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Life of — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Interview)

On the uses and abuses of biography
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RYAN KELPIN/THE VARSITY
RYAN KELPIN/THE VARSITY

Daphne was supposed to have a good memory, and this reputation sustained her uneasily in face of the thousands of things she couldn’t remember. People had been amazed by what she’d dredged up for her book, but much of it, as she’d nearly admitted to Paul Bryant, was, not fiction, which one really mustn’t do about actual people, but a sort of poetical reconstruction. … Her first problem, in doing her book, had been to recall what anyone said; in fact she had made up all the conversations, based (if one was strictly truthful) on odd words the person almost certainly had said, and within about five, or at the outside ten, years of the incident recorded.


———   NOVELS BY ALAN HOLLINGHURST   ———

The Swimming-Pool Library (1988)
The Folding Star (1994)
The Spell (1998)
The Line of Beauty (2004), winner of the Man Booker Prize
The Stranger’s Child (2011)

 ———

The names are significant in an Alan Hollinghurst novel. Their sound, their provenance, their religion, their class, their time and place, what they say about the relations between people: the proper nouns carry extra weight. Hollinghurst’s last book, The Line of Beauty, for instance, centred on Nick Guest: lodger for the sake of argument, but really a long-term visitor in the Fedden household.

When Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, was published in 1988, The Guardian called it “a historic novel”: “the first major novel in Britain to put gay life in its modern place and context.” It also began with a discussion of names. Here is William Beckwith on the opening page, introducing the idea of his new lover, Arthur:

I was getting a taste for black names, West Indian names; they were a kind of time-travel, the words people whispered to their pillows, doodled on their copy-book margins, cried out in passion when my grandfather was young. I used to think these Edwardian names were the denial of romance: Archibald, Ernest, Lionel, Hubert were laughably stolid; they bespoke personalities unflecked by sex or malice. Yet only this year I had been with boys called just those staid things; and they were not staid boys.

Hollinghurst’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, turns around a man named Cecil Valance, an Edwardian name recalling A Room with a View’s unflecked — unfleckable? — Cecil Vyse. But like The Swimming-Pool’s Archibalds, its Lionels, its Ernests, Cecil is no staid boy.

When we meet Cecil at the opening of the novel, it is 1913 and the young poet is down for the weekend to visit the family home of his Cambridge friend George Sawle. The Sawles are middle class. Their house, called Two Acres, is in the pleasant suburban town of Stanmore, today engulfed in the greater London sprawl. Cecil, by contrast, is the eldest son of Sir Edwin Valance, Bt., and the next master of Corley Court. George’s family, particularly George’s mother, Freda, and his younger sister, Daphne, is thrown into a fluster by the arrival of the beautiful, confident aristocrat-poet.

Fast-forward to 1926, and Cecil’s life has been cut short by the First World War. Had it been left at that, Cecil Valance would have been remembered, if at all, as a minor poet; as it happens, Churchill eulogizes him in the Times and includes a quote from what immediately becomes Cecil’s best-known work, “Two Acres,” composed during his weekend stay in 1913. Cecil is promptly reconfigured as a war poet and a representative of his generation’s lost promise. The Sawle home, those “Two blessèd acres of English ground,” is reconstituted as the pre-war English idyll.

The rest of The Stranger’s Child, which spans a near-century over five sections (dated 1913, 1926, 1967, 1978, and 2008) traces Cecil’s literary afterlife and its repercussions in the lives of his contemporaries as well as those generations later. In the third section we are introduced to Paul Bryant, a would-be Valance biographer who senses there is something missing in the official Cecil story. To return, then, to Cecil’s surname: “Valance” is another word for “bed skirt.” To be a Valance biographer, then, carries the added meaning of writing about matters of the bedroom, particularly what is concealed.

What we know from the first pages of The Stranger’s Child is that at the time of his visit to Two Acres, Cecil is having a passionate affair with George. In 1926, George thinks upon the now-famous “Two Acres”:

There were parts of it unpublished, unpublishable, that Cecil had read to him — now lost for ever, probably. The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes…

In The Line of Beauty, Nick Guest’s thesis is on hidden sexuality in Henry James; or, as he puts it to a new acquaintance, “style that hides things and reveals things at the same time.” Hollinghurst is a great admirer of James, whom he often references.

The Stranger’s Child might also be said to operate by a style that hides things and reveals things simultaneously. Hollinghurst’s previous works have been noted for their detailed, explicit descriptions of gay sex; they have also all focused on gay men. The Stranger’s Child is a departure in that several of its characters are sexually ambiguous and the author has purposefully closed the bedroom door on the reader.

