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 …