubtless undergo future reinterpretations. But there is something lasting in his writing that should outlive the tastes and vagaries of our time. History is more likely to see Hollinghurst for what he is - not a gay writer, but a great writer.

* The Stranger's Child (Picador $34.99) is out on Monday.

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