‘That men may rise on stepping-stones': an interview with Alan Hollinghurst

15 Jul 2012

Alan Hollinghurst
Copyright: Robert Taylor, 2010

Alan Hollinghurst is the critically acclaimed author of five novels and two collections of poetry. He joined the TLS in 1982, holding the post of deputy editor from 1985 to 1990, and he still occasionally reviews for various periodicals. His debut novel in 1989, The Swimming-Pool Library, impressed the literary world with its stylistically flawless depiction of gay sexuality in Eighties London. He has been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, winning the Booker in 2004 with The Line of Beauty. The critic Robert Douglas Fairhurst has called him ‘the finest prose stylist of his generation’, describing his works as sitting ‘invitingly between the intellectually risky and the sexually risqué’.

His most recent novel, The Stranger’s Child (2011), explores the stories that form around the figure of a young poet killed in the First World War, across three generations of his family.

Will Bowers met him in Bloomsbury to discuss this latest work, the nature of biographies, Georgian poetry, and ideas of the canon.

Alan, I’d like to start by talking about strangers. The word comes in the title of the current novel, and the protagonists in your works are often guests in an alien situation. 

Yes I suppose they are all outsiders in one way or another; outsiders are useful for novelists as they tend to go into a new area very alert to what is different and particular about it whilst perhaps retaining the values and the strong sense of where they came from. I think a novelist can use an outsider as an observer in an interesting way.

Paul Bryant [the protagonist of the second-half of The Stranger’s Child] is more than a stranger; he’s an interloper – there’s the scene when he says, “I’m a bit of an outsider here.” Were you trying to make him more starkly different than in previous works?

Yes, he’s a more exaggerated version of the Nick Guest [the protagonist of The Line of Beauty] figure in a way. He’s aiming to get something rather different out of the world he’s entering. I was deliberately playing a game of depriving Paul of various things that I’d given to Nick and other protagonists.  I recognise I have a tendency to give my protagonists a lot of my own interests and enthusiasms – so they are all terribly boned up on Classical architecture and Wagner and things –and I thought actually, I’m not going to give them to Paul, and that was quite a struggle. But I decided the piano recital scene in The Line of Beauty would have its counterpart in  that scene in The Stranger’s Child when Paul calls himself an outsider. Where Nick is the only person in the room who is taking the recital seriously, Paul, the outsider, is totally tone-deaf and is aware that there is some sort of shared communication going on amongst the people in the music but he doesn’t know what it is.

Click here to read a review of
The Stranger’s Child

Both music scenes occur in what Henry James would call “occasions” where you can get everybody in the room. I was hoping you could tell us how these “occasions” structure The Stranger’s Child.

I suppose the first two parts are just “occasions” as each is a weekend party. I had a structure in mind where each section showed the very slow coming together of two people and culminated in a kiss or sometimes rather more. So you have Daphne and Cecil coming together in the first part, Daphne and Revel coming together in the second part, then Peter and Paul, and then Paul and Daphne coming together – he kisses Daphne as he says goodbye to her at the end of the fourth part of the book, which is a rather unwelcome surprise to her.  That fourth section of the book is a series of encounters. It doesn’t include a social event, though the fifth part then begins with a memorial service. I have always found those scenes very useful for lots of obvious reasons: bringing people together, and showing the disinhibiting way people’s behaviour changes over the course of a party – they get drunk, and the potential for things to be exposed or go wrong is all the greater. And if you are seeing this all through the viewpoint of one character, be it written in the third or first person, it is a very useful way of assembling  people and situations that you want your character to interact with.

Your previous characters who are very au fait with high culture are also noticeably superficial. They often prefer art to life, although the novels as a whole approach love, illness, war and such. But the protagonists seem to be – and I think Cecil Valance fits this mould – a bit vacuous.

Cecil doesn’t seem to be particularly cultured – he knows his Tennyson, but he doesn’t like music, for instance. But I think it’s a complicated thing, and it’s in a way the thing I wrote The Line of Beauty to address, which is my own strongly aesthetically swayed nature. Of course I do think that the appreciation of beauty and the creation of beautiful works of art is intensely important. These are the things that will far outlast the transient horrors of the day. But to be absorbed in them to the exclusion of any understanding of  these horrors is a moral deficiency, and that was the sort of conflict I was trying to look at in The Line of Beauty.

