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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.

There is Robin with his rural cottage and the faithless but good-looking Justin; there is Alex, abandoned by Justin for Robin; there is Danny, Robin’s gay son who is loved by Alex; there is Terry who manages to sleep with both Justin and—wait a moment, yes—Danny. Just as ten years earlier, Phil’s penis in The Swimming-Pool Library resembled a pet mouse, now Terry’s penis is compared to “some rare and lively rodent that he had raised himself.” Hollinghurst writes in The Spell with rare tenderness and accuracy about the effect of the drug ecstasy on a man approaching middle age, but he reserves his real energy for the maintenance of a rich, low-key comedy without ever descending into farce. His novel is, however, precisely the type of English book which young novelists and many critics in the 1970s deplored, where adultery and drinks parties and mild sexual disruptions become the dramatic center. As England burned, so to speak, the English novel slowly smoldered. For novelists such as Salman Rushdie and James Kelman, such complacency was a godsend, dry kindling waiting for a conflagration. While The Spell is perfect in its way, a novelist as intelligent as Hollinghurst could not have had any desire to repeat the exercise.

2.

Even a novelist of mood can have a flair for strategy. In the years between the appearance of The Spell and the completion of The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst clearly worked out, in a set of inspired decisions, how he should now use his talents. The Line of Beauty is set in the years after The Swimming-Pool Library, beginning in 1983 when Margaret Thatcher won her second election victory with 101 new Tory MPs. While the public world is at the margins of The Swimming-Pool Library, Hollinghurst now takes his narrative into the belly of the beast. He uses—or rather he refines—an old device, that of the observer as clever outsider, a good deal lower in class than the world he observes. This observer has had certain advantages which have rendered him, on the surface, anyone’s equal, like the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, a novel, incidentally, which has much in common with The Line of Beauty, despite the fact that William in The Swimming-Pool Library considers it “deplorable.”

In Hollinghurst’s three previous novels, he invokes tutelary spirits: the novelist Ronald Firbank in The Swimming-Pool Library; Wordsworth in The Fold- ing Star; and Thomas Hardy in The Spell. This is an important aspect of Hollinghurst’s work, the fearless invocation of an old high culture (and in The Spell a similar invocation of a new low one). In The Line of Beauty, he invokes the spirit of Henry James and manages this more successfully than in the previous novels. Nick, through whose consciousness we see the events of the novel, has come to London from Oxford to do a doctorate on Henry James. He is reading James through-out the book and has developed a way of seeing things like James. Indeed, Nick’s very surname, Guest, one presumes, is a borrowing from an early James story called “Guest’s Confession.”

Nick, like the heroes of Hollinghurst’s first two novels, knows a great deal about art and architecture, and is capable, like the other two, of discussing these matters with a high-toned seriousness. He is the first of the author’s characters, however, to care about the great English business of class, making every word spoken by the rich and powerful in this book, every gesture and change of posture, part of his calm, deliberate study of their class. Unlike the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, Nick is ambitious. He often fawns. Part of his interest in Rachel, one of his new London friends, is her poshness: “Nick loved the upper-class economy of her talk, her way of saying nothing ex-cept by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement; he longed to master it himself.” From the moment the novel opens, he is someone on the make, a young man determined, now that he has arrived in London, to go far.

Toby Fedden, his best friend at Oxford, is the key to his success in London. Toby’s father, who lives in a grand house in London, has just been elected a Tory MP; he is married to Rachel, a rich Jewish woman, who, with their daughter Catherine, is Hollinghurst’s most substantial female creation so far. Nick needs a place to stay in London; the Feddens need someone to keep a watchful eye on the wayward Catherine. They invite Nick to become their lodger. The Line of Beauty is the story of what happens over the next four years.

Nick’s social climbing coincides rather wonderfully with his sexual climbing, which begins by his answering an advertisement in a gay paper and finding Leo, who is beautiful, black, and charming, everything Nick needs. Having lost his virginity in the private park right in front of his hosts’ house, Nick feels “as if the trees and bushes had rolled away and all the lights of London shone in on him: little Nick Guest from Barwick, Don and Dot Guest’s boy, fucking a stranger in a Notting Hill garden at night. Leo was right, it was so bad, and it was so much the best thing he’d ever done.”

In Chapter Two of the book, Hollinghurst offers a clue to its governing dynamic. Nick has arrived at Hawkeswood, the home of Toby’s uncle, Lord Kessler, where Toby’s twenty-first birthday is to be celebrated. There is a Cézanne in the dining room; indeed, treasures abound everywhere and, since Nick’s father is a minor antiques dealer, Nick is impressed and fascinated. As in the library of Jay Gatsby, Nick finds that some of Lord Kessler’s books—a set of Trollope—are uncut. “Ah you’re a Trollope man, are you?” his lordship says.

I’m not sure I am, really,” said Nick. “I always think he wrote too fast. What was it Henry James said, about Trollope and his ‘great heavy shovelfuls of testimony to constituted English matters’?”

Lord Kessler paid a moment’s wry respect to this bit of showing-off, but said, “Oh, Trollope’s good. He’s very good on money.”

