Books

Camp, cows and country houses

Shaun De Waal

Alan Hollinghurst says that, unlike Brideshead Revisited, his novels show the brutal side of riches.

Hollinghurst’s latest book charts the changing social status of the gay man in the 20th century. (Lisa Skinner)

Weirdly enough, I first met Alan ­Hollinghurst in Cambridge in 1994 and Cambridge forms part of the setting of his latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, out in paperback from Picador. Holling-hurst is attending the Open Book festival in Cape Town and I spoke to him as he passed through Jo’burg.

He charmingly affects to recall the Cambridge occasion and I commit what is probably a writerly faux pas by immediately mentioning other writers’ work. Two of them, actually.

Reading The Stranger’s Child, I said, it seemed to be “in dialogue with” both Evelyn Waugh’s ­Brideshead Revisited and Ian McEwan’s ­Atonement. There is the interaction of a rich, aristocratic family with one that is simply upper class, there is the great house that looms over the narrative like Brideshead itself in Waugh’s novel, itself showing the social change that took place in England over the 20th century. There is the forbidden love, let us say, that animates ­Atonement; there is the play with what precisely can be determined about what happened to whom and when.

Atonement wasn’t consciously in my mind at all,” demurs Hollinghurst. “Brideshead is my least favourite book by Waugh, but I have now twice used the idea of a young person who falls in love with a richer family, in The Line of Beauty [his Booker-winner of 2004] and this book. So there must be something to it, but I think my depiction of that posh world is aware of its glamour and also goes behind it and it turns out to be rather brutal and unforgiving.

“I was much more aware of [EM] Forster, in the writing of the early part of the book — pre-First World War, the suburban setting, the Cambridge background, the invisible gay thing ...”

Hollinghurst gives an epigraph to Forster in The Stranger’s Child and the novel traces the changes in social status of the British gay man in the 20th century, of whom Forster is an odd kind of icon. The novel jumps from 1913 to 1927 to 1967 to ... today, I suppose, taking in the tangled lives of two families over a century, as they move around the central figure of the aristocratic poet Cecil Valance. (At this point, I should make a good literary joke and say the character of Cecil Valance is distinctly polyvalent.)

The year 1967, for instance, is important because it was when same-sex acts were decriminalised in Britain. (“I can dimly remember, when I was 13, seeing something in my parents’ newspapers”), but Hollinghurst’s generative notion for The Stranger’s Child was essentially structural.

“I found it exhausting to write The Line of Beauty,” he said, “and I thought, I can’t face writing another bloody great 500-page book again. I thought I’d write some short stories. There was something a bit solid and monumental about The Line of Beauty as a structure and I wanted to do something that had a lot more space in it.”

Around the same time as he was starting the novel, he said: “I reviewed a wonderful book of stories by Alice Munro called Runaway, three successive short stories all about one woman at different ages. And that sort of crystallised the idea in my mind that you could show the irony of the passage of time by punching great big holes in the narrative. That was the formal genesis, which matched the preoccupation I was having with memory, getting older, the gaps, all the things that are not known.”

Speaking of gaps, I managed not to record the second half of our chat. After a break about 20 minutes in, I presumably hit the start and stop buttons at much the same time.

We talked of which novels of Iris Murdoch’s we preferred, with Holling-hurst noting the “emotional extremity” of her characters’ behaviour and speech and wondering whether the age at which one was first exposed to Murdoch made a difference to one’s appreciation of her particular art.

There are gaps, too, in what I remembered to ask him. The fanboy in me wanted to ask silly questions about partners and pets, but I forbore (he must be a cat person). I did, though, want to find out from him what a “cow passage” might be when it is part of a large country house, but I forgot.

And, speaking of memory, I reminisced about my coming across his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, in London in the late 1980s, and the light furore that then took place around its pages and pages of man-on-man sex, detailed in prose that might not have put Edward ­Gibbon entirely to shame.

I could have gone on, saying how I thought his second novel, The ­Folding Star, is one of the crowning jewels of English fiction of the 1990s, or wondering why his two most recent novels are positively restrained on the sex front (and back). But I desisted, sensing perhaps that the fanboy was now starting to camp it up a little too much. Certainly something in me, maybe as a response to Hollinghurst’s sonorously articulated sentences, was going all slangy.

Besides, he wanted to know where he was in Johannesburg and what he had to look forward to when he went to speak to Jenny Crwys-Williams on 702. By then an hour or so had passed and the photographer had arrived to capture his image against the fripperies of the Fire and Ice Hotel in Melrose Arch. I had to get back to the office.

And, damn it, I still don’t know what a “cow passage” is.

The Open Book festival takes place in Cape Town from September 21 to 24


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