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The Comedy of Being English

1.

In his second novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst guides his narrator, Edward Manners, into the home of an old school friend who is married with young children. Manners is horrified by this blatant display of heterosexuality. “Why did they do it?” he asks. He goes on: “It must be instinct, nothing rational could explain it…I was at the age when I couldn’t ignore it; my straight friends married and bred, sometimes remarried and bred again, or just bred regardless.” Manners, like all of Hollinghurst’s heroes, is not in the breeding business. For him “the world of heterosexual feeling,” as he puts it, is “never fully plausible.” Later in the novel, he refers to “the semi-sedation of hetero expectations.”

Hollinghurst is interested in the many possibilities which arise from his protagonists’ freedom in the world. He loves the drama of sexual desire; he treats it with such enormous tenderness and seriousness that it is impossible for its comic element not to emerge. His relentless descriptions of the male body ooze with a mixture of precision and poetic force and heady hilarity. It would be easy then to believe that his narratives are impelled by an urgent and overwhelming need to write about gay desire and sexual freedom. His imagination, however, is too deeply complex and richly burdened to be so simply explained. His books are concerned with history, consciousness, art, England, and the rhythms of language in ways which make him unique among his contemporaries.

Hollinghurst’s very personal tone is in every moment of his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, which was published in 1988. He sought to explore a single consciousness, using here, as in The Folding Star (1994), a first-person narrator who is well-educated, with knowledge of music and architecture, and deep feelings on these matters, who is highly sexed and very English, combining reticence, wryness, and arrogance. His narrators are people on whom nothing is lost; they are supreme noticers of moods and beautiful objects, young male bodies and old faded buildings. There is, strangely, in these two novels in which the hunt for sex and the search for love abound, an abiding melancholy, an interest in gray light and rain-soaked landscapes; even the hard sunlight in The Swimming-Pool Library seems happiest when observed from the shade; even the swimming scenes themselves seem ways of entering a half-lit zone.

The aura of sadness and nostalgia in The Swimming-Pool Library is established in the first few pages of the book, when it is explained that this is the summer before the AIDS epidemic arrived, “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be.” The sex between our narrator and various young men is described in rare and sumptuous detail as though the human body will never be so lovely again nor its parts so desperately and precisely desirable:

O the difference of man and man. Sometimes in the showers, which only epitomized and confirmed a general feeling held elsewhere, I was amazed and enlightened by the variety of the male organ. In the rank and file of men showering the cocks and balls took on the air almost of an independent species, exhibited in instructive contrasts. Here was the long, listless penis, there the curt athletic knob or innocent rosebud of someone scarcely out of school. Carlos’s Amerindian giant swung alongside the compact form of a Chinese youth whose tiny brown willy was almost concealed in his wet pubic hair, like an exotic mushroom in a dish of seaweed.

Our narrator, William Beckwith, moves between a black youth, Arthur, who lives in his apartment, and Phil, whom he meets in the swimming pool showers, who works in a hotel: “His cock remained as inert as it always had in the showers: circumcised, wrinkled, self-contained as the rest of him; it seemed equally to await discovery. I held it in the palm of my hand and ran my thumb backwards and forwards over it as if it had been a pet mouse.”

William is an aristocrat, the grandson of a lord who is a former director of public prosecutions in England. He is, as the novel proceeds, quite unbusily spending his grandfather’s money; he is sweetly doing nothing. London, for him, is the land of possibility. He has almost no friends, his life filled, instead, with chance encounters, each one heavily dramatized and offered emotional charge and depth. He falls in love easily, but what matters is not the emotion itself, but its fickle and shifting nature, its satisfying detail. Hollinghurst began his career as a poet; he has a poet’s unfailing ear for both tone and tonal variation, and an uncanny tact in the creation of quietly beautiful sentences. At times, his novels become a fiercely contested game between the sharpness of the experience and the lusciousness of the prose. His description of the great attraction of the underparts and overparts of many men plays fearlessly against his copious use of adjectives and sub-clauses and, indeed, words normally found in the outer reaches of the dictionary.

William moves around London like a predator turned philosopher. On the underground train he ponders his fellow passengers:

Consoling and yet absurd, how the sexual imagination took such easy possession of the ungiving world. I was certainly not alone in this carriage in sliding my thoughts between the legs of other passengers. Desires, brutal and tender, silent but evolved, were in the shiftless air and hung about each jaded traveller, whose life was not as good as it might have been.

The Swimming-Pool Library is rescued from an atmosphere of claustrophobic and hugely enjoyable hedonism by the presence of a parallel story, told through the diaries of Lord Nantwich, an elderly gay man who had traveled widely in Africa. This story becomes increasingly powerful and compelling; it anchors the novel in the public world when draconian laws against gay men were implemented with great ferocity in England. The two stories are made to echo each other with subtlety and skill.