“I wanted to write about the unknowability of the past and, indeed, the lives of others around us,” he explains. “I thought that maintaining a mystery about their sexual lives might be quite effective. Did Cecil sleep with Daphne? We’ll never know. … I wanted to create in quite a thoroughgoing way that sense of shared ignorance and uncertainty about the past.”

A key event outside The Stranger’s Child that nevertheless informs it is the passing in 1967 of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized in England and Wales homosexual acts made in private between two men over the age of 21.

“It ushered in a new period in which it was possible to say things about the private lives of biographical subjects, for instance, which hadn’t been so easy before. Michael Holroyd’s great Life of Strachey [Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, volume 1: The Unknown Years (1880-1910)] came out in the autumn of 1967. It was really the first biography to write openly and fully and unembarrasedly about the private life of a gay writer. I was interested in touching on these moments when larger moral perceptions seemed to be changing.”

“Didn’t really care for Strachey, did you, George?” said Madeleine Sawle, again looking quizzically over her husband’s food.

 

“There’s this young chap…Hopkirk.” Sawle looked at her.

 

“Holroyd,” she said.

 

“Who’s about to tell all about old Lytton.”

 

“Oh, I can’t wait,” said Peter.

 

“He came to see me. Very young, charming, clever, and extremely tenacious” — Sawle laughed as though to admit he’d been got the better of. “I don’t suppose I helped him much, but it seems he’s got some people to agree to the most amazing revelations.”

 

“Quite a tale, by all accounts!” said Madeleine, with a grim pretence of enthusiasm.

The five sections of The Stranger’s Child could be read as charting a century from repression to liberation, with the middle section taking place in that key year British Parliament decriminalized homosexual acts. Repression — that George and Cecil cannot admit to their relationship — is what sets the story in motion. The stakes are set by that essential lie and the further fictions that ensue.

“I’d infinitely rather live in the liberal present, but as a novelist I see I’m repeatedly drawn back to eras in which being gay was much more complicated and challenging, and also a matter of being inducted into codes of behaviour. All that is rather fascinating to the fiction writer,” Hollinghurst says.

The development towards a more liberal, open present is what propels the novel forward, since what draws us through is the slow reveal: not what happened at Two Acres, but whether it will ever be discovered, and how, and with what result.

RYAN KELPIN/THE VARSITY

The Stranger’s Child is about story-making: of the life story behind Cecil’s otherwise forgettable poetry, but also of life stories more generally and how they are shaped to suit particular interests. Daphne’s memoir is not a work of fiction but a “poetical reconstruction,” she argues to herself one especially dark night. Yet her protest draws attention to the inherent fiction: she has made up all the conversations “recorded” in her memoir.

“It’s going to be shaped,” Hollinghurst responds to a question about the limits of biography. “There is a likelihood of something almost fictional creeping into an account that one makes of one’s own life.”

Alan Hollinghurst was born on the 26th of May, 1954 in Stroud, Gloucestershire. A week after his birth, the family moved to a nearby market town called Faringdon, where Alan’s father, a bank manager, had been relocated. At the age of seven he was sent to a boarding prep school, and then to Canford, an independent school (or “public school” in England) situated in a grand former country estate. In the autumn of 1972 he began at Oxford, where he studied English.

By the time he reached university, the author says he knew he was gay, although he did not formally come out until his last year when putting together the proposal for his MLitt. “I think one thing I was partly doing in deciding to write this thesis was to make a public declaration of my interest,” he says, looking back.

The thesis was on gay writers, such as E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank, who had been unable to write openly about their sexuality. When Hollinghurst began working on his proposal in 1975, it was in the immediate aftermath of the Sexual Offences Act and its effect on the biographical record.

“It was only eight years before, but there was already a new climate in which it had become possible to say things about the lives and the works of gay writers that people hadn’t been able to say before. Forster had died in ’70, and his gay novel Maurice had come out the following year, so a lot of re-evaluation was beginning to take place of that whole question.”

Hollinghurst’s first novel was “a very conspicuous gay book,” as he recently described it. “I felt when I started out with writing my first book … which was in 1984 — this is in the long aftermath of this change in the law and the attitudes that was going on — that here was a subject, gay lives in the present time, gay history, which really hadn’t been explored in literary fiction, and the depictions of gay sexual behaviour tended to be pornography. There were some novelists, like Angus Wilson, who had perfectly ordinary gay characters getting on with their lives, but they were few and far between. Writers like Iris Murdoch, because she so loved those polymorphous sexual goings-on, she wanted to bring in various sexually abnormal characters, but there wasn’t much of it around. So I did have a sense of opportunity in that here was a new terrain to be described.”

