We caught up with Alan Hollinghurst in his hotel suite at the Crowne Plaza in Hong Kong, where he had come to rest under his publisher Pan Macmillan’s auspices during his tour to promote his most recent novel, The Stranger’s Child. His tour in the Asia-Pacific region included Beijing, where he had been invited to take part in the 2nd Capital Literary Festival at Michelle Garnaut’s restaurant, Capital M. His tour does not, this time, take in much of Asia; he was moving next directly to Australia for another literary festival. This was his first visit to Hong Kong since 2005, when he spoke to an audience at Hong Kong University.
“Things have changed since then,” he explained, “and the British Council no longer invites authors to tour so extensively as it did.” It was the invitation from Beijing that brought him East this time. This is despite the impact his novels have had on the English-reading public in Asia, and the success his books have had in translation; The Line of Beauty has been translated for Mainland and Taiwanese readers, and The Swimming Pool Library has been translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean. This, though, sums up the limits of his exposure so far to Asia.
“I’ve not yet been moved to treat an Asian subject,” he adds. “Things propose themselves to me for subjects of novels in a mysterious way, and I haven’t yet been inspired to touch on an Asian theme.”
The setting of his most recent novel is most definitely England. Imaginary English poet Cecil Valance is the subject rather than anything that might be described as the hero of The Stranger’s Child. Not that he appears too often, being dead for most of the plot, but his presence is what carries the book and links the characters who emerge in it through five separate segments of time spanning a century of English social and, to a good extent, gay life. Cecil is the rather precious prism through which we see change, both in people and times.
Hollinghurst is brave (and talented) enough to give us some of his verse. Mostly Cecil is not a very good poet, like many of his fellow Georgians; here he is waxing over-lyrical about Corley, his family’s ancestral pile in the English county of Berkshire:
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the Stranger’s Child
Corley is a house based, so Hollinghurst revealed to us, on his own preparatory school of St. Hugh’s, which occupies Carswell Manor on the road between Faringdon and Oxford. In the story, Corley too becomes a school and thus endures, but the characters in the book come and go over a century, fresh associations blowing for each, and each in some way searching for, yet failing to find, the soul of the enigma that is Cecil. As we see him, and to be fair, we have no better view of Cecil than his contemporaries, he is a self-besotted, supremely selfish product of the English upper classes of the generation that came to age just before the First World War. It was a war in which, in good Rupert Brooke style, he died, and in which he, like Brooke, caught the soul of his sentimental countrymen with poems of an idyllic England where
Between the White Horse downs and Radcot Bridge
Nothing but corn and copse and shadowed grazing
Grey village spires and sleeping thatch, and stems
Of moon-faced mayweed under poplars gazing
Upon their moon-cast shadows in the Thames.
Cecil could at times touch the sublime, and Hollinghurst is very clever to let him do so, though he instinctively won’t stand for too much perfection and deliberately gives us one too many moons in poor Cecil’s last two lines to spoil them and make up for the beauty of his first three. It is very clever of Hollinghurst, too, to use dead Cecil to prick so gently yet so damningly so many bubbles of English social pretension. What Cecil means to each English generation in the century after his death changes with fashion and social mores. Fade he might in people’s memories, but what remains suffers a sea-change with each passing generation. So which of all these Cecils is he? Even Alan Hollinghurst is unsure.
Cecil’s most famous poem, the ‘Two Acres’ that endeared him to his English posterity, is one of the worst Hollinghurst inflicts on us:
The spinney where the lisping larches
Kiss overhead in silver arches
And in their shadows lovers too
Might kiss and tell their secrets through
This poem, arch as it may be, is nevertheless the key to the plot of Hollinghurst’s novel, for, though posterity largely takes the lovers it commemorates to be Cecil and the girl his death will leave his brother Dudley to marry, those lovers who lisp in the two acre garden are actually Cecil and her brother George. Which brings us to the writer’s first theme, which is to examine through fiction the social history of gay life in Britain from the end of the Victorian era to the age of gay activist Peter Tatchell and civil partnerships.
Hollinghurst has visited different parts of this historical territory before in The Swimming Pool Library and in the book that won him the Booker prize, The Line of Beauty, but here the five segments of this novel give a broader sweep and allow him to connect the strands that run through Anglo-Saxon attitudes to homosexuality over the whole period.
It is a gentler version of gay life than Hollinghurst has given us before; the sex is more restrained and incidental to the plot. This reflects, he thinks, both his own changes of emphasis as he’s grown older and the way English society has changed markedly since he wrote The Swimming Pool Library. That, his first book, he says, “was unmistakeably a gay novel and it had a definite gay programme. When I wrote it in 1984, the AIDS crisis and the anti-gay backlash was only just beginning and the fun, and the point of the book, was the in-your-face gay sex. One doesn’t want to repeat oneself, though”, he adds.
