I had the pleasure of speaking with British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner (for The Line of Beauty) Alan Hollinghurst at his hotel last month in Melbourne, over a pot of tea.
Hollinghurst’s latest novel The Stranger’s Child opens in 1913. The poet Cecil Valance is visiting his Cambridge friend (and secret lover) George Sawle and his family at Two Acres, their home in Stanmore, Middlesex. Cecil writes a poem about Two Acres in George’s sister Daphne’s autograph book. Cecil and the poem go onto have some significance in the war, but it remains ambiguous as to whom the poem is addressed. The novel jumps forward then, throughout the 20th Century, to other people (such as the biographer Paul Bryant) who analyse Cecil Valance, the people who knew him, and the events in the opening chapters of the novel. Daphne Sawle herself writes an account. As Cecil’s biography is honed, the memories of others, and of the reader, become tainted, unfocused, refocused and only sometimes clarified.
It’s a different kind of structure for Hollinghurst, but like all his novels The Stranger’s Child is smart, layered, a little cruel, and such a pleasure to read. In person, Hollinghurst was incredibly charming.
What was the spark for The Stranger’s Child?
I never thought about it schematically, but when I finished writing it I realised that The Swimming-pool Library too has, through the diaries, a way of dropping in on earlier episodes of the century. I think my intention here was rather different. The Stranger’s Child doesn’t have any framing narrative. It’s such a common thing in contemporary fiction—I’ve done it myself, really—where someone finds some old letters or something and they’re drawn back to that crucial summer of nineteen-something where their life changed forever. I resisted that kind of model, here. I was keen to show that in each section of the book (although, of course, in later parts of the book Peter is concerned with looking back and finding out what happened) people are self-consciously in the present day—as we all are—with no knowledge of what’s going to come in the future. I don’t think I had an originating spark, but I find material is accumulating in my mind, and in notebooks. Usually, with a book, several different approaches, and areas of interest, begin to suggest a connection.
What’s really interesting about that narrative method is that the reader remembers the events in the earlier chapters (or wants to remember them) in a certain way, just like the characters.
Yes, the whole thing was supposed to be a complicated play on the idea of, well, not only the memory of the characters, but on the memory of the reader as well. The reader will be asking him or herself what they recall of moments which are being scrutinised decades later.
I suppose one of the things that appealed to me about the gappy structure of the book was that I could get the reader sharing in the uncertainty or ignorance of the characters themselves… There’s so little that we know for sure about the lives of those around us, and so much inevitably exists at the level of hearsay or supposition—particularly in people’s private lives. We just don’t know what other people get up to behind closed doors. And I think fiction can too easily give an impression that everything is knowable.
In a way my first book The Swimming-pool Library is like that: there is a big secret which is revealed towards the end and it makes you see everything else in light of that… I don’t think life’s generally like that, so one of the ideas of The Stranger’s Child was to try to create a structure that was more life-like, truer to our own very patchy way of registering and remembering things.
It’s very effective like that, and it’s also quite heartbreaking at times the way, as a reader, you realise how the characters perceive each other. For example, Daphne thinks of George as a cold fish. As a reader, you think: no, he’s not! That must be quite difficult to do, as a writer: to write about those kinds of misconceptions that people have of each other, even after so many years, and being family…
It may have to do with my being an only child. I seem to create sibling relationships in which the siblings don’t really understand—or are very unlike—each other, or perhaps don’t see the ways in which they are, in fact, alike. And they form these impressions of each other. I mean, people do that, don’t they? At some point, they get a sort of fix on somebody; they decide X is a cold fish, as it might be, and it takes a great deal of difficulty to dislodge that notion.
I think it does happen in families very much…
Often in families different members are assigned a role, aren’t they? ‘He’s the musical one’. ‘He’s the sporty one’—that kind of thing—and somehow people get to inhabit those roles to a surprising degree.
You do really capture that solidification of certain preconceptions and roles very well.
Towards the end of The Stranger’s Child Daphne thinks, of the biographer, Peter: ‘he was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories’. Do you see memory as being one of the main themes that you’re writing about?
I think it is. Actually it’s something which struck me much earlier in my life. I remember as a school boy people would say to me: ‘what’s your earliest memory?’ And you were very soon interested in trying to recall what your earliest memory was, as a sort of image… which isn’t actually the memory, it’s an image of the memory. It’s so rare, really—it happens, and it’s always very fascinating when it does—when you remember something completely new that you haven’t remembered before. Often some Proustian thing, like a smell or a taste, suddenly gives you access to a whole dimension that you’ve forgotten.
But generally I think that memory sort of ossifies. In Daphne’s case, she’s often asked to go over the same memories. I wanted it in a way to replicate the moment in the first part of the book where Daphne’s mother is telling the story about when she was on her honeymoon and her newly-wedded husband saw Tennyson on the ferry. She’s slightly drunk and slightly panicking as she’s telling the story because she knows she always follows exactly the same wording. And then she’s aware she misses a bit out. Already her memory of that occasion has become this sort of fixed narration.