Perhaps because his first novel was so conspicuous in its description of the new terrain, Hollinghurst was levelled with the “gay writer” moniker — a description he says might have fitted in 1988, but has felt more restrictive and less relevant over the past two decades.

“I think it’s a thing that’s constantly evolving. When I wrote my first book, it was very pointedly a gay novel, and I thought of myself as a gay writer, but with the caveat that I felt gay writing, though a useful way of identifying someone, was potentially a way of limiting one. It was possible to say, ‘He’s just a gay writer.’ You know. ‘He’s only interested in that subject.’ Whereas what I hope to do is to write about all kinds of things, but from a gay perspective. So it’s a tricky question. I got fed up just with being in that category. I think with the changes in social attitudes and so on, and the rise and slow evaporation of gay lit as a subject area, it’s become less and less meaningful, really.”

The evolving public and critical reception of Hollinghurst’s work is itself a study in changing attitudes towards sex and sexuality in English society — exactly the material the author mines in so many of his novels.

* * *

Hollinghurst is a former quiz-setter for Nemo’s Almanac, a literary game the Independent once called “a year-long trivial pursuit for the over-educated.” The game consists of a set of unattributed, obscure quotations, six for each month, which contestants must then identify, or identify to the best of their abilities: the most well-read polymaths find the contest maddeningly difficult.

Hollinghurst’s fiction plays a similar game, if his quotations stay closer to the canon. His are easily among the most literary of contemporary novels in the sense of frequently referring to other writers and books, as well as films and filmmakers, paintings and painters, music and musicians, architecture and architects — his interests are wide-ranging.

The Stranger’s Child is no different in this regard. The trajectory of the novel was inspired by the evolutions in the literary biography of the English poet Rupert Brooke. The book’s title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

Nowhere is Hollinghurst’s act of quotation more apparent than in the first two sections of The Stranger’s Child. The Line of Beauty contained several references to Merchant Ivory productions: twice Nick is asked whether he has seen A Room with a View; later, he realizes a sequence running through his mind “was probably a scene from a Merchant Ivory film.” The 1913 section of The Stranger’s Child sometimes induces a similar sense of déjà vu. We think we’ve seen this one before. It fits Wikipedia’s definition of “a Merchant Ivory film” (in the broad sense of the term): “a period piece set in the early 20th century, usually in Edwardian England, featuring lavish sets and top British actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements.”

“… based on the novel,” one might add. Merchant Ivory specialized in a particular genre of literary adaptation, most notably from two of Hollinghurst’s major influences: E.M. Forster (Merchant-Ivory: A Room with a View, 1985; Maurice, 1987; Howards End, 1992), but especially Henry James (The Europeans, 1979; The Bostonians, 1984; The Golden Bowl, 2001).

Of Hollinghurst’s writing, the 1913 section of The Stranger’s Child is the most Forsterian. Maurice famously opened “Begun 1913 / Finished 1914 / Dedicated to a Happier Year.” The author admits his 1913 section is pastiche, but adds that creating a book from other books may be the normal state of affairs for a novelist.

“I realized, when writing the sections set in 1913 that most of what I know about how people spoke and conducted themselves in 1913 comes from reading novels set in that period and probably watching films based on those novels. There’s something irreducibly literary about that part. So a lot of it I think I absorbed and synthesized out of my reading as well as my own observation. Perhaps that’s how novelists go about things in general.”

If the first section is especially Forsterian, the second section, when George returns to Corley to remember his dead former lover, has echoes of Brideshead Revisited. The comparison between the two works can be extended only so far though. While The Stranger’s Child is the most demure of Hollinghurst’s novels, George remembers Cecil’s body with none of the ambiguity in Charles Ryder’s remembrance of Sebastian Flyte. And in Hollinghurst’s consistent undercutting of any nostalgia or solace one may take in the past, there are greater similarities with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (Merchant Ivory: 1993). The Stranger’s Child shares neither Waugh’s reactionary social outlook nor his adulation of the upper class.

* * * 

Readers will note similarities between the later sections of his latest novel and biographical details from Hollinghurst’s life. When we meet Paul in 1967, he has just moved to a market town, based on Faringdon, where he has begun to work as a clerk at a bank. At the end of his first week, he is asked to walk home the agoraphobic bank manager, Mr. Keeping, who, in the years since the last section has married Daphne’s daughter. While working at the bank, Paul meets Peter, the music teacher at Corley Court, which has been turned into a public school. Later, Paul begins to work at the Times Literary Supplement, where Hollinghurst was on staff for 14 years.

