Pleasure, memory, decay, and The Stranger’s Child: an interview with Alan Hollinghurst

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?

Alan Hollinghurst

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…

Well, exactly.

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…

(He laughs)

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. 

The Stranger’s Child is published by Picador (buy the Australian paperback or ebook). Also available UK/US.

The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham, HarperCollins (Aus pb, Aus ebook, US and Kindle, UK)

Over the past few days I’ve been in the audience of four sessions featuring my favourite American author Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s latest novel is By Nightfall. I’ve drafted a few posts on it since I read it, but was never able to adequately capture what he does. Now I can mix my words up with his own and hopefully provide some picture of the work, and of Cunningham himself.

How to write about an author who provokes in the reader the very surges and distances he skilfully writes of? Those flips between detachment and passion? In By Nightfall, Cunningham is writing about art, youth, maleness, beauty; and he is simultaneously making art. For me By Nightfall was not The Hours (a book so close to my heart) or Specimen Days, but I appreciated its focus. Where those two novels spanned eras and sets of characters (though still thematically focused), here Cunningham gets intimate with Peter Harris, a middle-aged, middle-class gallery owner in New York. And so explores the complexity of an individual life.

Peter has been married for many years to Rebecca. Their daughter has flown the nest and distanced herself emotionally and physically from her parents. They enjoy martinis in the afternoon and they attend parties for the sake of attending parties. In the opening scenes they are on their way to one of these parties, and the detail around their almost-fight reminds me of the intricate observations in Richard Yates’ writing. Peter is distracted by what appears to be an older man in a car full of youths, Peter is still surprised by things about his wife (and will continue to be throughout the narrative, despite the fact he convinces himself there isn’t really much more to know). Cunningham said that he was writing about a particular kind of curse that exists, with Peter and Rebecca – a ‘good enough’ marriage. In his novels, Cunningham likes the number three – three characters, three eras, etc. ‘I’m all about three,’ he said.

And so the third element in By Nightfall is Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for ‘the mistake’). He’s coming to stay and Peter has mixed feelings about it. When Mizzy arrives he is many things, but one of them is a catalyst for Peter to turn inward – to think about youth (nascence is Cunningham’s favourite word in the novel), art, tragedy and beauty. ‘Peter wants his life to explode, to dismantle itself’, said Cunningham. Related to the ‘dismantling’ come thoughts of his daughter, of his wife as a young woman, of his brother who died of AIDS when he was in his early twenties. The semi-eroticised pull he has toward young Mizzy (and he analyses the nature of it intensely throughout the novel) is related to these other people in his life – and is related to where he is in his life and the things that he isn’t. He isn’t, for example, a dramatic or tragic figure – and there is some envy in that.

Peter loves art, he is drawn to it, but his life is not a work of art, and this is something he is becoming aware of. It was also important for Cunningham to make Peter heterosexual. The erotic pull, as mentioned, is complex – associated with nostalgia, envy and other kinds of longing. Death in Venice was an influence, one of Cunningham’s favourite books – ‘the definitive work on human longing’. ‘Most of us are gawping at something,’ Cunningham said in Sydney. And whatever we identify as, ‘we’re incredibly erotically complex.’ One individual’s sexuality isn’t anything like anybody else’s, there’s ‘erotic individuality’, and writers exist ‘to complicate the world’, he said.

Peter is a gallery owner, as mentioned, and is in crisis over his definitions of art and beauty. I saw Cunningham on a panel with Betty Churcher (chaired by Rowena Danziger), entitled ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’. He spoke about his disdain for contemporary art and its incessant irony. He wanted to write about a man who was ready to dismantle his life in pursuit of an annihilating beauty. Art is a fixation of Cunningham’s, and all his novels have arisen from a fixation of his (such as Virginia Woolf, with The Hours). He actually started out training as an artist. ‘The impulse to create, to produce something beautiful and lasting has been with me a very long time.’ But with visual art he found he lacked some capacity and focus (to develop his talent). It was upsetting to him, but then the idea of creating ‘something like life’ with just words and ink and paper ‘held a bottomless fascination’ for him. He still paints, takes photos, just for pleasure. As his writing has become more recognised he’s felt an increasing need to ‘make things that are not for sale’. He’s even learnt silversmithing. He finds something ‘vital’ in creating something just for himself.

