In Gay and Crumbling England

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Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Alan Hollinghurst, New York City, December 2004

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 …

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