Alan Hollinghurst speaks to Soumya Bhattacharya about his new novel, being on the Booker longlist and no longer being ‘just a gay writer’.
The Stranger’s Child
Rs 499 pp 564
For Alan Hollinghurst’s legion of admirers across the world (in India, alas, there are too few of them), each new book of his is a hugely anticipated, delightful event. The anticipation is as keen as it is protracted; the wait between books tends to be very long. But it’s a delight in the end because what turns up is always worth waiting for.
Hollinghurst’s new book, The Stranger’s Child (its title a nod to Alfred Tennyson’s poem, ‘In Memoriam’), is already the bookies’ favourite from the novels on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize this year. It comes seven years after his Man Booker-winning The Line of Beauty — seen, so far, as his finest achievement, and as one of the definitive English books of, and about, the 1980s.
I’ve read The Stranger’s Child only once (it’s 564 pages long), and I can’t yet make up my mind about whether it is just as brilliant as its predecessor — or whether it is an even greater achievement.
Beginning in an English country house in the summer before the outbreak of World War 1 and closing in 2008, this is a multi-generational saga, both epic and intimate, as much at ease with the pan across decades and as with the zoom into the particular moment, the specific emotion, the precise shift in tone or mood of a character.
There is a lot here that those familiar with — and entranced by — Hollinghurst’s work will instantly recognise: the immaculate prose, with the sentences chiselled to glittering perfection (like Flaubert, Hollinghurst believes that words, like hair, shine with repeated brushing); the magnificent set pieces; the fascination with literary homage and architecture; and the manner in which he shines a light on social mores and behaviour.
Yet, The Stranger’s Child is unlike his previous work. Ingeniously structured, it is the most ambitious of Hollinghurst’s novels. Also, it is the one that is the least explicit in terms of gay sex. Whatever sex there is, occurs offstage — as indeed does one of the book’s most pivotal events, World War 1. So is this a new direction in the work of a writer whose fans have often claimed that he is the finest English novelist at work today?
“Well, it is different from my previous work,” Hollinghurst says on the phone from his London home. “The design of the book is different. It’s a book I wouldn’t have known how to write ten years ago.” His baritone is rich, his accent plumy, half Oxbridge don and half Test Match Special commentator.
“I think growing older and becoming aware of the mystery and fallibility of memory is one of the reasons why this book is different,” says the 57-year-old Hollinghurst. “I wanted to write a book with a lot of gaps and uncertainties, to emphasise the partiality of memory, to have in the book all sorts of things that the reader can’t in the end know for sure.”
This partial nature of memory, its mutability, and therefore, the unknowability of our own pasts, and the lives of others around us, is one of the central motifs of this novel. But that’s not all. Among other things, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the making and endurance of literary reputation, and how memory and circumstances and history mould it; on the elusive — and richly various — nature of love; on the writing of biography and the mythologising of people; and it is full of clever nods and allusions to Hollinghurst’s literary heroes (the pages are alive with the presence of Tennyson, Henry James and EM Forster).
Hollinghurst was the deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement when his bold and breathtaking debut, The Swimming Pool Library, was published in 1988. (He quit the job in 1994 to write full time after the publication of his second novel, The Folding Star.) For 23 years, certain sections of the English media have been eager to burden him with the tag of ‘gay writer’. Now, for the first time in his career, Hollinghurst seems to have been able to slough that off. “I’m delighted that it has been seen as a novel of general interest.”
It’s been nearly a year that he handed in the manuscript of The Stranger’s Child. So is he on to something new? “I am enjoying not writing a book at the moment,” he says. “I feel emptied out by a book.” I tell him that Norman Mailer once spoke about how writing profoundly uses the writer, and how, there is simply a little less left of the writer on finishing a book. Hollinghurst laughs. He is quick to laugh, and his chuckle is kind and expresses genuine amusement..
I can’t help but ask him if he is fretting about the Man Booker, the shortlist for which is out on September 6. “Oh, no, I try and think of it as little as possible.” (Why did I expect him to say?) But then he considers. “It’s wonderful to win, of course. But I was shortlisted in 1994 and didn’t win, so that was a lesson in detachment. I don’t like this business of the longlist. It’s wounding for so many deserving writers who didn’t get on to it.”