Early on in Alan Hollinghurst’s big new novel—his first in seven years, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to his Man Booker–winning The Line of Beauty—a youngish man stands gazing at a tomb, thinking about an absent penis. The year is 1926, and the man, George Sawle, is a married scholar in his early thirties, to all appearances a moderately distinguished product of the comfortable middle classes. The tomb (and the penis) belong to Cecil Valance, a dashing aristocrat and promising poet who had been killed in the Great War—and who had been George’s lover at Cambridge.
As George examines the marble effigy atop the grandiose tomb, commissioned by Cecil’s grieving family, he is struck, not without a certain rueful amusement, by the contrast between the “ideal” and “standardized” quality of the statue and his private memories of their “mad sodomitical past” together. This thought inevitably leads to recollections of certain features that the tomb could not, of course, depict, and that George nearly can’t bring himself to name: “the celebrated…the celebrated membrum virile, unguessed for ever beneath the marble tunic, but once so insistently alive and alert.”
There was a time when the membra virilia you were likely to encounter in Hollinghurst’s novels were neither unnamable nor bashfully hidden away. In 1989, when he was thirty-five, he made an impressive debut with his marvelously rich and deft The Swimming-Pool Library, in which a plush style, a formidable culture, and a self-confident avoidance of then-fashionable formal tricks were put in the service of a startlingly direct and unembarrassed treatment of gay desire. The novel, set in the early 1980s, traces the surprisingly entwined lives of two gay men: Will Beckwith, a narcissistic, well-to-do young pleasure-seeker whose ambition is to keep “clear of interference from the demands and misery of other people,” and an elderly peer called Charles Nantwich, an old Africa hand with a complicated past who has asked Will to write his biography, and whom Will had met, somewhat comically, while “cottaging”—looking for anonymous sex in a public toilet.
Both men, it turns out, have a taste for young black men, and the novel is, among many other things, a sophisticated investigation into what you could call the erotic component of colonialism. (Will doesn’t realize how patronizing is his admiration for the “happiness and loyalty” he sees in the face of a black youth.) But its most striking feature, perhaps, was its insistence on highlighting the urgent presence in many gay men’s lives of what you could call the less theoretical side of desire. Penises, for instance. In one of the many scenes that take place in the shower of Will’s gym—set pieces that highlight his cool connoisseurship of the bodies he intends to have, or has had—a swoony catalog of male members gives you an idea of the way in which Hollinghurst’s velvety sentences can smoothly twine around a subject that some literary novelists might find dauntingly rebarbative:
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.
The deliberate elegance of the prose makes a certain point. Style, in Hollinghurst’s work, is the great leveler—it brings within the orbit of serious fiction subjects and acts that other writers, even gay writers, might “tastefully” elide.
In his next few novels the unflinching gaze and posh pen were often trained on difficult or even unattractive material and characters; the tension between the lush style and the gritty subject matter would become a hallmark of Hollinghurst’s writing. His densely atmospheric second book, The Folding Star (1994), focused minutely on the antics of an appallingly unself-aware Englishman living in Belgium who develops a Humbert Humbert–like obsession with a seventeen-year-old boy he’s tutoring. (A soupçon of ephebophilia runs through these books.) A third, entitled The Spell (1998), was a slight, rather self-conscious exercise in what some critics called “Austenian” social comedy—in it, a group of four men of all ages fall in and out of bed with one another in various combinations and with no visible consequences. The novel was unapologetic about the important part played by drugs and casual sex in the social lives of many educated, middle-class, “nice” gay men.
Hollinghurst’s most acclaimed work, The Line of Beauty (2004), is the story of a young, middle-class gay man’s complicated relationship with the family of a wealthy and ambitious Tory politician in the 1980s—a kind of Thatcher-era riff on Brideshead Revisited, complete with a deceptively soft-spoken matriarch and wayward patriarch. Here, the author turns his coolly ironic gaze on the way in which its protagonist, who begins as a graduate student working on Henry James, is led by his deluded social and erotic ambitions to “cut” his “moral nerves” (as he puts it, in a different context), leaving him with nothing but a “life of valueless excess”: cocaine, empty sex, and so on. In all of these books, the willies wag and the anuses wink with gleeful abandon. They are, Hollinghurst rightly insists, an important part of the story.
