Print Edition - 2012-11-03  |  On Saturday

READING & WRITING

  • Creative implications of repression
- ALAN HOLLINGHURST
READING & WRITING

Nov 2, 2012-

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, published in 1988, was a celebration of the thriving gay subculture he discovered when he moved to London in his twenties. But later novels, including The Folding Star (1994) and The Stranger’s Child (2011), are in part pastoral reveries that gesture back to his semi­rural English childhood. Hollinghurst has written two other novels besides—The Spell (1998) and his Man Booker Prize-winning masterpiece The Line of Beauty (2004)—and his prose has been described as ‘impeccably textured’ and ‘ravishingly measured’. He has also published short-story compilations as well as a number of translations, along with being the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1989 Somerset Maugham Award, and the 1994 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

With The Swimming-Pool Library, which I had started writing in 1984, I knew for the first time I was onto a novel that I was going to go the whole distance with. I was in my early thirties and old enough not to grow out of it halfway through, which is the main hazard of trying to write anything when you’re young. And there was a change in the way I thought. Ideas I might have been setting aside to put into a poem got swept up instead into this more capacious and greedy form.

I’d come out as a gay man in my last term as an under-graduate in the 70s, not to the great surprise of a lot of people. It seemed much less momentous to them than it did to me. The Sexual Offences Act had been passed in 1967 and changed what could be said about the private lives of gay people. There were these all gay writers before who hadn’t been able to publish anything on the subject that was most essential to their lives. But this repression had all sorts of creative implications, as well as limitations. And then what happens when those constraints are removed? Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey came out with uncanny timing a few months later, and it was the first book that was openly and unembarrassedly about the life of a gay writer. A new freedom to talk about these things was very much a part of the atmosphere of that decade.

With The Swimming-Pool Library, I began with wanting to contrast a homosexual life that had been lived under strong legal and social constraints with one being lived rather thoughtlessly in the present by juxtaposing two first-person narratives. And I had a strong sense that I could do something that was unprecedentedly frank. I was very excited by the idea of telling truths that hadn’t been told before and breaking down literary categories. Descriptions of gay sexual behaviour had until then tended to be restricted to pornography, and the presence of gay lives in fiction had been scant. So I had the great fortune of being given this relatively unexplored territory.

My own feeling when I read a book is that I want the characters to be engaging but not necessarily likeable. It’s much more interesting to me, writing about fallible human beings. I sometimes make them do things that are morally weak or cowardly or socially off-limits. Writing in the first person can be claustrophobic—everything that happens in the book is notionally filtered through the narrator, and one can long for the fresh air of another perspective. One can luxuriate in the peculiar world of a character, but there are limitations. Ironising that person’s experience is difficult. You need perhaps a candid old friend of the narrator who can tell a few truths the narrator prefers to ignore. I also like the control of the free, indirect style. I like seeing a character from the outside. I’ve increasingly been interested in leaving gaps and unresolved elements within a novel, trying to escape from the model of the novel as something in which there is a secret that, when revealed, will make all clear. It seems to me too unlike life, too convenient, too fictional.

I never do much research. I don’t like it, really, and I  mistrust its prevalence in contemporary fiction. It often so clearly flags itself as research in the finished product. I think imagination is much more important than information. I think the gains humankind has amassed over the past century are colossal and irrefutable. But perhaps an element of romance has been removed. You used to hear older people slightly lamenting the new freedoms, saying it was so much more exciting in the old days when being gay was illegal and one was inducted into a world of signs and hints and codes. The illicit nature was part of the thrill, and that made it feel perhaps more intense. I can see that I, too—though I much prefer living in the liberal present—am drawn back, as a writer, to periods when being gay was socially more complex and challenging. There’s much less to say about the present.

When I get the sense that a new book is beginning, I start a notebook into which I put anything that might seem to be relevant, which could be a large-scale plot idea, something overheard on the bus, or a descriptive phrase that came to me on a walk. I don’t actually start writing the book until a pretty clear plan for the whole thing has emerged. I can’t just start writing and see what happens. Of course, improvisation is an important part—I would find it dreadfully boring if I planned everything. What keeps you going are the discoveries you make in the course of writing.

Published: 03-11-2012 09:39

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