The Stranger’s Child provides fair warning against reading too much into an author’s life based on his books, however. The novel is rife with interested readers who reach will their conclusions text be damned. Sometimes the results are humorous, as when Paul Bryant buys a copy of Cattle Feeds and Cattle Care, authored by Cecil’s father, and find “its very intractability conveyed something almost mystical about his subject’s family.” At another point we are told, “the books that only mentioned Cecil in a footnote gave him the strongest sense of uncovering a mystery.”

Other times the results are funny-sad. After Cecil’s death his mother undergoes “book-tests,” believing Cecil is trying to communicate with her from beyond the grave. The book-tests amount to a medium, Mrs. Aubrey, pointing Lady Valance to lines from various books in the Corley library. The lines contain Cecil’s message, often enigmatic and therefore open to Lady Valance’s interpretation.

Another gave her a line from Swinburne (a poet she hadn’t previously approved of), “I will go back to the great sweet mother”; she didn’t seem to mind that the great sweet mother in question was the English Channel.

In both cases the respective reader has only lightly touched on the text itself.

For his part, Hollinghurst responds that he has always been interested in how a writer’s work grows out of his biography, and freely admits sections of The Stranger’s Child do draw on his own experience, but argues it would be a mistake to read his biography in light of his creative output.

By the end of the novel, the world may know Cecil Valance better for Paul Bryant’s biography of him, although, tellingly, we never read in full the drafts of “Two Acres” that Cecil showed George. The Stranger’s Child leaves less open to the imagination than does Brideshead regarding the relationship between two young men, but it retains its own mysteries. We never fully learn how the life affects the work, but by novel’s end, Cecil’s life and Cecil’s work have stopped mattering much to anyone beyond Daphne’s family. As the epigraph to the final section reads, “No one remembers you at all.” It is taken from Mick Imlah’s “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson.” The point has stopped being “The Life of —”; as story, it’s in the telling.

* * *

The Varsity spoke to Alan Hollinghurst the day after he gave a reading at the Toronto Reference Library in early November. Some of the quotations above are taken from Hollinghurst’s interview with Seamus O’Regan at that event.


———   INTERVIEW CONTENTS   ———

The unknowable futurity to which we commend ourselves
A more complicated history
The influence of looks, the memories of hands
The lives of others
An ear for English music, an eye for English things

———


The unknowable futurity to which we commend ourselves

———

THE VARSITY

I thought of starting by discussing the title, which is taken from [Tennyson’s] In Memoriam. A question running throughout the book is “Who is Cecil?” And so I guess that’s my first question for you: Who is Cecil, and is he the stranger’s child?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I don’t think of him as being the stranger’s child, really. The thing about that utterly wonderful section of In Memoriam, which he reads to the dinner guests at Two Acres, is the imagining of the future or saying, in effect, how unimaginable the future is, even if it’s going to be taking place in this very landscape that we know and love.

Till from the garden and the wild

A fresh association blow,

And year by year the landscape grow

Familiar to the stranger’s child

Way into the future, this landscape will grow familiar to the stranger’s child, not only to people we don’t know, but to further generations of people we don’t know. So I thought of it being an emblem of the unknowable futurity to which we all willy-nilly have to commend ourselves.

I hadn’t really thought of a particular person being the stranger’s child of the title. I suppose in a sense Paul Bryant, the person we see taking up Cecil’s story, is very much a stranger’s child to him, and in many ways very remote from Cecil. Actually, in most ways.

Cecil has that aristocratic education. Raised in the country with his love of killing animals, which mutates very naturally to love of killing Germans. Great sense, unhesitating sense of entitlement, confidence in his own powers and charms. So not altogether a very likable person, [laughs] but the one who clearly has a sort of charisma and an impact on the people around him.

THE VARSITY

That was one of the questions I had for you: how much you personally liked this character as you were writing him. The reason why I had thought that he might be the stranger’s child is because In Memoriam was written for Arthur Henry Hallam, and there are some questions about Tennyson’s relationship with or feelings towards that man, but also the fact that the poem was written over almost two decades —

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yeah.

THE VARSITY

It’s much more about the experience of loss and grief over the years than it is the immediate experience of grief —

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. It’s about both, isn’t it?

THE VARSITY

Yes, and about the death of a young poet.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes, you’re right.

THE VARSITY

That is why I had thought that maybe there were parallels there between Cecil and…

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. It’s sort of swimming around in the background. I’m not sure — Yes, I think you’re right: The protracted nature of the writing of In Memoriam and the sort of processes it describes are quite relevant to this book. Anyway, it ties in various ways with the Cambridge background and with other appearances of Tennyson in the book.