Churcher and Cunningham both praised Duchamp, and touched on Warhol. Churcher spoke about the work of art being what takes place between the artwork and the viewer. A hat rack by the wall is a hat rack, a hat rack on the roof can be a work of art – it’s a matter of perception. If you don’t get it, it’s not a work of art for you, said Churcher. (And all this is riffing on Duchamp’s philosophies.) Churcher said Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th Century and Cunningham agreed. When he agrees with something wholeheartedly, he does this face, which I call his ‘exquisite’ face. It’s like a pulling-in of all his features, as if to say oh, yes. Exquisite. It’s like the bottom part of a nod, held and exaggerated.

Cunningham explained his disdain for contemporary art a little more. ‘I see a lot of art in New York City. Okay, I get it. I think I get it… and yet I find myself wondering – where’s the transcendence? Where’s the consolation? Where’s the sense of accompaniment?’ And when he said that, it made me realise how successful he is as a novelist, as an artist. Because those intentions are realised in his work. He said that earnestness is ‘out’ and art is wry, ‘snarky’. ‘I keep thinking that we who care about art are not doing too well on our beauty-free diet’.

Both spoke about art as a commodity, acknowledged that it always has been, but spoke about a certain parallel now with the art world and consumer and celebrity culture. That people would buy art because they ‘should’ have it, not because they love it. This, too, has always existed, but they both agreed that it’s now more pervasive. All Cunningham wants is for an artwork to ‘drive an icepick through my heart’, or turn his head 360 degrees. There is a character in By Nightfall – an art collector – who truly does love art for art’s sake. And this was important to Cunningham, to avoid stereotyping, to ensure all the characters were at some level able to be empathised with. A novel is an ‘engine of empathy’, he said. He’s fascinated by the fact that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. As a novelist you try and express the fact that ‘no one is insignificant and everyone makes sense of themselves,’ and also, ‘everyone is visiting the novel from a novel of their own’. In this way, novels are also inherently political (if they achieve this). Because ‘fiction is the best-known way of producing empathy’ – it shows the reader what it’s like to live as someone else, gives an intimate portrait of the ‘beingness’ of another. Doesn’t that then train you to be more considerate of the multitudinous complexities, the histories, of others?

But Cunningham has been politically active in real life. It was a big ‘slap in the face’ for him and his friends in the ’80s to learn that Reagan and Bush Snr didn’t care about the ‘kind of people’ who contracted and were suffering from AIDS. Certain pharmaceutical companies, too, were withholding information and drugs, and Cunningham was part of the Act Now movement. He was part of a group who disrupted the New York stock exchange, and they were arrested. The epidemic and its aftermath (and of course, it has not gone away) makes its way into his novels, because he is a writer that is interested in reflecting the time that we live in. He does not, however, think a novelist, or an artist is obliged to write about the issues of their time. They are only obliged ‘to write the best damn novel [they] absolutely can’.

For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels affect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality. He spoke about when he met his partner, 25 years ago, and how that profound love was entwined with a certain ‘horror’. One, because there was ‘no big romantic surprise still to come’, and two – you’re confronted with your combined mortality. A sense of mortality is ‘threaded through’ the love. And this is also what he’s pursuing in great art: ‘you have to be a little bit fearful’.

Cunningham is so skilled, in his work, at drawing the distances between people – the way that bodies and hearts can be aligned in moments, while minds are on different planes. How rare it is to truly know the motivations of another, the dreams of another. By Nightfall is viewed through Peter’s lens, but the reader can see that even Peter doesn’t know or remember what his wife is like, who his daughter is and where, exactly, he went wrong with her. And not just that – but there are moments when he is surprised by the way other people describe and think of him. He is distant from his own self-in-the-world. It is a study in complexity – and in capturing it, the dark and the light and the attempts to grasp the transient, rare moments of passion (which one still might see as meaning something different later on).

