There is a passage in Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel in which an amateur biographer conducts a series of interviews in the hope of finding out about the private life of a famous author. Confessions are not forthcoming. One interviewee has a way of slipping off just as the biographer tracks him down; another is hard of hearing; another answers “pass!” to all the most interesting questions – “as if”, Hollinghurst writes, “she were on Mastermind”.
Since reading this chapter of The Stranger’s Child, I have been feeling a bit uneasy about my meeting with Hollinghurst. I confess this to him as we sit down at a small corner table in Nopi, a new restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. “Yes, it does put interviewers rather on the spot,” he agrees. Hollinghurst’s novels deal with the public, social mores of our everyday lives, and the things that people do when they think no one is looking. His characters, often gay, tend to share his own scholarly interests in English architecture, forgotten symbolist painters and the novels of EM Forster, while also having very exciting private lives – which could tempt any biographer (or interviewer) into inquiring whether Hollinghurst’s own life is similarly filled with sex, cocaine and country houses.
“I’ve just come back from visiting my mother,” he tells me, peering over his glasses. At 57, Hollinghurst is a compact, distinguished-looking man in a navy-blue suit, with a very deep plummy voice that belongs to another era. “She’s 92 and rather physically frail, but terrific; she’s thrashed me at our last five games of Scrabble, which has slightly tested my sportsmanship.”
We discuss the relative merits of normal Scrabble versus the unofficial upside-down version, which is played without a board and is more violent. “I used to play that with – name-dropping heavily here – [authors] Zadie Smith and India Knight,” he says, conspiratorially. “We used to get terribly drunk. Because I’m a crossword fanatic I was rather good at knowing how ‘article’ can be turned to ‘clarinet’ and that sort of thing.”
A waiter appears. Hollinghurst orders a fruit cocktail, which is actually an apple, carrot and ginger juice, and I join him. “Never drink at lunchtime,” he says, and I nod, unsure whether he is describing himself or giving me a piece of advice.
Nopi is light, with white wall-tiles and napkin rings that look as if they are made of beaten gold. Hollinghurst chose it, he tells me, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his becoming a vegetarian. Its chef-patron Yotam Ottolenghi is famous for his vegetable dishes, which he writes about in a newspaper column. “The recipes are rather good but they tend to include some key ingredient from the Middle East that is rather hard to get your hands on,” Hollinghurst says, his deep voice carrying a vague hint of innuendo.
Hollinghurst was 34 and deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement when his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, was published in 1988. It was an instant success and praised by Edmund White for being “the best book on gay life yet written by an English author”. In it, Will Beckwith, a beautiful, well-educated, gay man takes on the biography of an elderly gentleman he encounters in a public urinal.
The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, following his 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. The title is taken from “In Memoriam”, Tennyson’s elegy to his great friend Arthur Hallam [“Till … year by year the landscape grow/Familiar to the stranger’s child”].
There is less sexual activity than in the earlier novels but it is still concerned with biography; most of its characters, at some point, direct their writerly attentions towards Cecil Valance, a charismatic and promiscuous fictional poet who died during the first world war.
“I’m preoccupied, as everyone is, with the first world war,” says Hollinghurst, “and thought I’d like to write about it, but without actually having the first world war in it, because after all it was written about so well by the people who were in it.” The book is set in five time periods: just before the war in 1913, then at intervals between 1926 and 2008.
He sips the fruit cocktail and declares it “very well-balanced”.
“I got very interested in the idea of biography and what happens to someone’s story, their reputation, and the terribly – in both senses – partial way in which they are remembered,” he says. I reply with a quote from Henry James about the whole truth being “a great synthesis of the great body of small partial truths” and he nods with approval; he loves Henry James. “What I was really interested in is demonstrating how much is unknowable, irresolvable,” he says, using more Jamesian words.
He imagined Valance as a poet like Rupert Brooke, whose work “entered the public consciousness” after the war, coming to represent a lost England. “I thought that he should write a sort of ‘Grantchester’, so for a worrying while I thought I was going to have to produce a sort of masterpiece, but then I realised I could just write snatches of it.” Hollinghurst’s mother used to recite “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” to him when he was a boy growing up in Gloucestershire (he is an only child and his father was a bank manager). Later, Hollinghurst went on to write poetry and won the Newdigate poetry prize when he was at Oxford.