THE VARSITY

But back to that other question: I think a lot of the appeal that Cecil has for a reader is that it seems all the people who surround him are somewhat taken aback or taken in by him. But he has some qualities that you mentioned that are less than appealing. To what degree do you have to like a character you’re writing?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

To me it’s not really a consideration, actually. And I don’t think it’s a consideration to me as a reader. To me the important thing is to be interested in a character or to know more about them, engaged in following them. Whether I like them or not is to me almost an irrelevant question. I think I’ve often created quite central characters whom I probably wouldn’t like if they were to walk into the room. Of course I take into consideration the degree to which they’re liked by the people around them, and my books I suppose just have to be about those personal relations and reactions of people to each other. I think there’s an awful lot of ambivalence about Cecil even in the early [sections]. Freda Sawle doesn’t sort of…

THE VARSITY

No, she’s not a fan.

She had felt very foolish, and the pressure of what she was not going to say drove even the simplest conversation out of her mind. She did say that Cecil had made a terrible mess of his room, and it had sounded petty of her, to say such a thing of a poet and a hero who had won the Military Cross. She alluded, in addition, to his “liveliness” and the various things he had broken—widow’s mites, again, pathetic grievances. What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

No, in the end, she’s not really a fan, but at the time she’s confused and she’s had too much to drink and she doesn’t quite know what’s going on.

THE VARSITY

Also, I think for many of the characters who like him initially, by the end, his legacy had become something of a nuisance.

He himself felt sick of the poem, though still wearily please by his connection with it; bored and embarrassed by its popularity, therefore amused by its having a secret, and sadly reassured by the fact that it could never be told. There were parts of it unpublished, unpublishable, that Cecil had read to him—now lost for ever, probably. The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes…“Well, Daphne can tell you the story,” he said, with his usual disavowal of it.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes, I think that’s right. There’s a sense in which he’s not an interesting person, I think. [laughs]

 

A more complicated history

———

THE VARSITY

One of the reasons why I think the investigation of Cecil’s biography-making is interesting is because Cecil didn’t live for very long. I mean, he lived only to, what, mid-20s?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Twenty-five I think it was, yes. George Sawle says, doesn’t he, when they’re talking about Daphne’s 70th birthday party, there’s not enough there for a full biography. I mean, he’s partly saying that because he doesn’t want people looking into it too closely.

It’s the strange thing that happens when someone dies young, and particularly in circumstances such as that of the Somme: the idealizing thing, and the fact that most of the people that they’ve been intimately involved with are liable to be young, and so the context in which their early life will be seen is one of intense, youthful emotions and wasted promise. That’s a nexus out of which it’s very hard to winkle stern truths.

Those were things I’d known about and thought it would be interesting to create another version of, the slow emerging of a more complicated history.

 

THE VARSITY

As time goes by in the novel, Cecil’s work is thought less and less of. Initially it becomes famous because it serves a certain purpose.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Exactly. I think “Two Acres” is very much like Rupert Brooke’s “Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” that poem idealizing a certain view of England written before the war, which after the war takes on a dimension of ideality, as does its writer. And so it’s given a significance by context which it probably wouldn’t have had at the time [of writing]. With the passing of time, people more widely acknowledge it as not all that great, but by then it had done some other strange thing.

THE VARSITY

Permutated into other things.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yeah.

THE VARSITY

I was interested in the influence of Brooke in this novel, because I’ve heard you reference him in relation to the book in a couple different places. What was the line of influence there? Were you familiar with his literary afterlife and thought, “I could do something with this. There are concerns I want to write about”? Or was it that you had issues, characters, themes that you wanted to bring about in a book, and it just so happened — ?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

No, it was more the former. I think I tend to go from more humane things rather than from theoretical ones.

No, I’ve had Brooke in my system ever since childhood because my mother was, and still is, very keen on Brooke and did a lot of reciting lines of Brooke to me as a child, so he was always a presence. I can remember his beautiful image from when I was very young.

It was only much later I met Geoffrey Keynes in old age, who’d obviously been in love with Brooke and just sort of appointed himself as literary executor. He’d published this edition of Brooke’s letters in the late ’60s which were heavily censored. I mean, they gave a much franker picture than what came before, but they were an act of personal homage to this long-dead friend. The whole thing of Brooke’s beauty — much more than Cecil’s I think — helped him to be turned into this iconic figure of the beautiful, lost, talented generation.

