Alan Hollinghurst, whose latest novel A Stranger's Child was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, discusses literary traditions and his work with Subash Jeyan
Alan Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, with a gay protagonist, was published in 1988 and went on to become a critical and popular success. After two more novels, The Folding Star (1994) and The Spell (1998), The Line of Beauty won him the Booker Prize in 2004. The Stranger's Child is his fifth novel. He has also worked as an editor with The Times Literary Supplement.
You write in an unselfconscious, natural kind of way about gay relationships....Did you have any kind of predecessors or a tradition of such writing as a reference point in the English canon? If not how difficult was it not having such reference points when you started out writing?
There were earlier gay writers who were important to me in different ways — E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood — but none who had written as openly about gay sexual behaviour as straight writers had been doing since the 1960s. In America, Edmund White had done something very original in A Boy's Own Story (1982), writing about a young gay man's life in a very candid and unapologetic way. I remember being startled and excited by a sense of the prospects this opened up. In my first book The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) I paid homage to a number of earlier gay cultural figures who couldn't for legal reasons write as openly about gay lives as I now could: Forster and Benjamin Britten and the novelist Ronald Firbank, who is a great favourite of mine and a great original.
How was your first novel received?
It was a bestseller and had a considerable success. Some people were shocked by it, others welcomed it, but had varying attitudes to its candour about the less admirable aspects and attitudes of its narrator. One or two reviews were very hostile, but probably did the book no harm. Some took an almost anthropological view of the book, as if it were lifting the lid on a previously undescribed area of existence. Of course I had no ambition to do anything so comprehensive or responsible; really the interest of the book for me lay in its unembarrassed candour, which touched on many aspects of British life besides homosexuality.
The English Novel has been seen as a product of a particular class in time (which came into its own in Victorian times), as the universalisation of a very particular way of seeing the world. Given that, how do you place yourself in that tradition now, with your very different concerns....
The English novel is now itself so various, and so enriched by voices and traditions from outside Great Britain, that it has become almost impossible to categorise or define. It's true, though, that my books make repeated reference to earlier figures — Firbank again, Forster, Hardy, Tennyson, Henry James (an honorary Englishman) — and have quite a literary cast of mind. I rather see myself crossing territory marked out by great forebears, tipping my hat to them, but getting on with my own concerns, which are often somewhat subversive. I like to celebrate the tradition, as well as to play with it, and perhaps enlarge it in unexpected ways.
One of the concerns of the novel seems to be about how literary traditions are constructed, how perceptions change over time, subjected first to mythologising and then revisions but still becoming monolithic over time.... In what ways is your A Stranger's Child a kind of intervention in such constructions?
Well those are clearly interests of the book, as explored in the case of a fictional, but in some ways representative, writer. I feel I'm observing the process, with interest, amusement, sympathy for the human beings to whom such matters present quandaries; but I doubt my novel could be seen as an intervention of any kind.
What would you say to reactions in some quarters that this book is also nostalgic about things Victorian?
I think it's not nostalgic, though I'm sure it conveys something of my own interest in and excitement at Victorian poetry and architecture in particular. I hope the rather unusual structure of the novel, with its large gaps, while encouraging the reader to be absorbed into each historical period, also distances and ironises them. The opening section may seem at the time like a nostalgic immersion in the pre-Great War world, but it is also a part of a carefully calculated design.
In what ways is this novel a departure from your earlier ones? There is a view that it is a lot mellower and more mature, not as brashly, in-your-face gay as your earlier novels...
It feels different to me, and though the strand of gay history (hidden at the outset, fully on view by the end) remains important, the book is much less preoccupied with details of sexual activity. There's a thematic reason for this, as well as my own dislike of repeating myself: That uncertainty about exactly what people did get up to is central to the meaning of the novel.
Do you at all read the reviews your books get? Does it at all impact the way you write?
I generally read all reviews, unless warned off them very strongly by a friend or by my publicist. There's no point in upsetting oneself by reading insults. But otherwise I'm very curious (bringing out a book so rarely) about how each one fares in the world. On occasion too a review which is both respectful and critical has made me think in a new way about what I am doing, and how it might be improved in future. I certainly don't think myself beyond criticism! And though of course one would prefer to be universally praised, constructive criticism can be very valuable.
You write within a specific cultural context but your books do reach people living in vastly different contexts. Do you at anytime feel a little anxious may be about how they are received or read in those cultures?
Not anxious, no; but curious sometimes. When writing as imbued with echoes and rhythms as I try to make mine is translated into languages with completely different writing systems, such as Chinese, what remains of what I originally wrote? And how is what remains interpreted by someone with a widely different background, knowledge and cultural preoccupations? These are mind-boggling questions, and because I can't answer them I try not to worry about them.
The novel today is also a product that reaches a global market that reaches people who may be totally unfamiliar with your concerns within your specific context. Does that bring any kind of marketing pressure on you as a writer?
No, I don't feel it does.
How familiar are you with writing coming out of India? Some of the authors you like reading today....
Of course, I have read a number of Indian writers with keen interest, though it strikes me that they tend to be novelists who have spent a lot of time outside India, such as Amit Choudhuri, whose The Immortals I read last year with rapt admiration for its subtlety and mastery, and Rohinton Mistry — that is to say Indian writers very established in the West. My lack of detailed knowledge of contemporary Indian writing is not a unique slight to India, however, as I also read very little new British fiction! This especially when I am writing myself, which is most of the time.
Keywords: Man Booker Prize