I think I just became so fascinated by the whole idea of memoir and what happens when people write them. I think, increasingly, how hopeless a memoir by me would be, you know, because I’ve just forgotten so much.
I find that fascinating, too, and conversations, in memoirs…
How do people remember conversations from 20 years ago, or more, let alone last week, you know?
That’s why I have Daphne having her sleepless night towards the end, admitting to herself she more or less made up all the conversations in her own memoirs. I mean, of course she had.
And yet there’s such a line drawn between fiction and nonfiction, for the most part.
Yes, it’s a sort of false distinction. Fiction plays an incalculable element in so much ostensibly factual writing. Certainly memoir and autobiography in a more heightened way than biography, but there are also selective shapings of material by both conscious and unconscious forces in all nonfiction. One’s own life doesn’t naturally have a shape, one is constantly imposing a shape on it; constructing the narrative.
It’s weird because I’ve just been reading Northanger Abbey for the first time and there’s an exact conversation about fiction versus nonfiction.
Oh, is there? Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, Jane Austen knew everything.
On the subject of memory still, too, I guess photographs also potentially create memories or replace them…
I thought at one time I was going to make more use of photographs in the book, but it seemed a little bit tedious describing photographs and asking the reader to imagine them all. Of course, there are some that come out during Paul’s research toward the end. And in one chapter Daphne goes into her bedroom and sees the photograph of her children at Corley Court, and it’s a record of an occasion she can’t remember at all. What she has is the image. Which I hope is a sort of symbol of exactly that process, yes.
I initially became empathetic with Paul, the biographer, but—it’s a bit like with Nick in The Line of Beauty— I didn’t really realise how naive he was, or how much his sort of passion was clouding his judgment (perhaps I’m naive). You have those sorts of characters, and then you have the other sort of characters: people who are quite strong and manipulative, and very aware.
Yes, I think it’s usually the more imaginative characters who are perhaps the more naive ones. Nick’s a clever person in a way; he’s soaked in a rather sophisticated understanding of literature and music and all that, but there’s that thing about the world where he’s still observing and…
And he wants to think well of people…
Yes, and I think he sees the world very much through the lens of his own desires, which people do, and that’s something which has always fascinated me. I suppose in The Swimming-pool Library and my second book The Folding Star, which are both in the first person, the whole story is seen through the eyes of someone with quite strong fantasies, preoccupations and obsessions. Which could colour and distort their judgment in all sorts of ways. I just felt I wanted to get out of the first person trap and I prefer the slight ironic distance you can have with Nick; the whole book is seen from his POV but, nonetheless, one is outside it. And it’s not quite so claustrophobic.
It is nice though to have that kind of intimacy with the character to an extent, because you sort of side with them and then any revelation that they have—it’s like you’re really experiencing it with them.
But it also invites different kinds of irony for the reader, who will be seeing things, as it were, over the narrator’s shoulder.
The dramatic irony. I guess there is the theme, too, running through The Stranger’s Child, of transience: even if it’s all written down, it’s only one person’s account, and it isn’t permanent anyway. This morning when I was thinking about that, the quote from To The Lighthouse came to me: ‘The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare’. I didn’t know if that was something that was important for you to express? But it’s an odd thing to express too, as someone who does write things down…
No, a lot of at least semi-permanent art is about the transience of things. (laughs)
That’s very true, yes.
I think I actually re-read To the Lighthouse before writing this. I remember being fascinated by the time structure of that book and these intense, poetic episodes of time passing… It was a book I did for A-level exams when I was at school. I completely adored it and began a great love affair with Virginia Woolf, which cooled a bit later on. But it’s always fascinating going back and reading with quite different eyes, but with constant stirrings of memory. Beginning a sentence and knowing how it was going to go on. You never know a book as well as one you’ve studied for an exam at that age.
No, that’s true. Frankenstein is mine.
Is that yours? Quite glad that wasn’t mine, in a way. I think To the Lighthouse has been more useful to me that Frankenstein would have been. (laughs) But yes, I think I’ve always been very moved by the sense of the transience of things. From childhood I loved ruined castles and things like that.
That’s one reason I went to Europe. We don’t really have any here…
You don’t really have ruined castles, no. But the romantic enjoyment of decay and melancholy and all that… I’ve always been very suggestible to that kind of thing, and of course I always loved imagining houses in writing. In this case, I had been thinking of having someone reporting at the very end of the book that Corley Court had been burnt to the ground because of one of the boys smoking in the attic or something (laughs heartily) but then I decided not to bother. But I certainly wanted to bring Two Acres—the scene of this concocted English idyll—to ruin. It’s reported in the last bit isn’t it, that it’s been demolished? I mean, that’s quite a fun thing to do if you’ve got a long time span.
Can I ask about literary influences? Henry James is in your work, and poetry plays a part in The Stranger’s Child. Are there particular authors you always go back to? They often have a specific role in the books.