Then it was certainly the case, and it is still, he feels, true to a degree today that being labelled a “gay novelist” could be limiting. “You can be”, he explains, “dismissed as ‘just’ a gay writer. Conversely, being gay and a novelist free to write about gay life liberates you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Rather, in fact, as E.M. Forster put it in Maurice – being gay saved Maurice.”
Nowadays, though, when the world in the West has moved so far, a writer can concentrate on whatever he or she wants to write about as well as include that extra element of perspective and experience that being gay brings. So though gayness is no longer so central, perhaps, to Hollinghurst’s interests, it remains one of the better colours in his palette. It seems we will not be losing the gay elements in his works at any time in the near future.
So despite the gay themes fundamental to this book, gay life is not, I think, Hollinghurst’s principal concern in this novel. For his tale waxes and wanes tidally as its characters pass through youth to prime and finally to senescence and decay, each wave of one generation washing over the one before. There is a melancholy intrinsic in the souring of each of his characters’ lives that tantalises Hollinghurst. He makes us watch as the insignificance of youth gives way to the significance of middle age, only in turn to lose its importance as the inevitable symptoms of age bring incapacity.
We warm, at first for instance, to the young and naïve Paul Bryant, a character who emerges in mid-novel, a young bank clerk in a small Berkshire town near Corley (the Faringdon of Hollinghurst’s memory; his first eight years were spent over his father’s bank in the market place there). By chance, Bryant is drawn into Cecil’s surviving, though by now decayed, family. Shy, concealing his past, he unfolds before us like some gay bud of May, and we are happy as we watch him find lust and love. This is only, alas, our first reaction, for Hollinghurst, in typical style, will not let us lie long for long in such elysian fields.
Poor Bryant, like the rest of the characters in the book (and, I suspect, Hollinghurst believes, like all of us) coarsens and freezes in the contortions wrought in his soul by time. Age wearies him and the years condemn. This is not a pretty process, but then, this is not meant to be a pretty book, and Hollinghust has never been one for a happy ending.
“When I was writing The Spell,” he relates, “my then boyfriend pleaded with me to have a happy ending and not to push my characters off the cliff. I almost managed it, and left them on the cliff top for the reader to push them off instead.”
In his new novel, he takes almost obvious pleasure in juxtaposing, for instance, two characters with whom we have hitherto been brought to sympathise, Cecil’s ‘girlfriend’ Daphne and Paul Bryant, and in making them both behave very badly when they meet. Motive gets in the way of manners, always.
It is one of the most interesting, and central, features of The Stranger’s Child that none of its characters remains as he or she seems to the reader at any particular stage of the story. Similarly, none of them is viewed by any of the other characters of the book in quite the same way. Here the biographer’s nightmare of impossibly conflicting perspectives, one that A.S. Byatt unveils so neatly in Possession, cloaks us with ever more confusing ambiguity. Even the English class system is not what it seems. Cecil’s mother, Lady Valance, who possesses the ramrod back and stern countenance of Maggie Smith’s Queen Mary, ends her days in thrall to a charlatan spiritualist who exposes her to be as foolish as any middle class matron from Middlesex. Cecil’s brother Dudley, who inherits the baronetcy and the estate after Cecil’s death, is so declassé that he has all the moveable items in his house stamped on their base ‘stolen from Corley’. The founder of their family, we find out very late in the day, was no aristocrat at all, but a merchant who made his fortune in grain seed.
At the root of all the uncertainty that abounds in this book is Cecil. Just who and what was he? Can he be adequately remembered as he was, or is he the man that it is convenient for those who knew him to pretend him to have been? Or is he the exploded myth whose reputation is burned by the self-serving lens of a money-grubbing and fame-seeking biographer? Even Cecil’s sexuality is seen through a cloudy glass. Is he bi-sexual or just outrightly gay? We are never able to say. He is indeed the very child of those who are strangers, strangers both to him and to each other.
Hollinghurst enjoys himself immensely in all this ambiguity. His subtlety has mellowed with his prose, which is now as rich as slow-matured sherry. He was always a superlative craftsman with the pen; he has excelled himself here.
As our interview closed, we asked Hollinghurst the inevitable hackneyed question about whether we could expect to see him back in Asia any time soon.
“I hope to come back to the East,” he replied. “I’d like to spend longer here. Next time I shall try to have a holiday built into the programme of my tour.”
His Hong Kong Chinese minder from Pan Macmillan nodded approvingly. We must hope that she, and whatever muse brings forth his next novel, will conspire to give him time off to come back here soon. Maybe that muse will breathe some touch of the East into his next novel too. It is long past time for the great Asian gay novel.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) is published by Picador, Pan Macmillan.