Valance’s reputation changes over time, reflecting changing trends in biography. “It’s very much what happened with Sir Geoffrey Keynes, who was Rupert Brooke’s biographer,” says Hollinghurst, “and who adored Brooke at Cambridge and much later did a scholarly edition of his letters, which were intensely selected – ellipses galore – and presented a very pre-determined image of this idealised young person.” He sips his juice. “Then material came to light later on that showed that Brooke was by no means this idol. He had this horrible badgering blaming tone in his letters, especially to women, who couldn’t resist him; he was obviously very attractive … ”
As advised by the menu, we order three “small plates” each, for sharing. Hollinghurst excuses himself and returns chuckling about the Nopi lavatories, which have angled mirrors positioned so that you can see yourself from all sides simultaneously and receding into the distance, though you can’t quite work out where the cubicle doors are.
The structure of the book, Hollinghurst says, was meant to show how a single prewar scene is viewed at different historical turning points, the effect being of a lens zooming out of the past and into the present – which is strangely chilling to read, as characters who were very important to us at the beginning are made to look rather unimportant by the end. “We’re all sort of major characters to ourselves, whereas other people comprehensively haven’t heard of us,” says Hollinghurst. “I’ve always been struck by that.”
He has been saddened that some of his favourite writers have been forgotten, such as Ronald Firbank. “He’s a wonderful, highly original writer who I’ve been trying to champion and do things for the past 30 years,” he says, as if Firbank were a slightly hopeless friend. “But one has to accept that he’s never going to really catch on, he’s one who will only ever be appreciated by a very small coterie – well, not even a coterie, more like an assembly of people … ” Hollinghurst edited Firbank’s last three novels for Penguin Classics, but they are out of print. “I got this terribly depressing letter saying that they had failed to thrive. Horrible phrase. Failed to thrive.” Hollinghurst looks sad to think of it. He says he is often overcome in second-hand bookshops by “the great wave of something terribly depressing and the feeling of having to get out … It’s the lurking mortality,” he explains.
Two small dishes of asparagus arrive, sprinkled with almonds, and another of tomatoes sitting on something white, which Hollinghurst eyes suspiciously as he doesn’t eat cheese. A waiter walks past and confirms that, yes, there is cheese under the tomatoes; Hollinghurst turns his attention to a newly arrived pan of shakshuka, a mix of poached eggs and vegetables. “Oh, heavenly,” he says, eating a spoonful. “Here, take a spoon,” he says, offering me the pan. The waiter asks if everything is to our satisfaction, and Hollinghurst says that we love everything, and calls the chefs “artists of the palate”. I am getting a little distracted by all the small plates in front of us and have the feeling that I’m not learning anything about Hollinghurst’s own biography – but he seems very happy just hopping between dishes and conversation topics, so we move on to architecture. His first taste of a big country house was his boarding school, Canford in Dorset, which was designed in part by Charles Barry just after he had built the Houses of Parliament. “A lot of the original decor didn’t survive the transition to a school in the 1920s,” Hollinghurst laments, “but I thought of it as very romantic and suggestive … Perhaps it’s a camp thing, to want to sweep up and down staircases.” He turns his attention to a plate of mash and broccolini, broccoli with longer, thinner stalks, and makes a face. “Rather interesting, the blandness of the mash and the heat of the peppers.”
Hollinghurst is a little vague when I ask about his social life at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read English and shared a house with the poet Andrew Motion – “There was lots going on: punk, new wave … ” – but he claims he didn’t work very hard, and went punting every day during his finals, although he ended up getting a first-class degree. He asks me about my education, and I tell him I worked so hard during my exams that I was diagnosed as having a vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight. “Ah, you did it the other way,” he says. After completing a masters in 1979, he stayed at Oxford to teach until 1981, before going on to lecture at University College London and then to the Times in 1982. “I was a terrible teacher,” he says. “I did a poor impersonation of my teachers and gave students a lot of sherry and hoped they would be drunk enough not to notice.” The waiter clears some of our plates but I hang on to my aubergine tart, saying that I’m still working on it. “Just a little minor revision,” Hollinghurst says, giggling.