The Folding Star is a new version of an old story as told by English writers such as Olivia Manning and John Fowles, in which our protagonist goes to teach abroad and becomes interested in the new society and the new pupil. It is, in some ways, a more elaborate and explicit version of Henry James’s story “The Pupil.” Once more, the novel is narrated in the first person by a young, educated gay Englishman, Edward Manners. The tone this time is even more rigorously cadenced, closer now to someone whispering, with the same quiet, elegant, and elegiac edge to the prose.

The middle section of the book gives an account of an English childhood and the return home for an English funeral. It is, perhaps, Hollinghurst’s most vivid and evocative piece of writing. He is always aware of the pure comedy of being English, of what he called in his third novel, The Spell, “the honoured quaintness of being British.” He writes in his novels with great precision and acuity about English architecture and with passion about English music. At his friend’s funeral, he writes, “the organist was wittering on through his formless and infinitely extendable introit, music that had never been written down, mere sour doodlings to fill the time, varied now and then by a yawning change of registration like a false alert.”

Hollinghurst’s work is, at times, as melancholy and gloomy as Philip Larkin’s. He can write effortlessly of “the agonising stupor of a summer day,” but he is ready like Larkin for hard-won moments of pure light-filled revelation, which come to him from architecture, from landscape, but mainly from sex. Edward Manners, of all his characters, has many of Larkin’s interests and irritations. He will, one imagines, when he is older, dress very badly indeed. In the meantime, he has fallen in love with his young pupil Luc and has taken to spying on him and stealing his underwear. When he points out to a visiting friend that he is “wearing a pair of his [Luc’s] pants at the moment, and one of his vests and one of his socks,” his friend replies: “Darling—I mean…you do seem to have gone complètement bonkers.” The reader sometimes feels the same, but is prevented from losing interest in Edward and his crush on Luc, his own personal Lolita, by Edward’s sheer belief in his own emotions, their truth and beauty, and Edward’s narrative style, which remains arresting.

Once again, Hollinghurst introduces a second strand to the novel, which both echoes the main strand and anchors it. The unnamed Belgian city where our narrator teaches is also home to a museum which honors the painter Orst. This building and the work it contains, and indeed its curator, begin to fascinate Edward Manners. The descriptions of the paintings are superb. Hollinghurst feels an immense tenderness for minor art and faded reputations, for work made which was never fashionable but possesses the mark of a quirky integrity, a delicate, willful talent. (It is a pure Hollinghurstian moment, for example, when one of the characters, once the prospect of listening to music is mentioned, can feel “a bit Vaughan Williamsish.”) He shrouds the background of Orst with mystery, but a mystery which leads the novel away from Edward’s obsession with Luc into the issue of who was brave and who was treacherous in the time of the Nazi invasion.

Hollinghurst’s real genius is the creation of atmosphere, whether the atmosphere of a single consciousness or the atmosphere of a room or a stretch of cityscape or landscape. He writes about the mind’s ability to notice and speculate, desire and understand, with an old-fashioned novelist’s ease. He writes wonderfully about changes in mood, a new arrival in a room, the aura around an object, the power of weather. He is not content, however, to leave The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star as open-ended novels of mood. He also wants action, suspense, plot, and, God forgive him, coincidence. In the first, Arthur may or may not have killed someone; his disappearance and the search for him are dramatized; James, one of the narrator’s few friends, is arrested and the narrator may have a way of saving him. In the second novel, Luc disappears and there is a long search for him, which has elements of a boys’ adventure story. In both novels, strange, unimagined connections between disparate people are an important element. But in neither book are any of these matters allowed to interfere really with the narrative impact, which remains very powerful. They are often left half-heartedly and inconclusively dangling there.

The problem for any novelist whose skill in creating mood is much larger than the skill at creating suspense and unexpected twists in the plot is that novels of mood seem written in a minor key. To leave out the novels’ old tricks, what Robert Lowell called in another context “those blessed structures,” is to risk dullness, to risk inhabiting the margins. Hollinghurst’s third novel, The Spell (1998), is a good example of how serious these risks can be and how slight the rewards from facing them can become. The book is a comedy of manners, in which the comedy is rather better than the manners. It is set in a posh and complacent England. The past is heritage rather than haunting. A number of gay men are seeking love, much like Jane Austen heroes and heroines of old. Some of them, because of their youth or beauty, have a better chance than others. It is the ancient battle between unequals; in the old days it was between a penniless but sensitive and intelligent young woman and an heir to a fortune, ostensibly callow. Now, in a time of government-sponsored sexual freedom, it is between older gay men and their younger counterparts. As with Jane Austen, we are on the side of the underdog, so to speak.

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