Adjectives that would describe Alan Hollinghurst’s second novel all seem to begin with an “e”: erotic, eerie, enigmatic, erudite, eclectic, and, above all, elegiac. Explicit, too: pubes and sphincters come into it a lot. Like his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star is about homosexual love and set, though less exclusively, in homosexual milieux. It captures the built-in pathos of a love that can be unbearably intense even when—or especially because—the lover knows that it won’t last even as long as the beauty of the loved one; while the fragility of that beauty is another cause for ache and pity. There are homosexual relationships that endure as long as any heterosexual marriage, but Hollinghurst is not concerned with those. The first-person narrators of both his novels are cruisers and voyeurs, but their voyeur’s vision is misted with the sadness of transience foreseen. Lines from the Ode on Melancholy would make a suitable epigraph for The Folding Star, which is all about
Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips,
Bidding adieu; and aching Plea- sure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee- mouth sips.
Instead, Hollinghurst has chosen more esoterically and much more specifically a poem by the French Symbolist Henri de Régnier about winds from the Atlantic sweeping through a seaside town. It ends with the lines
Et les adolescents amers
S’en vont avec eux vers la Mer!
—which is exactly what happens in the story.
Its voyeur-hero is a thirty-three-year-old Oxford graduate called Edward Manners, a stalled writer who decides to take a break from living with his widowed mother in southern England in order to teach English in an ancient Flemish city very like Bruges. He soon finds his way to its gay bars and clubs, and acquires two lovers: an uneducated, affectionate young Moroccan called Chérif, and a charming, louche Belgian called Matt who peddles used male underwear, porn films, and telephone sex. Edward occasionally minds the shop for him (if you can call an unmade bed in a squalid room a shop). The telephone calls from Matt’s clients are very funny, and so are Edward’s conversations with his various pickups. Hollinghurst is a terrific mimic, but he doesn’t rely on mimicry alone for his humor, which tends to be wry and self-deprecating.
Edward has two pupils, both seventeen years old: ungainly Marcel Echevin, who is not very bright, and inscrutable Luc Altidore. Marcel is still at school; Luc has been expelled. Marcel’s father, Paul, is a widowed art historian and the curator of a museum devoted to an imaginary Symbolist artist called Orst, whose work sounds like the work of Fernand Knopff or Xavier Mellery. He befriends Edward, invites him to his house, and allows him to make a little extra money by helping with the Orst catalog and minding the desk in the museum.
The path from here recedes equivocally over twilit thresholds and through half-open doors, like the visual progression in a Symbolist painting or etching; it leads back through the sinister years of the German occupation to the fin de siècle, when Orst began painting his Scottish mistress, the actress Jane Byron. She was inexplicably drowned at Ostend a few months after they met, but he went on painting her and even took up with a young washerwoman-cum-prostitute who had Pre-Raphaelite red hair like hers, and became his model and mistress.
Edward is fascinated by this story of obsession. Meanwhile, whether cruising or just sightseeing, he does a lot of walking around the town until he becomes familiar with its medieval streets and alleyways, its tramlines and derelict factories, its Gothic belfries and frowsty bars, its hidden canals and secret gardens, all bathed in the mysterious, melancholy, pluvieux atmosphere of Symbolist art.
Edward falls in love with Luc. When he first arrives in Flanders, he is surprised to see that many houses have spy glasses by their windows, from which an unobserved observer can watch the street. Soon he himself is spying on Luc, disturbed to find that the boy is a member of an inseparable threesome. The other two are a handsome, sexy boy called Patrick, and a beautiful girl, Sibylle. “They enhance each other’s mystique no end. They’re all beautiful and well off and give the impression of being crazy about each other.” Edward says this to Edie, his closest friend who comes from England to visit him. Edie is a clever, elegant, campy creature with a job in fashion: an engaging cross between Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly, and possibly Hollinghurst’s answer to complaints that there weren’t any women in The Swimming Pool Library.
Luc, Patrick, and Sibylle spend a weekend alone in the beach house belonging to Patrick’s family. Matt and Edward ensconce themselves in the empty chalet next door, and between bouts of sex they watch the three friends through binoculars: “I felt the need and the humiliation at once, and it took a while to learn the voyeur’s confidence of being unseen.” But Edward also feels the pathos which is Hollinghurst’s specialty and which he puts across so well:
They all went inside, leaving the plate and a coffee-mug on the steps. Oh, they were only kids, they were only camping out: if Patrick’s parents had been there, they would have had a table, a tray, napkins, a cafetière. It touched me terribly the way they just roosted in the place and did without the adult protocols.
At the same time, the three beautiful adolescents on the beach recall Albertine’s petite bande. Hollinghurst uses visual ambiguities to give his novel space and mystery, and literary allusions and echoes to give it resonance. Small chunks and tiny splinters of poetry are scattered through the text like clues in a treasure hunt. The “folding star” which sounds like a piece of origami is actually a piece of Milton and refers to the evening star that rises when the shepherd folds his sheep.
Just as Proust’s narrator broods over Albertine’s relations with other members of her band, so Edward agonizes about who loves whom in Luc’s threesome. The puzzle is still unsolved when he manages to get Luc to bed—an ecstatic experience, but never repeated. Luc disappears. Edward finds out that far from being an innocent romantically in love with either Sibylle or Patrick, he had a steamy affair with Matt. Edward’s last sight of him is a photograph among others on a police list of missing persons. He finds it nailed up with the tide charts on the beach at Ostend where Jane Byron drowned.
In the middle of the Belgian episode, Edward returns home to attend a funeral. The dead man was his first love when they were both schoolboys. He died in a car accident, but was going to die of AIDS anyway. After the funeral, another former school mate takes Edward home for whiskeys and reminiscence:
I plucked off my glasses to rub my eyes and saw the lamp-lit room and my friend’s pale face in an intimate crepuscular blur, like a little etching by Edgard Orst. And I felt the spirit of the time I had summoned up pouring past me like a night-wind through woods around a lonely shack or long-abandoned Nissen hut where two boys squat and banter over a ten-minute fire of twigs and rubbish.
Hollinghurst’s hero is chronically turned into the sound of this wind; at the funeral he notices a country neighbor, a nonagenarian writer who once consented to look at his schoolboy verse: “There was something moving and irrelevant in his having come, as though Georgian England must be represented at these end-of-century obsequies.” And he has only to blow out a candle to think “how for centuries the world had fallen asleep with that sweet singed smell in its nostrils.”
So you could read this novel as a miniature A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Or as an expanded Death in Venice: obsessions with adolescents on beaches figure in all three. Or as a homosexual Lolita. Edward’s mind is full of puns and palindromes, beginning with Luc = cul. Not counting A Rebours, whose hero gets a mention, there must be plenty of other more esoteric hidden relations and ancestors. Which does not make the novel a quilt of pastiches; on the contrary, it is another calculated risk that Hollinghurst takes: the risk of being thought precious or derivative. It pays off. The texture of his book is as densely sophisticated as a Flemish tapestry (though tapestry is the one form of Flemish art that doesn’t figure in it). That is one reason why it is an immense pleasure to read; the others are funniness and poetry, both handled with amazing sensitivity and accuracy.