I remember there was a review of The Spell  by Hal Jensen in the TLS. He made some remark about how I showered just as much closeness of attention on some irrelevant decorative detail as on some terribly important point, and actually I saw there was some interesting truth in that; I was conscious in a way of wanting to tackle that question in my subsequent book. Also, I suppose the early protagonists, Will Beckwith [The Swimming-Pool Library ] and Edward Manners [The Folding Star] are people who live very much in their own worlds of desire and obsession.

And there’s a kind of evasiveness in that isn’t there? In the preface to The Spoils of Poynton, James talks about his preference for art over life, that ‘life as opposed to art is all inclusion and confusion, life has no direct sense whatsoever for the subject.’. Art, however, does have that ‘direct sense’: Edward can just focus on Luc, and Paul can just focus on telling the Valance story. And The Line of Beauty has that tendency too.

Yes, life or even death keeps thwarting Nick’s plans. That’s a very good line from James, especially being from Poynton. [Poynton is the novel Nick tries to make a film of in The Line of Beauty].

It would make a terrible film wouldn’t it?

Yes, I was rather up against it there. It was the only major James novel that hadn’t been made into a film, but it seemed so thematically apt. In a way, the coarse American film producers that Nick and Wani get in with are absolutely right: if you are going to make a workable film, it would be rather hard  to do without rewriting the story.

I think this evasiveness comes out in the indeterminate nature of the endings.

Yes, but what it all springs from I don’t quite know. Perhaps it does come back to a gay thing, a sort of dread of moral absolutes and prescriptiveness, a certain sense of the relativity of things, a sense of desirable openness generally in one’s judgments. There is, furthermore, in The Stranger’s Child the question of whose story this actually is. The Line of Beauty is very strongly a story about one person, all seen from his point of view, but in The Stranger’s Child, at the beginning of the third part, for instance, we are suddenly plunged into the world of somebody whom we don’t have the faintest idea about and who will then come at the world we previously knew from a quite new angle , hardly knowing anything about it but picking it up, as we do in life. If you meet people relatively late in their lives, you have all this work of constructing their past as you get to know them, which you can only do in a very approximate way. So the way in which the story becomes somebody else’s is, I suppose, something that has always haunted me. I think it’s something you get a lot in Firbank – the sense of people being a major character in their own lives, but only minor characters in other people’s.

Moving on from outsiders, the most displacing thing for the reader in The Stranger’s Child is all the lacunae. How much did you expect your reader to struggle?

Oh a little bit, but I hope in a sort of consensual way, and I thought part of the fun of the book would be its puzzle elements. I worried that people might be frustrated, that some of the puzzle solutions are not actually offered. The idea that the reader would continue to share the uncertainty of people in the book about what had actually happened was very much part of the design. So there are certain things the reader knows for sure, and there’s a vast amount they don’t. I was trying to do something that was more like life – that seemed to be important.

On the other side of that – and it’s particularly evident in The Line of Beauty and in The Stranger’s Child –  is the way that, at the level of the sentence, the reader can receive nearly everything; there’s no indeterminacy, not a great deal of openness to interpretation.

Yes, I try to be as exact as possible about what’s happening in the moment.

So there’s this exactness in the moment – that party in 1986 for example – which is played against the reader’s ignorance about, say, 1984 or 1985.

Exactly. This last book was so much about the muddle of ignorance and supposition, about half-remembered things that constitute so much of our sense of the past. I was trying to recreate that for the reader because there is a rather strong counter-tendency to that in fiction I think, to sort out or to resolve and clarify, which I suppose is the detective story model. There’s another kind of literary model, perhaps something more like in Possession – a riddle that is more or less solved by the end of the book…

And isn’t that the thing about Possession? It is completely solved, and I don’t think it is as satisfying for that.