Writers that I’m preoccupied with at any time tend to become reference points in the book which I’m writing. There’s so much I’ve forgotten about The Swimming-pool Library because I haven’t read it for 20 years but of course there’s all the stuff about Ronald Firbank, who is sort of an ongoing preoccupation of mine. And I remember I put in quite a lot of allusions to 18th century poetry—Pope and so on—which seemed to me somehow to resonate with the world of this modern libertine. James obviously came into much clearer focus with The Line of Beauty, which is in many ways a deliberately Jamesian exercise, not only that narrative aspect we were talking about: seeing the whole story through one person’s eyes, but the world…
The character coming into that world…
Yes, and that world itself with its finery, but underlying corruption. It seemed to me analogous to the sorts of worlds that James was writing about, particularly in his later novels, where everything seems sort of glittering and exquisite on the surface, but power has been paid for. It fell into place quite naturally for that book, and with The Stranger’s Child there’s a strong presence of EM Forster, I think, in the first part of the book: that world with Cambridge, the outermost London suburbs, the family with no father but a widowed mother, the naive young girl, and the sort of homoerotic thing going on (obviously more cryptic in Forster). I was very conscious of Forster, and actually tried not to get too Forsterish in the first part of the book, you know, I didn’t want it to be a pastiche. But obviously you have to acknowledge you wouldn’t cross this territory without showing you knew you were doing so.
I’ve still only read one Forster. After reading this I knew I wanted to read more. I’ve seen a film adaptation of Howard’s End…
Well the books are very different, Forster has this particular tone of voice (which is not without its irritants, actually). He busies around making cute, undermining sort of remarks about his own characters and so forth, which can be very funny. I’ve actually just come back to him after not having read him for decades. I’m about to write a piece about his journals and diaries which have just been published for the first time. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to go back and look at him again. I’ve nearly finished reading A Passage to India, which I really don’t think I have read since the late ’70s.
That’s the one I’ve read.
I’m terribly impressed by it. I think it’s his finest book but it’s very different from the others, obviously because of the huge difference in the setting, and the thematic scale of the book—which had made it physically much bigger in my memory. I was surprised to find it’s actually only about 300 pages.
So have his diaries never been published?
Forster died in 1970 I think, just after the pivotal not-described event in The Stranger’s Child: the sexual offenses bill to decriminalise homosexuality. Forster, in his nineties, didn’t come out himself but he was immediately outed after he died. Morris, his unpublished gay novel which he’d written in 1914, was immediately published, and then the next year some of his excellent gay-themed short stories were published. PN Furbank, who was much younger but had known Forster in Cambridge, wrote a marvellous biography of him. Then a woman called Wendy Moffat, an American scholar, brought out a book about two years ago and she had access to these diaries, but they’ve never been published. There are three quite substantial volumes. And I haven’t really got around to them yet, I didn’t want to lug them to Australia.
Various writers, certainly of a younger generation than mine, seem to be finding Forster interesting, for example Zadie Smith. Her third novel On Beauty is a sort of remake of Howard’s End, but in a different, complex setting with various allusions and even passages of Forsterish pastiche, and she’s written a lot about Forster.
But poetry, poetry has always been so important to me. Since adolescence I’ve had a love of Tennyson and that’s obviously something which threads through A Stranger’s Child. And the idea of writing about a poet was really appealing to me. The whole world of second-rate, half-forgotten or wholly forgotten poets of that period is something that… well, one feels both the pathos and the comedy of these forgotten reputations.
But then, I love how you capture the generations of kids having to recite them at school after that.
So I obviously borrowed various things from the life and work of Rupert Brooke to construct Cecil. I like Brooke, he wrote these famous war sonnets with almost no experience of combat. And the poems are extremely old-fashioned and rhetorical and do nothing to register the mean kind of warfare that was being experienced… Wilfred Owen, I suppose, actually managed to tackle the subject in a completely new way. Poets like Brooke are enjoyed for a kind of nostalgic glimpse of pre-war England.
Cecil is a great character. He reminded me a little of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited as well, as the seducer.
Yes, thought he’s not quite so sort of passive and hopeless as Sebastian is he?
No, no. (Hollinghurst laughs) A certain amount of your characters are pleasure-seekers, in many ways. Through art, sex… One of the pleasure of reading your books is that they’re written in a way that is conducive to that: they’re a pleasure to read. I don’t know if that’s because they’re a pleasure to write or whether you… I’m sure you spend many hours perfecting the sentences. I don’t think that’s a question…
They feel like art to experience, that sort of pleasure.
Well, I’m glad. Writing them was a mixed experience really. Writing, of course, has times of great pleasure and excitement, and others of grind and despair. I’ve always been very interested in trying to capture feelings and sensations and often those of a quickly mutating nature. Yes, most people enjoy pleasure, one hopes they enjoy reading about pleasure. Unless it’s too tantalising! You know when everybody’s eating and drinking in a play and you’re longing for it to end so you can go have a meal?
(I laugh) Yes, not too tantalising.
The feeling that I have from your work reminds me a bit of reading Michael Cunningham, the American author. His books have that kind of effect too.
He’s an absolutely wonderful author, and on this sort of subject of feeling and sensation… I quite agree.
Thank you so much, Alan Hollinghurst.