Trollope is also good on English lords and English MPs and their wives, on the short steps between the London drawing room and the Houses of Parliament. He is very good too on the social and sexual atmosphere which surrounds English power. He can also write well about semi-plausible outsiders. He would be very proud of some of the scenes in Hollinghurst’s novel, some of the dinner parties at which powerful men are present, where there is much constituted English matter. He would be especially proud of the scene in which Gerald Fedden has to visit his constituency and playact for the locals.

But he would be aware also of very strong competition coming from the direction of Henry James, some of whose habits have deeply affected the novel. We don’t ever find out the exact source of Lord Kessler’s wealth, for example, something which James would be proud of, but Trollope would not tolerate. We move in the novel between a closely observed and sharp version of the atmosphere which power had in London in the 1980s and a more subtle narrative about the shifting and nuanced relations between a number of very refined and often duplicitous people who have a great deal of time on their hands, some of whom have money, others of whom do not.

Hollinghurst thus cleverly and subtly plays the English novelist of whom he most disapproves off against the one he most favors without losing anything. His own natural tendency to create an apolitical society, where aesthetic arguments are punctuated by sexual athletics, now allows an opposing force deeply inimical to his imagination, which insists on public life, the trappings of power, as the natural subject of the novel.

Yet James runs deeper than Trollope in the novel’s procedures. There is a scene in Chapter 40 of The Portrait of a Lady, to which Hollinghurst directly refers in his novel, in which Isabel Archer comes into the room to find her husband is seated while his old friend Madame Merle is standing:

There was an anomaly in this that arrested her…. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.

When crisis looms in the Fedden household and Rachel is visited by her brother, Lionel, also known as Lord Kessler, Nick quietly enters the room:

Rachel was standing by the mantelpiece, Lionel sitting in an armchair…and Nick, setting down the tray, saw that though he hadn’t chanced in on a secret he had caught the note of an older, more unguarded friendship than he’d heard before, the shared intelligence of brother and sister.

These references to James, and the use of his work as a way of reading the world, have become a natural part of Nick’s way of seeing things. They are used by Hollinghurst with great tact and uncontrived skill.

The novel takes a more comic view of social activity than either Trollope or James would allow. Hollinghurst manages to convey Nick’s awe at the antics of the Feddens and their cohorts while also allowing the reader to be amused by them. His party scenes here are written with relish:

On the opposite wall hung a comfortable Renoir nude. Nick picked his way between groups sitting on the floor in front of an enormous sofa where fat Lord Shepton was lying with his tie undone and his head on the thigh of an attractive drunk girl. The curtains were parted and a window open to carry the reek of marijuana far away from the nose of the Home Secretary.

One of the most remarkable features of the Thatcher government in the 1980s was the aura of sexual attraction between the lady and her younger male ministers. Hollinghurst handles this with much amusement, allowing Gerald Fedden and his ambitious friends to speak of the prime minister with awe and wonder and sexual fascination. Thatcher almost makes it to several parties in the book; by the time she finally turns up, Nick has discovered cocaine and has also found a number of other lovers. He manages these in the upper rooms of the house while soon observing the prime minister in the grander downstairs rooms. He also manages perhaps a most memorable phrase about Thatcher’s personal aura: “She noticed nothing, and yet she remembered everything.” It is, of course, the cocaine speaking when he asks her to dance.

He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister’s face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque. She smiled back with a certain animal quickness, a bright blue challenge.

Despite the romance of high politics and high art which fills the pages of The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst has lost nothing of his old lovely shamelessness. When Toby, on whom Nick has a crush, searches for clothes to wear to a Seventies party, it becomes clear that Nick knows Toby’s bedroom rather well, having been there and “sniffed the gauzy lining of his outgrown swimming trunks,” among other things. Nick’s rich sex life in the book is described in great detail. But this is not an innocent time; it is no longer “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be.” In both The Folding Star and The Spell, there is a shadow of AIDS, as minor characters offstage fall victim to the disease. Hollinghurst, as a dutiful chronicler of the age, deals with the matter more dramatically in this book. When Nick goes to visit one of his ex-lovers in the hospital, for example, he sees him “in bed, in a sky-blue hospital gown; his face was hard to read, since AIDS had taken it and written its message of terror and exhaustion on it…. His vanity had become a kind of fear, that he would frighten the people he smiled at. It was the loneliest thing Nick had ever seen.”

The novel moves forward in a series of brilliant set scenes, pieces of atmosphere, moods sharply described and delineated. The plot, such as it is, deals with the enrichment of Nick’s experience, his moving from snobbish provincial to uneasy cosmopolitan, his close observing of the rich and the ruling class, his experiences with drugs, sex, and high art. It would be easy to bring the novel down lightly, with Nick’s calm departure from the Feddens’ household to some more interesting habitat. But the author of The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star has not given up his ambitions to have an old-fashioned plotline, with the tabloid press and lovers discovered and much else. I do not wish to give this plot away; it would have been better, I think, had the author done so, to the deserving poor perhaps. It is a sign of his ambition, seeking to merge his own natural talent with another tradition which is alien to him. Paragraph by paragraph, his novel is written with such care, such sweet attention to detail, nuance, rhythm, and the pure comedy of things, that his efforts to make it all tie up in action hardly matter.
























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