Well, I admire it in all sorts of ways but I did slightly feel that about it. I thought it was more accurate to real-life experiences for the reader to be left in a state of conjecture about all sorts of things. I think in a way The Swimming-Pool Library was like that – it’s that model of a book that contains a secret which, once revealed somewhere near the end, will make everything else make sense. That doesn’t seem to me to be like life, really. Of course there is a sense of indeterminacy in the final upbeat of the book, as it were. Where is it going next? We don’t know. Something is clarified by Will’s discovery about his grandfather and so forth. I think there’s always quite a bit of plot resolution before the end of my books and then there’s a sort of coda. This final indeterminacy I wanted to make far more integral to the whole book for The Stranger’s Child.

The biggest challenge for me was the first half, which takes place before and after the First World War. I’ve heard you mention in interviews that you didn’t want this to be Downton Abbey-esque. The first half focuses on the life and death in the War of Cecil Valance, and the first thing that comes to mind about him is the question of whether his life really is that interesting.

Cecil’s life probably isn’t that interesting, and he probably didn’t write anything good, and it’s in cheerful defiance of this that people read his work. Something else is going on, which has to do with mythologising : what happens to a person who obviously has charisma after they have died? And there are the very peculiar circumstances of dying young with a certain amount of potential in that war. The sort of thing which happened to the reputation of such writers: that seemed to be the interesting thing.

One or two of the more dissatisfied reviewers said, “Well really what is all the fuss about, I don’t think Cecil was a good poet; ‘Two Acres’ isn’t a good poem!” I think they were rather missing the point. I think of the First World War as a very emotive subject, but I absolutely didn’t want to write a book about it itself, but rather a book about other things. I think the first part is the one that is situated in the most familiar fictional territory. There’s a whole Forsterish world to that part of the book, the lurking irony of what we all know is going to come afterwards, but that only forms a strand of that section.

It’s a very long time since I read Jacob’s Room actually, and while that’s about someone who was killed in the war, it’s actually mainly just about the events leading up to the war–the war itself is elided. It’s quite interesting how young novelists who lived through that war themselves wanted to deal with it. Did Woolf ever write about the war itself? I’m very interested in Ronald Firbank, who wrote four novels during the course of the Great War, and none of them, nor any of his subsequent novels, allude to its happening in any way at all! I think it was just a colossal inconvenience for him.

I’ve heard you say in interviews that your original intention was for a before-and-after-the-war novel. But the later Paul character is very different,  very postmodern – a character who writes a biography of the first two parts of the book.

Yes, and in a way the reader knows better than Paul. I can’t exactly remember when I changed from the two-part structure, the before-and-after-the-war novel, but I think quite early on in the process it became clear to me that it would go on. I got very interested in the history and vicissitudes of biography through the twentieth century and the key figure of Lytton Strachey. I reviewed the edition of Strachey’s letters for the New York Review of Books and was fairly embarrassed that I’d read very little of his work before, so I went and read virtually every word he ever wrote. I got terribly interested in him, and of course Eminent Victorians  is such a wonderful subversion of the received concept of biography; then he himself became the subject of this very historically important biography by Michael Holyroyd.

I’m reading a wonderful book of bits and pieces by Mark Girouard called Enthusiasms. He has a wonderful passage that says, behind the brassier sounds of life around 1900 you can hear, if you listen carefully, this scratching and snipping of the widows and children of various famous people getting to work on their manuscripts and letters and a faint smell of burning in the air.

Because that’s the danger of biography isn’t it? You’ve mentioned that some people are only one-biography figures –Firbank for example –and isn’t that the danger of Paul?

There are times when completely the wrong person writes the biography.  I mean who knows, there may have been merits to Paul’s biography, but that danger was something I had in mind – the danger of when a biography goes wrong or is unreliable. When it has fallen into the hands of someone with their own agenda, and whose prime concern is often to make a name for themselves, the author is not writing it purely out of an interest in or concern for this dead person; they’re doing it to publish a book. Writing a biography requires wisdom, understanding and tact, judgment of a kind that writing a novel requires in a way. They’re both explorations of life, just in different ways. There are biographers you know from the start of the book you have no confidence in, and I think old Miriam Benkovitz was like that with Firbank – she hadn’t a clue what he was about.

