The Comedy of Being English

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 …

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