On his own art, Cunningham is oft quoted as saying his idea for a novel exists as a ‘cathedral of light and fire’ in a bubble above his head. The finished book is just that – a book, an object. (And there’s a part in The Hours where Clarissa goes into a bookshop and observes just this – that books are inseparable from the world of objects.) However – this is part of what makes art interesting, that gap between intention and achievement is one of the ‘animating concepts’ of art. It’s interesting because of ‘what it says about human limitations’, he said. He also said, ‘if you’re not trying to do more than what you’re capable of doing, then go away’. The effort and the intention create meaning.

By Nightfall is a book of secrets. A moment of secret pleasure in the thought of mortality, gruesomeness. The quick rage Peter feels in a moment at the party (which you feel in the writing, too) and keeps to himself. Feeling that drug users are ‘romantic, goddamn them’. Thoughts on the sexual self. One of my favourite lines in the novel is: ‘What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?’ Peter wonders, with mixed-emotions, where the visionaries have gone in a practical, commericialised era of art. There are thoughts on the forbidden, on dirt, on anything but normal normal normal. After psychoanalysing himself Peter says: ‘All this is useful information. Now what?’ This all makes more sense after hearing Cunningham talk about the novel. Peter plays out some of the author’s conflicts (over art, beauty), but he is also a product of them. The character himself is someone who has kind of failed in terms of effort, passion, intention. It was essential to Cunningham that Peter be a 2nd-tier dealer, someone with an immediate ‘feeling of doubt’. He likes writing about people who are not at the top of their field, who are not winners. An early (and continual) influence are the modernists, ie. Joyce and Woolf. As a teenage boy it made him delirious, the idea of the ‘epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives’, the idea that you could ‘bore in like that’ to some ‘subatomic level’ of the everyday.

Peter, in By Nightfall, is struggling between the thought and the act (of art). People are moved by art and then they go on with their lives. How often are they compelled to become art? Do they ever feel they should? Should they? It reminds me of the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. Reading Virginia Woolf is one of the things that makes her decide she must act. That, in fact, she will die if she does not. Peter’s struggle is a more contemporary one. Look at all the choices he potentially has. But Peter’s disposition means (and this shouldn’t give it away but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it) Peter chooses art. He chooses the challenge. The struggle. Cunningham also said he wanted to write about the ‘friendless man’, a type of person he meets who is fascinating and mysterious to him. He wanted Peter to be introspective and complicated (he succeeds). As mentioned, Peter is rhetorically engaged, throughout the book. This was partly about his character, but also partly about rhythm. Language is about meaning, Cunningham said, ‘but also about music’. The Hours was a Schubert sonata, A Home at the End of the World was rock ’n’ roll. By Nightfall was Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Lou Reed. (Side note: he’s met Lou Reed. ‘I fainted, of course’, he laughed.) He teaches creative writing to some lucky mofos in the US. In teaching, his aim is to ‘bring out the voice’. Basically, he suggests things for them to read. When he studied creative writing years ago a teacher told him to mark up a piece with ‘A’ for the best sentences and ‘B’ for the okay ones. Then she make him take out all the As. He learnt that there’s a difference between telling the story and ‘advertising your sensitivity and craftmanship’. This has always stayed with him.

So who does he write for? He writes for Helen. Let me explain. When he was starting out as a writer, he worked in a restaurant in Laguna Beach – the Boom Boom Room, wearing a grass skirt. Helen worked in the restaurant, had been left by her husband, had four ‘criminal’ children, a bunch of debts and also another job. And she was a voracious reader. The reading hour, at the end of everything, was the ‘jewel’ of Helen’s day. She was reading some crime and mystery stories and Cunningham suggested Dostoevsky. Helen read it, she liked it. ‘He’s a lot better than Ken Follett,’ she told him (Cunningham paused for effect here) and then she said: ‘…but not as good as Scott Turow.’ And this idea that Helen would pick up any book, with no sense of pedigree, was thrilling to Cunningham. He decided that maybe it would be more interesting for him ‘to try and write a book for Helen’. Something with depth, with content – but satisfying for her after those incredibly long days. Now he writes with about five specific friends in mind, as ‘gifts’ for them, and that kind of focus aids his process.