Interesting very much the role of the mother: Brooke had this very powerful, domineering mother, Mary Brooke. She commissioned Keynes to write a biography to preface Brooke’s poems, which she heavily policed. There are extraordinary letters by people like Virginia Woolf after it was published just finding the portrait of Brooke utterly unrecognizable to the person that they’d known.

THE VARSITY

Perhaps it was the person that a mother knew.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Possibly, yes. I think it happened, it must have happened all the time: the person with the very powerful mother whom the son wishes both to please and to escape from, so going off to fight was the ideal thing. I can think of a number of instances of that in those particularly brave, upper class, public-school young men who jumped at the chance of going off to fight in the war.

THE VARSITY

At least partially to go off.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. Of course, as no one had any conception at the beginning of the war that it was going to be a war unlike any that had ever been before. There’s an aristocratic poet called Julian Grenfell who was killed in the war and who was the son of Lady Desborough, who was a brilliant and powerful social hostess. He writes extraordinary letters to her when he first got to France, saying, “I adore war.”

[both laugh]

You know, it was just the greatest thing that ever happened, until it got them.

So those were things I’d known about and thought it would be interesting to create another version of, the very slow emerging of a more complicated history. I think of the extraordinary long letter in which Brooke describes the rather violent sexual episode he had with another man — probably published only in the 1990s. So there may be stuff we’ve yet to find out about him.

 

The influence of looks, the memories of hands

———

THE VARSITY

You were talking earlier about how you are trying to write about the relations between people. One of the things I found interesting is the way you write about attractiveness. Cecil is considered a very attractive man, although when Peter describes Cecil to his students as being handsome, he doesn’t really know what he means by that.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes.

I’ve always been interested in the way people fall under the influence of looks … that destabilizing power that personal beauty can have over others.

 

THE VARSITY

Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How do you go about describing attractiveness in a representational form when we don’t have a photo or an image to go by?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I think I just evoke it by one or two touches really. I very rarely give a very full physical description of what anybody looks like, because I think one wants to invite the reader to contribute to the imagining of the character in that way. As we know, Cecil’s got a long…splendid nose.

[both laugh]

And slightly bulbous eyes, and swept-back, dark hair. Over the span of a novel like this you can trace the kinds of look that are found attractive in different periods. In that same scene you were referring to where they’re looking at the old photograph of Cecil —

THE VARSITY

He’s not like Sean Connery, we know that.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yeah, he’s not Sean Connery; he’s not beautiful in the new way. He seems now to be an example, a specimen of some almost extinct style of beauty. Again, it’s really a question of their effect on the people around them. I’ve always been very interested in the way people fall under the influence of looks. My book The Line of Beauty is very much about someone who’s unduly swayed by the beauty of other people, blinded by it, really, and makes a lot of blind judgments as a result of that destabilizing power that personal beauty can have over others, which, as you say, may largely be in their eyes.

THE VARSITY

And something that you may find immensely attractive in one person, presented in another person is absolutely repulsive.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Exactly.

THE VARSITY

I ask because there’s that scene where George is looking at Cecil’s monument, and he notices that the hands are wrong. And for George it’s the hands that evoke who Cecil is.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. That’s right. Cecil’s large hands, made almost too much of.

THE VARSITY

Calloused from rowing.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. When Daphne’s trying to tell her children about Cecil in the second part, she can’t really think of anything to say except he had the most enormous hands! [laughs] Which she obviously remembered for good reason.

THE VARSITY

[laughs]

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes, that’s right. You can make some approximation of a face from a photograph, but the thing that the sculptor probably had never known about was that he had these hands, which to George too would have been charged with sexual memories.

he thought he would sit for a minute or two, in the flanking pew—he couldn’t quite have said why; but when he was there he dropped his forehead to his raised hand, leant forward slightly and prayed, in a vague, largely wordless way, a prayer of images and reproaches. He looked up, on a level now with Cecil’s sleeping form, the obdurate nose pointing roofwards, the soldierly commonplace of the body, posed perhaps by some artist’s model, not completely unlike Cecil, not a runt or a giant, but not Cecil in any particular way. And pictures of the particular Cecil rose toward him, naked and dripping on the banks of the Cam, or trotting through the Backs in his rugger bags and clattering studs, white and unassailable before a match, filthy and bloody after it. They were beautiful images, but vague as well with touching and retouching. He had others, more magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands, the heat of Cecil, the hair-raising beauty of his skin, of his warm waist under his shirt, and the trail of rough curls leading down from his waist.

He remembers, he has the memory in his own hands of what it was like to feel Cecil. I’m quite interested in those kinds of memory.

THE VARSITY

Tactile memory.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. This fascinating, perhaps indescribable thing, but I believe it does exist.