In the best of his work, the unruly presence of charged and illicit desires in otherwise traditional English landscapes is the vehicle for biting commentary by the author—on social and sexual conventions, on the way in which self-concealment can become self-betrayal, on colonial and imperial hypocrisies. “The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes,” a character in the new book observes; or, as Will Beckwith says of the biography he’s thinking of writing, “it’s the queer side, though, which would give it its interest.”
Indeed, Hollinghurst has Lord Nantwich make the provocative argument that “queerness” is what allows us to read the true story of the past. For him, the behaviors or attitudes of an earlier, closeted era, which to today’s gay men and women may seem hopelessly furtive or repressed, had aesthetic and even intellectual advantages:
Oh it was unbelievably sexy—much more so than nowadays. I’m not against Gay Lib and all that, of course…but it has taken a lot of the fun out of it, a lot of the frisson. I think the 1880s must have been an ideal time, with brothels full of off-duty soldiers, and luscious young dukes chasing after barrow-boys. Even in the Twenties and Thirties, which were quite wild in their way, it was still kind of underground, we operated on a constantly shifting code, and it was so extraordinarily moving and exciting when that spurt of recognition came, like the flare of a match! No one’s ever really written about it….
But Hollinghurst himself writes about it, again and again: in his fiction, the ability to puzzle out codes and achieve meaningful recognitions—and the tragic consequences of the failure to do so—has been a constant preoccupation, strongly inflected by the homoerotic element. In the five novels that he has published over the past twenty-two years, the distinctive knowingness to which gay people often feel privy, the sense of having privileged access to powerful secrets and hidden motivations not visible to other people, is a vital element in a serious investigation into knowledge, truth, narrative, and history. That his gay protagonists—they tend to be so unattractively self-absorbed that you can’t really call them heroes—are revealed to be clueless about everything but their own desires adds a telling irony to his treatment of this subject. In The Swimming-Pool Library, Will learns from Nantwich’s diaries that the old man had been prosecuted and sent to prison in the 1950s for soliciting an undercover police officer; he also learns, to his horror, that the smoothly ambitious prosecutor who used the case to further his political career was his own grandfather, now Lord Beckwith.
The theme of knowledge, self- knowledge, and secret knowledge often sets in motion penetrating investigations into the nature and meaning of desire, art, politics, and identity. In The Folding Star, three ingeniously nested tales of erotic obsession—the gay narrator’s yearning for his pupil, a long-dead Symbolist painter’s undying passion for his drowned muse, and a Belgian youth’s affair with a collaborator during World War II—serve as a vehicle for a meditation on the way that our yearning to “know” one person can make us disastrously ignorant of more momentous realities and truths. The uncanny likenesses among the three tales further underscore the Vertigo-like theme of reduplication; the reader is forced to ponder why we make copies of what we find beautiful.
Hollinghurst elaborates these motifs with an irony that is sometimes amusing and sometimes tragic. The title of The Line of Beauty alludes to the S-shaped curve admired by Hogarth, in his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, as expressive of liveliness—as opposed to straight or intersecting lines, which according to Hogarth suggest stasis and death. One of the many bitter poignancies in the novel is that the gay aesthetes in the story who pursue “the line of beauty”—the curve recurs with pointed frequency, whether of the shape of a piano at a recital or in the undulations of a black youth’s torso and buttocks—are themselves doomed to death.
For all these reasons, the new book comes as something of a surprise. In many ways, The Stranger’s Child—which is about the way in which the true, gay story behind a poem that Cecil Valance wrote, and which for a time becomes a national favorite, is elided over time—takes up themes and settings the author has visited in the past; not the least of these, as George Sawle’s glum ruminations make clear, is the way in which public, family, and “official” narratives come into conflict with, and often betray, the complicated truths of messy private lives. There is, to be sure, a gay love affair; and the story is set in (among other places) a grand Victorian country house and some charmingly old-fashioned suburban acreage—places that have played an important symbolic part in Hollinghurst’s earlier books, which, as this one also does, explore the shifting meaning of Englishness from the last century to the present one. But there is something tame about this effort, in which, indeed, cold marble seems too often to substitute for living flesh. By the time you reach the last of its over four hundred pages, you wonder whether a certain vital organ is missing.
On one level, The Stranger’s Child rings some interesting and rather elegiac changes on Hollinghurst’s characteristic themes. The book takes its title from a line of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a poem that someone recites in the first of its five sections and that suggests its dominant preoccupations: how difficult it is to know the past, and the insufficiency of our attempts to memorialize, indeed to remember.