In Melbourne he spoke a little more about his process. He walks about 20 minutes to his studio in the mornings, puts on some music to ‘set the molecules in the air going’. Then he sits down to write for at least four hours, six on a good day. He writes daily so as to ‘create and sustain and convince [himself] of a kind of parallel reality’. He is ‘enormously disciplined’, but he leaves his work at the studio and is fully present in the rest of his life: his emails in the afternoon, hanging out with his partner at night. As a young writer it was harder for him to switch off – but he doesn’t want to see the world continually through a lens, of everything being potential ‘material’.

When he submitted The Hours to his editor, they said ‘you know we’re gonna lose all our money on this’. No one had even the remotest idea that it would do as well as it has, would reach so many people. Cunningham’s advice, from this, was: ‘you might as well do what you want to do, because you can’t know.’ The new novel that he’s working on, of which we were treated to an extract at The Big Reading at SWF (Cunningham loved being a part of the reading, with authors he ‘bows down to’, like David Mitchell) is in some ways a ‘companion piece to By Nightfall’ as it looks at a very different body of people who don’t have the money and advantages of the people in BN. He wonders about the search for beauty and transference in those people.

Cunningham has worked on screenplays, too, and he loves film. Writing for film is a wonderful experience as it’s so collaborative, he said. He is not precious about his books being made into films – it’s just an extension of the work, of the process. ‘It’s not the fingernail of a saint’, he said, regarding the book, and you ‘spend your life learning how to write a novel and die trying to make a novel, so… it’s not sacrosanct.’ His favourite book is always his most recent book, and in Melbourne last night it was mentioned that he’s just signed a contract with HBO – not sure if it was for By Nightfall, or something else. I’m looking forward to finding out.

He spoke, too, about endings. And that’s probably a good point to end on. What he tries to do with his novels is end on an ‘expected surprise’, so the reader doesn’t necessarily see it coming, but they can go back through and identify the clues. They don’t see it coming but they think ‘of course it should end like that.’ He often doesn’t know what the ending is going to be. Planning too much feels mechanical, to him. He has to let himself go – pull things up from the magma. ‘That sort of intuitive thing, that permits you to be more insightful than you really are, that allows you to smell things that aren’t really there, only exists if you allow that [non-mechanical exploration] to happen’. How lucky we are, that Michael Cunningham is so successful at pulling those things from the magma, and shaping them into satisfying, complex novels, like By Nightfall.

Thanks so much to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

20 classics in 2011 #5: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I’d always heard Oscar Wilde was a wit, and the supernatural element of the story appealed to me.

When was it published?

It was first published in 1890, as an issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. A later revised edition was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. I read Gerard’s Digit Books edition, yellowing pages, blurry typeface and all (pictured). It has no ISBN and no date but is tied in with ‘current film success The Trials of Oscar Wilde’ which came out in 1960. See the front and back cover here. There have, of course, been multiple editions of the book (see Aus, US, UK).

What’s it about?

Basil Hallward, a painter, is infatuated with young beauty Dorian Gray. Basil’s friend Lord Henry Wotton (or ‘Harry’) is introduced to the subject by Basil, and becomes fascinated by the young man himself. The witty and cynical Harry goes on a rant to young Dorian which makes him think about the value of youth and beauty as he has never done so before:

‘You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats… Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed.’

We learn later that Harry will tell all and sundry (good-naturedly) his views on love, life, art and beauty – but this speech has a profound impact on young Dorian Gray when he lays eyes on Basil’s portrait of him. ‘A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time.’ The full force of Harry’s speech hits him, and in his realisation that he will wither and wrinkle, will lose the golden tinge in his hair, that the ‘scarlet would pass away from his lips’, he feels a sharp and intense pain and he cries that he would give his soul for the chance to be the Dorian in the painting – the one who would be always young.

And after his first unforgivable act – cruelty toward a young woman with whom he had been in love – he sees that his wish might have come true.