This ties in to the conversation about the lacunae in the sense that the events in a novel or biography that the author puts the emphasis on demonstrates where the skill lies.

I think that’s right.  These vast biographies that include absolutely everything can get a bit dull. I long for the days of the biographical portrait, but it takes a supreme amount of skill to select and condense. I loved Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton– she proceeds in the confidence that the reader will want to go with her on these quite essayistic explorations and digressions on subjects which were of great interest to Edith Wharton. They flow out from the mainstream of the chronological narrative, but they are utterly worth having as they enrich the picture.

Something that enriches your novels are the epigraphs. You’ve said before that you prefer to begin a novel with a certain scene, rather than a plot or a structure. How early in the process does the epigraph arrive?

When I’m working on a book, things seem to work their way into it. I have the front page of a jotter in which I write down things that strike me when I’m reading. There’s an Empson essay in Some Versions of Pastoral on Alice in Wonderland where he quotes in full the section for the epigraph to The Line of Beauty, and it just struck me as wildly funny and brilliantly heard and seen. The White Rabbit corrects the King “Unimportant, your majesty means”,  and I thought that’s exactly right for Nick. It was kind of happenstance in a way, coming upon it and the whole Wonderland at that moment, the whole slightly dreamlike dimension.

As for the ones in The Stranger’s Child, I’ve got those Edith Sitwell poems in Façade more or less by heart. I’ve known them since I was a boy, so when Mrs Kalbeck was turned by the children into Mrs Cow, I thought, that settles that: ‘Man must say farewell/ To parents now,/ And to William Tell, And Mrs. Cow’.

And The Stranger’s Child has epigraphs for its individual parts as well?

Not for every one, but for most. I don’t think you want too many epigraphs; there are some novelists  who have pages of epigraphs, but a work can’t be read through six frames. It’s an almost academic anxiety, the need to cover all bases. The one from Mick’s [Imlah] poem was because our shared love of Tennyson was rather integral to the book Mick wrote this amazing poem for Tennyson’s centenary. He uses an epigraph from Tennyson himself in the poem: Tennyson says he was walking down Cheapside or somewhere, and he was suddenly struck that a hundred years hence, everyone he could now see would be dead.

The “no one remembers you at all” from Mick Imlah is a good place to start talking about the influence of other writers in your work. I was wondering how conscious you are of renovating authors, like Firbank, Housman, Isherwood or all those Edwardian poets – writers who, for better or worse, have been forgotten?

I think it was more deliberate or programmatic in The Swimming-Pool Library, especially things about Firbank – it was a way of getting my own enthusiasms in to the book. The idea that the book would touch on a canon would be a much too pompous way of putting it, but certainly it touches on some key figures. So you have the glimpses of Firbank and the wish fulfilment of the film at the end, capturing  the last outing he made with Lord Berners to Genzano. And there were the things about E. M. Forster and Benjamin Britten. There it was more deliberate.

And Isherwood? Isn’t the relationship between Will and Charles similar to that of William and Mr. Norris in Mr. Norris Changes Trains?

It probably is. I’m sure it was swimming around in the back of my mind, but I don’t think I make any explicit allusion to it. I probably borrow more than I realise.

I think the world of forgotten poets in old anthologies is interesting – the Georgian anthologies, the kind of things that fill up secondhand bookshops, the Golden Treasury world – which is sort of what Edward Manners had been brought up in. And in The Stranger’s Child we go back in to the making of that world. And so we get Sebby Stokes, who is obviously an Eddie Marsh-type figure – not himself a creator but rather a facilitator.

And in the poem within the novel, ‘Two Acres’, we have an Edwardian pastiche. How was writing that?

