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Alan Hollinghurst on writing queer subjects

Booker winner Alan Hollighurst recommends the novels of Ronald Firbank and Edmund White, and thinks out loud about the likely intersectionality of minority causes in Donald Trump's America

Alan Hollinghurst at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: PriyankaParashar/ Mint
Alan Hollinghurst at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: PriyankaParashar/ Mint

Jaipur: From among all the big-ticket names at the crowd-choked, slightly underwhelming Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this year, Alan Hollinghurst was easily the most underrated.

The 62-year-old English poet, novelist and 2004 Booker prize winner was on a handful of panels, but in most situations was easily overshadowed by louder (Hollighurst is soft-spoken, despite his deep voice), more outwardly entertaining speakers like playwright David Hare who is filled with wit and sharp, quotable one-liners. Hollinghurst though, who otherwise comes off as rather reserved, has the constant glint of a tiny smile lurking behind his eyes— like as if he’s just heard the trees at JLF whisper a joke that you missed while trying to jostle your way through the teeming crowd.

He is the author of five books, four of which make for a sort of exploration into gay life in the United Kingdom. The last of these, The Line of Beauty, published in 2004, had won the Booker Prize that year, and the following novel, The Stranger’s Child made the Man Booker Prize Longlist in 2011, also the year of its publication.

At the JLF, he hinted that he’d “just two weeks ago", finished writing his sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair. The book is due this year, according to his publishers.

In this interview, he spoke about writing on queer subjects since as early as the mid-1970s, his varied stylistic influences, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to lesser known, but must-read gay authors, and on the pulling down of certain pages specific to civil and LGBT rights from the White House website since Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Edited excerpts.

There have been a few standout books that are gender-aware, as it were, in literary history, though we don’t seem to really know too many. There’s Virginia Woolf’s Orlando that schools or universities would’ve taught at some point. And in contemporary times, names like Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy come to mind. Who has influenced your writing of queer subjects?

I read Orlando when I was a school boy. It was a sort of charade that she (Woolf) was playing with her own lesbianism. I was also very interested in the writing of (Arthur Annesley) Ronald Firbank, an experimental modernist novelist, who wrote between 1915 and his death in 1926. Very short, highly original novels, where he writes about all kinds of sexual ambivalence, which is both expressed and disguised by the various fragmented modernist styles. His device generally was to write about lesbians. He must’ve written more about women and women’s lives and their clothes than any other male novelist. He was totally fascinated by women’s dress. His later books— after the war he didn’t really live in England at all, he had rather frail health, he lived in North Africa and the Caribbean and Italy, places where a gay man could feel less threatened in the peculiar atmosphere that reigned for a long time in Britain then— are much more openly and evidently gay. And they’ve remained a great delight and sources of inspiration to me. I’ve written quite a lot about them, always sort of trying to do something for him to promote him. Never quite catches on!

He was a very influential figure too, for his technical experimentations, on the following generation of writers. He showed fascinating sort of textual possibilities of writing about taboo subjects.

Edmund White’s first big success A Boy’s Own Story (1982) made a tremendous impression (on me). I couldn’t quite handle it when it first came out. I remember that I wrote a rather snooty review of it for the Times Literary Supplement that I’m now deeply ashamed of. But I made good last year by writing a long introduction to a new edition of it. But it was the first book I’ve read certainly that wrote about adolescence of a young, gay man from the Mid West. It was a story that’d never been told before, or told with great sort of poetic beauty as well as some startling candour. It ends in his betrayal of an older lover—very shocking, because it has the force of truth. I think it was very remarkable because it wasn’t seeking to sort of trying to woo or persuade the reader of anything. He then went on to write two more— it was a trilogy of autobiographical novels which I think was one of the most important…in English language gay writing. The first one came out just before the AIDS crisis, so he had no idea how the whole world he was writing about was going to be altered.

I (found it) quite fascinating when I was young and in university to study how gay writers, (who) hadn’t been able to write openly about their sexuality, and the ways in which nonetheless they did, sort of convey it … the little sort of hints and glimpses. I’ve forgotten the atmosphere of that time, but it was very unlike now. I suppose (it was) really only after the decriminalising of homosexuality in England in 1967 that…well it took a long time for the effects of this to be felt culturally. So when I started writing my thesis in 1975-76, eight years later, no one really looked into this question.

Writing about people like E.M. Foster, now the first thing to think about is that he is gay but, then no one had said this. It’s fascinating change…over these years.

In the Line of Beauty, it seems that parties drive the plot. In this sense it is similar to the likes of Stendhal’s Red and Black or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Were you conscious that you were following this trope?

I was very conscious of it, very conscious of the precedent, yes. Certainly Gatsby and (Marcel) Proust. Proust being a first person narrator, he needs to bring together people all the time, so that he could have them within his view. And there are about 800 pages … which just come in three great parties and 70 page digressions. Yeah, I was certainly conscious of this (trope), it is just naturally a very useful mechanism, device for the novelist.

I love writing set pieces anyway. I very much enjoy a sort of guest list, like ‘oh we haven’t heard from him (a particular character in the novel) in a while.’

As we meet here after Donald Trump’s inauguration in the United States, there is news of the White House official website dropping mentions of climate change and all reference to civil rights and LGBT rights. There is a feeling that with a rise of right-wing sentiment world over, there will be a clampdown on minority rights, especially that of the LGBTQA. But surely, there are also right-leaning LGBTQA people?

Of course, there are right wing gay people…. But I mean, Trump himself didn’t make a particular thing about LGBT questions in his campaign. Though the pulling down of those pages from the website is appalling. I don’t think anybody disputes that.

But it seems potentially alarming that hard won rights might be rescinded. It’s very hard to gauge the strength of the anti-gay feeling isn’t it? Sometimes when its put to the test, as it was with France and the question of gay marriage a couple of years ago, there was a massive reaction against it. There, it is supposedly a very catholic country, although otherwise, French people are famously sort of sophisticated in questions of their sexuality. So one never quite knows what’s lurking at the hands of the right sort of demagogic person…Who knows what’s going to happen.

It’ll depend on how much this (queer politics and voice) will come under attack, and it’ll need to re-assert itself wouldn’t it? But I imagine that there would be a sort of stronger alliance of women causes and sexual minority causes, and minority causes of all kinds actually. It seems to be inevitable.

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