THE VARSITY

Something that has come out in the reviews of this book — and at the event last night somebody asked why there isn’t more of it in this book — is that people really enjoy your descriptions of sexual episodes, urges, motives, which I think speaks to that they are not getting those same qualities from other books.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes.

THE VARSITY

Do you find other books to be prudish?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

No, I don’t think it’s really a consideration with me. I’m sometimes slightly startled when they’re not. [laughs] Yes, I’m sorry people felt sort of cheated.

THE VARSITY

Well, I find that your books address sexuality as a motive in people’s lives, whereas I find that, on the whole, other books tend to ignore that. You don’t find the same?

One can give a rich picture of the importance of the sexual life without actually describing it and without retreating into a prudish position of denying it.

 

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Well, yes, I suppose different writers will bring different things to the fore. Because in my early books I made such a point of — I hate using this as a verb — of foregrounding the sexual behaviour and so forth, I think that was something I did, but I didn’t necessarily expect others to do that.

THE VARSITY

Was it simply that you were writing about characters for whom sex is a primary concern?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Well, that’s also true, of course. My first book and so forth are so much seen, told from the point of view of someone who is kind of living for sex. And a lot of the characters that I’ve written about have been. Cecil might subscribe to that. But I think one can give quite a rich picture of the importance of the sexual life without actually describing it and without retreating into a prudish position of denying it. Henry James, after all, was never especially explicit, but he obviously has a deep sense of the importance of sexuality in people’s lives. One feels it in his books.

So much of the point of the book was the uncertainty of any of the characters, and by extension, the reader, of just what had happened in intimate scenes between people, and I preferred not to go into it.

 

The lives of others

———

THE VARSITY

You said [at the event last evening] that you thought there were more straight characters in this book, but there also are a lot of sexually ambiguous characters. Why was that important to you?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I think, in a way, it’s the “gay writer” question. I think I felt interested in writing about the sort of vagaries and ambivalences of sexual experience rather than the categories of sexual experience. I can’t say exactly, but I think that must have been something in my mind. I wanted to write about the unknowability of the past and, indeed, the lives of others around us. I thought that maintaining a mystery about their sexual lives might be quite effective. Did Cecil sleep with Daphne? We’ll never know. I could have written a sex scene for them, or have Daphne remember one, but I wanted to create in quite a thoroughgoing way that sense of shared ignorance and uncertainty about the past.

I wanted to write about the unknowability of the past and, indeed, the lives of others around us.

 

THE VARSITY

That’s something I noticed: We don’t know certain things about Cecil, but also, you do this thing where the book is divided into five sections; there’s some gaps, in some cases very large gaps, between the sections, and last night you noted that the three linked stories in [Alice Munro’s] Runaway were a bit of an inspiration in that jumping. Daphne is a really interesting example of that, because we meet her when she’s a young girl. In the first couple pages of the second section, I was very concerned initially that she had married Cecil.

[both laugh]

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Good. Yes.

THE VARSITY

And then I think it’s by the third section we learn that in the intervening years she’s had another two husbands. It seems to me that is a comment on biography and our expectations for what is coming in a person’s narrative, as much for the stories of the other characters in the book as for Cecil’s story.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes, that’s right. Cecil’s story provides pretext for a lot of the other things that happen in the novel, I suppose, but the same processes are at work in the lives of the other characters.

THE VARSITY

Where do your characters come from?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I’m really not sure. They sort of slowly coalesce in my mind. There must be a point at which a character is seen as necessary. When I’m starting a book, I do small sort of character sketches: their attributes or the person they’re going to be, often seen in relation to another person. I have to reach a point where I feel I can — not see them so much, because as you were saying, I don’t think I ever say what Daphne looks like, you know. Late on, we see that drawing Revel did of her in 1926. I think that’s probably the first actual physical description of her. But I like to have a sense of what someone sounds like, something as vague as what it would be like if they came into the room, what their presence would be. I feel that’s almost all I really need to get writing, actually.

It’s a miracle that my characters aren’t all called Joseph Conrad.

 

THE VARSITY

One of the aspects that really struck me about the characters — in this book especially, when the book takes place over nearly a century — is their names are so evocative of their time.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Oh good!

THE VARSITY

Looking at the earliest cast of characters, you have some Germanic names [Freda, Clara Kalbeck, Tilda], moving into the younger generation, which is Edwardian [George, Cecil, Daphne, Eva, Florence], and then I remember the character Mark, of Mark being mentioned, and it struck me that this is somebody who is not of the same background as these other characters.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes.