Well it didn’t take long! And I didn’t write very much of it, twenty or so lines, so it was very easy to cobble it all as I went along. Although, as you’ve said most Georgian poetry is forgotten. It’s all down to those quotations competitions that I know these poems so well. Things like Nemo’s Almanac, a competition now in its 120th year, I should think, which I was the editor and compiler of for about nine years. Before me, it was edited by John Fuller, who was my tutor at Oxford. It’s an annual publication in the form of a booklet with 12 months within it, and each month has six quotations on a related theme with no authors being repeated in the year. You have to try and identify as many as possible. At the end of my very first tutorial in Oxford, John sold me a copy for twenty pence or something, and I became completely hooked. I did terribly well in the early years. I never go into the top three prize winners, but I was rubbing shoulders with John Carey and Dame Helen Gardner. It had a sister publication, which I think is going to fold this year in its 115th year called Hide and Seek. It was run by some slightly mysterious old ladies who called themselves the Twangers. That drew very much on Victorian and Georgian poetry – the world of anthologies, Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Victorian verse, that whole world we’ve now forgotten. I’ve long felt peculiarly familiar with that whole world. I think in both cases [The Folding Star and The Stranger’s Child], this was a part of the novel’s world.

With The Folding Star, and in the Tennyson of The Stranger’s Child, or the Rape of the Lock in The Swimming-Pool Library there is also an engagement with canonical verse. Are major poets as integral as they appear in the novels?

Yes, there is quite a bit of Pope.  I remember quite deliberately sticking those allusions in there. I grew up on poetry much more than I did on the novel: in my adolescence, I only really read the prose I had to for A-level, and Jane Austen at about 17; I didn’t have a childhood immersed in fiction. But it was immersed in Tennyson, Keats, and Wordsworth and memorising a lot of it. We had a book at school called Fifteen Poets:  Chaucer to Arnold, and that was really my canon before being introduced to Eliot and so on. So poetry was the dominant background, really, and I used to write a lot of poetry. I think particularly when I was writing The Folding Star I was reading poetry all the time, and going back to Comus, not quite in a mechanical way of looking for phrases, but exploring the more Miltonic/Collins thing around the Evening Star. I did Comus at A-level and absolutely adored parts of it – those incredibly beautiful descriptions of the woods and the evening, that pastoral use of the word ‘lawns’ to mean ‘country’. I was thinking about the common in the town were Edward lives and was tapping into those pastoral poetical lines.

In The Stranger’s Child, there seems an allusion to the death of a lot of that English canon and the coming of the Americans ‘writing at this moment’ which Sebby doesn’t fully understand.

When Sebby is talking to George in the chapel, yes? He is a bit non-plussed by these new American poets. You know Marsh’s preface to the first Georgian Anthology? ‘This book is published in the belief that British poetry is putting on a new strength…’ You know it almost instantly seems dated and not true.

To finish I thought I could ask you about the change in your work from The Swimming-Pool Library to your latest novel. As critics have begun to mention, they are quite different, and the reviews seem to have finally stopped the ‘Chronicler of Gay Britain’ moniker. I do find The Stranger’s Child very different in style and theme, particularly the increased role of heterosexual relationships.

Yes, I wasn’t making a point to my critics or anything; it’s just how the book was. The Swimming-Pool Library was a book of its moment, but I certainly don’t want to write it again, although I think there are people who would like me to. The Stranger’s Child works in a larger and more varied context; it isn’t in the first-person, which usually makes for a much more direct work. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the first person. I’ve just read Edmund White’s new novel [Jack Holmes and His Friend], which is about the friendship between a gay man and straight man over quite a long period. It’s in three parts, and the outer two are seen from the point of view of the gay man in the third person while the middle section is narrated by the straight man in the first person. Edmund does this rather funny and clever thing by writing about straight sex and so on as though it’s incredibly novel. It goes back to the sixties, to the ignorance and distaste with which the straight man must speculate about what gay people get up to. I think having a bit of the book in the first person is good, but it raises all sorts of epistemological questions about whether this person writing this part in the third person is putatively the third person author, and all the rest of it. And it requires more “occasions”. How do you get access to other people’s viewpoints in the first person? There is a little bit of that in The Stranger’s Child when Paul is writing up his interviews. It presented a technical problem, and I wanted to write up each one in a different way. So there’s one where the tape-recorder fails, and he’s writing it up from his notes just as a variation. And there are various bits from books or diaries cropped in. They’re never bold juxtapositions like Esther Summerson’s narrative in Bleak House, which I’m not sure quite comes off. If I do switch between forms of narration now, it tends to be only for local or illustrative effect. But who knows what I might do next?

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