Tell us more about the author.

Wilde was a flamboyant writer and intellectual; a poet, journalist, essayist and playwright. He was apparently a wonderful conversationalist, possessed of a biting wit. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel. The Importance of Being Earnest, a play, is perhaps his masterpiece. He was born in Dublin, went to University in Dublin then at Oxford, and lived and wrote in London after that. He lectured on aestheticism in America in the 1880s.

He was an aesthete, homosexual (though he did marry, in 1884), and was involved in the decadent movement. Wilde was convicted, in the mid 1890s, of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to two years in prison and hard labour. He fled Britain after that, and wrote about his difficult time in prison in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died, after converting to Catholicism, in Paris at the age of forty-six.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

It’s by no means a perfect novel, but it is perfectly enjoyable. There were two aspects I liked best: the challenging engagement (particularly by Lord Wotton) with aspects of art, beauty, aestheticism and decadence; and the aesthetics of the novel itself – the way moments of drama are stylised.

The novel seems to warn against taking ideals of youth and beauty too far, so that they become depraved and soulless. Lord Wotton supposes (though it’s hinted by Hallward that he is being cynical) that beauty does indeed equal goodness. That you can judge a book by its cover, in other words. And Dorian’s story does actually confirm this, because his ‘soul’ in the painting becomes more and more hideous, depending on what nasty things he has been up to. But Dorian is already paying for taking the aforementioned ideals of youth and beauty too far. For believing there is nothing else.

In some way it feels as though Wilde was playing out some of his own internal conflicts though this. He did idealise beauty and decadence. I haven’t read any of his essays so I’m not an expert on his views, but the novel plays out a kind of duplicity: between a view of the value in beauty, and a humorous sending-up of this same view. Was he teasing himself? Was he both the wizened but misguided Lord Wotton, and the enthusiastic but secretly devilish youth Dorian Gray?

As mentioned I also enjoyed the way the dramatic moments of the novel are rendered. The dramatic moments are quite a contrast to the laid-back, observant wit in the dinner party conversations between Wotton, Gray and others. In one:

‘The bright dawn flooded the room, and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that he had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.’

These moments of terror and anguish make really fun reading, and reminded me of reading something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the other parts of this novel felt more modern.

Speaking of modern, I can’t help but wonder what Wilde would have thought of much of later modernism, or even post-modernism: a (20th Century) modernist novel might not have the same finality, the same dramatic ending, and the reader might also go where Gray secretly goes in the novel. (Most is only alluded to, until we visit an opium den with him). What would Wilde have thought of decadence, or aesthetics, had he lived to see the consumer age? It adds a layer to the reading of this book now, because concepts of ‘beauty’ have truly been warped (eg. consider the role of nature in art, back then). Concepts of youth, however… What would he think of expensive wrinkle creams and extreme cosmetic surgery? If you think about it this way, he was almost writing science fiction. Impossible and misguided goals of everlasting youthfulness, to maintain an appearance of success.

Dorian thinks heavily on the ‘monstrous’ forms of self-denial ‘whose origin was fear’, speaking mainly of religion, and wonders about a new spirituality and a new Hedonism ‘that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism… It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience.’ He goes on, ‘Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they may be.’ So it was to live without consequence, but not necessarily in a materialistic fashion.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

I could just go on quoting this book, and as I write this I see that I got much more out of it than I realised. I haven’t even mentioned the epigrams yet, which preface the novel, chanelling early forms of existentialism in the way they say: there is no meaning (but there is). Here’s a couple that preface the book:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Here are some of his epigrams online.

I can’t stop:

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

Okay Oscar, I get it. Cheers.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

But seriously, despite everything above, read The Picture of Dorian Gray just for the sake of chattering with, nodding along to and arguing with Lord Henry Wotton.

What’s next?

I’ve finally read Brave New World. Maybe next I should tackle a biggie – Moby Dick? Or perhaps some Iris Murdoch, as I’m super curious about her.

Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Are any of the film adaptations good? I’d be keen to read a bio on Oscar Wilde someday too…