People who know Hollinghurst properly tell me that his life has been in some ways backwards, that he lived his forties in his twenties and his twenties in his forties. After the success of The Swimming Pool Library, which allowed him to leave the TLS in 1990, he did much more partying and discovered the drug ecstasy, of which he gives a vivid account in The Spell (1998). I ask him how old he feels now, and he says probably in his fifties, which is what he is. “All that was rather a long time ago, wasn’t it?” he says, when I mention the raving. I ask about when he last went raving, and he responds in such a deep voice that it is almost impossible to hear but sounds a bit like “and I’m certainly not telling you”. The waiter arrives with an espresso for him and a macchiato for me, and Hollinghurst smiles, brightly.
“I suppose that’s one of the themes of the [new] book,” he says, smoothing out the conversation into something a little broader. “It’s partly a question of what the shape of one’s life is if one doesn’t settle down and have children. Some people do have those clear markers of the passage of time and generations, which a lot of gay people are less bound by.”
The mood is a little calmer without all the plates on the table. We sip our coffees, and talk about Tennyson, and then Hollinghurst tells me about Mick Imlah, a poet and close friend who died in 2009 of motor neurone disease. The Stranger’s Child is dedicated to Imlah. “It was very extraordinary because I designed the book long before he got ill,” he says, “and then the book was sort of about a poet dying – woven through with themes of shared interest, Tennyson and so forth.” There is a lingering pause. “Very extraordinary to find oneself in the situation that I was trying to give an account of in the book – how immediately after a writer dies there is already that determination about how he is going to be seen in the future.”
As we finish lunch, I think how so much of the action in The Stranger’s Child seems to occur off the page. Having observed his characters’ private lives so closely in the past, Hollinghurst has this time allowed more to be left unsaid.
It is nearly three o’clock, and Hollinghurst has to meet a friend at the Royal Academy for a preview of the annual Summer Exhibition. “I thought it might be rather a scream. You never know,” he says, as we step into the summer afternoon, “I might find myself a nice bit of kitsch.” And then he bids me farewell and walks off at a clip towards Piccadilly, to look at hundreds of paintings by lesser-known artists.
21-22 Warwick Street, London W1
Carrot, ginger and apple juice x 2 £7
Asparagus x 2 £20
Aubergine tart £9
Tomato salad £9
Total (including service) £74.81
Alan Hollinghurst on the genius of Ronald Firbank
‘A man who often laughed when he was alone’
Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) is a little-known British short story writer and novelist whose work Hollinghurst has studied and championed. Here, he explains his fascination with Firbank.
“Firbank the man has tended to be known through a distorting haze of miscellaneous anecdote. He appears as a somehow fabulous figure, dandyish, exquisite, made up, an habitué of the opera and ballet and later of black jazz-bands; pathologically shy, but with the boldness and determination which sometimes accompany shyness; a drinker rather than an eater; an admirer but not a lover of young men; an incessant traveller; a giggler and writher and toward the end of his life a cougher; a man who often laughed when he was alone.
“But even the kindest and most marvelling stories, by those who counted themselves his friends, convey a sense of distance from their exotic and unknowable subject. In the years before the war, whenever Firbank was in London, he was a figure in the bohemian world of the Café Royal and the Eiffel Tower restaurant. But during the war, when he lived for four years in isolation in Oxford, he recedes further from view, and in effect disappears into his work. There is something movingly exemplary about his dedication to his writing during these periods of deep depression and separation from the reality that culture and travel represented for him – the more so since the often wildly funny books he wrote then were greeted with incomprehension and distaste, and he was obliged to pay for their publication himself.
“When the war was over, he resumed his travelling, and apart from brief summer visits to London he was abroad for the rest of his life, in hotels and rented apartments, and in climates better suited to his tastes and appetites and his always frail health. His intense solitariness and nervous restlessness were embraced and transcended in the lonely experiment of his art. He never settled down, never bought a place of his own. The date-lines of his later novels – ‘Versailles, Montreux, Florence’, ‘Havana, Brodighera’ – emphasise the fact that he shaped his own life into an itinerary of occasions and opportunities to write books. If he ever receives the biography he deserves it will be one especially sensitive to the fact that his art was what mattered to him.”
Extracted from Alan Hollinghurst’s introduction to ‘Firbank: Three Novels’ (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, out of print)