THE VARSITY

How do you go about choosing names?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Sort of by instinct. Sometimes I’m a bit flummoxed for a name and I run my eyes along the bookshelves above my desk. It’s a miracle that my characters aren’t all called Joseph Conrad. Some come to me very quickly. Actually, the name Valance — I always knew that he was going to be called Cecil, that the two brothers would have the names of these two great Elizabethan statesmen, Cecil and Dudley, but I just couldn’t get the surname for a long time, almost until I finished the book, actually. I can’t remember how it came to me.

There’s something generally fairly intuitive about it, and generally I think I know that I’ve got it right when I do get it. With my novel The Spell it took me ages to decide what to call the four main characters called A, B, C, and D. I could see they were in danger of being called Andy, Bob, Charlie, and Derek, or something like that.

[both laugh]

It was quite a struggle to give them real names after that.

THE VARSITY

Then you have Peter and Paul.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I have Peter and Paul, the disciples, yes. Yes, they seem to be a natural little pairing.

Mrs. Kalbeck: that was just a very silly private joke. Kalbeck was the first biographer of Brahms, who is generally considered to be the polar opposite to Wagner, who is Mrs. Kalbeck’s obsession. No, sometimes there’s some silly little private thing going on behind a name, where it doesn’t matter much to anybody else.

 

An ear for English music, an eye for English things

———

THE VARSITY

I think it’s Stokes who says this — they’re talking about whether Cecil’s poetry is any good — and Sebby says, “As long as there are readers with an ear for English music and an eye for English things,” Cecil will have some appeal.

“Posthumous publication doesn’t always enhance a writer’s reputation.” He took a frank, almost academic note. “I don’t know how you would rate Cecil Valance, as a poet?”

 

“Oh…” Stokes looked at him, and then looked at Cecil, who now seemed to cause him a slight inhibition, his marble nose alert for any disloyalty. “Oh, I think no one would question,” he said, “do you? that a number, really a goodly few, of Cecil’s poems, especially perhaps the lyrics…one or two of the trench poems, certainly…‘Two Acres,’ indeed, lighter but of course so charming…will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things…”

 

This large claim seemed rather to evaporate in its later clauses.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

[laughs]

Yes.

THE VARSITY

There’s a lot that changes over the near-century of the novel, but I think there’s a lot that stays the same. I found this to be a very English book.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes. I agree.

THE VARSITY

It’s very rooted in the concerns of that place over this period of time. I’m wondering if you were aware of the Englishness of the book as you were writing it.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

I mean, I couldn’t not be. I wasn’t oppressively aware of it, because I was working in my own territory. I wasn’t as aware of it as if I’d been writing a book set in Burma or something. A lot of it came very naturally to me. But yes, it is obviously a book about certain English concerns, which might be summed up in that great waffly phrase of Sebby Stokes’s. Yes, the vagaries of English social history and developing mores — I think I quite like books to be fairly rooted in particular cultures. It’s part of their interest, really. It’s sort of dispiriting when people say, “It’s all too English for me.” Didn’t someone ask a question last night? I can’t remember.

THE VARSITY

Somebody compared it to kabuki?

[both laugh]

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes! That might be pressing it a bit far.

THE VARSITY

The story of how an artist’s creation and life is interpreted over time could work in any place…

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Of course it can.

THE VARSITY

But I think the way in which that story rolls forward is very tied to issues of class, education…

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

No, undoubtedly. I’d quite agree. Possibly to people not so schooled in those things, they might seem relatively baffling.

I quite like books to be rooted in particular cultures. It’s part of their interest, really.

 

THE VARSITY

I started this interview by asking you some biographical questions, which I do with most of the authors I speak to, but I think in the case of this book, there’s the added issue of the questions that this book asks: How do we interpret an artist’s life? What is the relationship between a life and a work of art? Do we know a work of art better for having known a life?

Are you aware of biographical details of your own that have informed the writing of this book?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Oh yes, quite a lot, particularly in the later sections of the book, which happened in my lifetime. The little country market town is very much based on Faringdon, and the prep school drew directly on my memories of being at a prep school in an English country house. A lot of those scenes set in the offices of the TLS, where I worked for 14 years. Yes, without actually writing an autobiographical story, I’m constantly drawing on episodes out of my own past.

THE VARSITY

If you were to reach a verdict on Cecil and his literary afterlife, do you think people know his work better by the end of the novel?

ALAN HOLLINGHURST

Yes, I think perhaps. I’ve always myself been very interested in this sort of biographical dimension of criticism. I know for a long time it was thought to be very bad form, but I’m intensely interested in how writers’ works relate to, grow out of their lives, whilst being properly wary of using the imaginative works as tools for writing biography.