Alan Hollinghurst: The aesthetic compulsion needs moral bounds

The devil is not in the detail – that’s the easy part for Alan Hollinghurst. «One of the greatest pleasures in writing is describing things,» he said at the Fresh Hotel in Athens last Thursday, in a public conversation with Greek writer Apostolos Doxiadis. Hollinghurst, who brings out his novels at a leisurely pace, was explaining how he liked to start by building up «the texture, the atmosphere of a book» before working on character. «The plot comes almost last of all and locks these things together. It’s hard work; it may explain why I am such a slow writer. I never start without a pretty clear plan, but there is a constant play between plan and improvisation.» The author was in town at the invitation of his publisher Kastaniotis and the British Council for the launch of the Greek edition of his latest novel and 2004 Man Booker winner, «The Line of Beauty.» Age of excess Though much of the publicity generated by Hollinghurst’s fiction has centered on the outspoken homosexual aspect of his novels, the author casts his net wider than the gay scene, notably in his latest book. «The Line of Beauty» charts the age of excess that was more or less coterminous with Thatcher’s Britain, where a cast of the rich and privileged pursue pleasure in various forms – power, drugs, sex and beauty. The young protagonist Nick Guest leaves his native Northamptonshire for London, where he stays with the family of a friend from college while supposedly doing research into the work of Henry James. His host is an ambitious Tory MP devoted to the British prime minister and, through the family, Nick meets some of the movers and shakers of society, while meeting very different characters through his first sexual partner, a black council worker, and later through a rich Lebanese-born lover who is addicted to pornography and cocaine. Astutely observed, elaborately plotted and hilariously funny, «The Line of Beauty» is a coming-of-age novel that also mirrors a society at a moment before heedless indulgence leads to disaster. One of the central strands in the book is what Hollinghurst called the «clash of value systems between Nick’s aesthetic way of looking at the world and his hosts’ pragmatic, financial outlook.» That contrast enables him to bring in issues without preaching: «I wanted to write about issues in an oblique way,» he said. So successful is he at presenting character and action in a neutral fashion that different readers see the book in very different ways. Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, the author said: «Nick, in particular, has had such a wide range of reactions from readers – at one extreme they think he’s adorable and are with him every step of the way, while at the other they loathe him virtually from the first page. I hope the whole experience of reading it is quite an ambivalent one.» Readers sometimes see him in his characters, but that is not the whole story. «I’ve never written in a simple way autobiographically and I don’t think I’ve ever made the protagonist of a book someone who is more than a certain percentage of me,» commented the author. «Obviously one has to put oneself into the main characters of a book in some serious way for it to have an emotional charge and interest. There are a lot of aspects of me, or of my younger self, in Nick, but at the same time there’s a quite distinct person with a distinct character – a completely different story. So I think an element of identification is actually essential to the book’s success, whatever it may be. People who know me well will see different things about me but not only in the central characters but in other characters. I think one sort of spreads oneself out amongst characters – it’s more like having a dialogue with yourself. A different part of me might be in Nick and part of me might be in Catherine: they’re tugging in different ways.» In «The Swimming Pool Library» and «The Line of Beauty,» Hollinghurst’s leading characters both live life to the fullest and are engaged in study or research. Asked how that tension – symbolized, as he pointed out, in the title of the former – plays out in his work and life, the author commented: «Writing about the scholarly life might be a bit dull and the life of action is often very attractive to writers who often lead very sedentary lives. I have not a thwarted but an unfulfilled sort of scholarly element to my life. I thought I was going to spend my life more in the academic world when I started out than has proved to be the case. So that dimension still has a sort of glamour for me. I do very little research myself for my books but there’s also something about the life of the mind that has its appeal. «One doesn’t experience life all on one plane but on mental, physical, intellectual and emotional levels simultaneously. I always like moving between those levels and having intelligent and sophisticated people doing earthy things. I always enjoy that switch of register and to keep the the gaze moving from the 18th century building to the young man walking past it.» Obsession in various guises is a recurrent theme in Hollinghurst’s work: In the latest book – where, as he says, some of Nick’s most profound experiences are aesthetic ones – it is expressed in the pursuit of beauty. «It’s so mysterious, beauty, and so compelling in the kind of force it can have in people’s lives and the lengths people will go to to secure it. As a writer, I’ve tended to be perhaps excessively interested in beauty. I was conscious in this book of trying to explore but also to criticize the aesthetic compulsion and to show that if it’s not held in bounds with a moral sense, that following the line of beauty can get you into trouble.» Hollinghurst, who began literary life as a poet before going over to fiction, is an astute and meticulous observer, who always carries a notebook to record his observations. It’s a habit he developed in the 1980s when he was first thinking seriously about writing «The Swimming Pool Library,» he said. «It’s just writing down observations of all sorts when you have them – nothing worse than the recollection that you had a wonderful idea on the bus this morning but you can’t remember what it was; just writing down phrases, or that habit of turning the experience of what one was seeing, in the street or wherever, into a phrase. I always tend to amass a lot of that kind of material, impressions and so on, in the early stage. It’s a habit of observation, of turning things into the most accurate sort of prose that you can.» Narrative position Having characters do research and read other people’s diaries – whether invited or not – enables him to bring in different points of view and periods of time, skirting limitations on the narrative position. «When writing in the first person, you have to make your principal character, whatever his failings, an observer, and he has to do your observing for you. ‘The Line of Beauty’ is all in the third person, but nonetheless seen through Nick’s experience. At least when writing in the third person, you can go in and out of the thoughts. So in that you occupy an ambiguous position as a writer, both within and outside, so that you are both observing him and recording his observations. «I did set out writing ‘The Line of Beauty’ in the first person, but after two pages I saw that I just had to have more distance from the character. There are freedoms in the first person – you can just sort of romp around in it and anything that’s said has its justification by being something that has occurred to the narrator, but there are also all these constraints about how you bring in other people’s experience. I had mad moments of liberation writing ‘The Line of Beauty’ when I would just follow Gerald down the street and say what he was thinking about, and I’d think, ‘No, I can’t do that, because Nick is not present.’» The author Alan Hollinghurst was born in 1954 in Gloucestershire and studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was on the editorial board of The Times Literary Supplement from 1982-1995. Four of his novels «The Swimming Pool Library» (1998), «The Spell» (1998), «The Folding Star» (1994) and «The Line of Beauty» (2004), have been published in Greek translations: the first two by Zacharopoulos, the third by Selas and the last by Kastaniotis. He has won numerous awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award in 1989 for «The Swimming Pool Library,» the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1994 for «The Folding Star,» and both the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award in 2004 for «The Line of Beauty,» which is being adapted for television by BBC 2.