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Alan Hollinghurst Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1954. Education: Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. in English 1975, M. Litt. 1979. Career: Lecturer of English, Magdalen College, 1977-78; Somerville College, 1979-80, and Corpus Christi College, 1981, all Oxford University, and University of London, 1982; assistant editor, 1982-90, and since 1990 poetry editor, Times Literary Supplement, London, 1982-90.

PUBLICATIONS

Novel

The Swimming-Pool Library. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988;New York, Vintage, 1989.

The Folding Star. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Pantheon, 1994.

The Spell. London, Chatto & Windus, 1998; New York, Viking, 1999.

Poetry

Confidential Chats with Boys. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1982.

Other

Editor, with A. S. Byatt, New Writing 4. London, Vintage, 1995.

Translator, Bajazet, by Jean Racine. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.

* * *

With the publication of The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988, British writer Alan Hollinghurst emerged as one of the most articulate voices in the expanding field of contemporary gay fiction. The success of Hollinghurst's novel arose from its erotically charged depiction of contemporary gay life in London, as well as from its attempt to articulate that ever-elusive "gay sensibility" that so many gay writers claim to understand but can never, it seems, adequately describe.

Stylistically and thematically, Hollinghurst places his novel within a richly intertextual framework of other gay texts, characters, events, and literary traditions. The novel is peopled with various gay historical characters, such as E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank, and it draws eclectically upon various alternative forms of expression that have historically served the clandestine needs of the gay community, such as camp, pink prose, and classical mythology. Throughout The Swimming-Pool Library echoes of other homosexual writers can be heard. These include, for example, the Genet-like encounter with a gang of skinheads, or the Firbank-like thematics found in the novel's racist commodification of the black male body. The novel's proliferation of witty aphorisms and anecdotes reminds one of Wilde, while its meditative moments and search for sexual identity are reminiscent of Proust.

The novel's narrative revolves around two historically separate, yet thematically comparable, events that expose the continuity and insidiousness of oppression used by British authorities against homosexuals throughout the last two centuries. When, for example, the novel's modern-day protagonist is naively told that sexual oppression is no longer an issue and that it belongs to another time, to "another world," he responds with what is surely the most important utterance of the novel: "it isn't another world … it's going on in London almost every day." Oppression and bigotry, as Hollinghurst's novel reveals, continued as frequently in Thatcher's Britain as they did during any other place or time.

The central narrative takes place in London during the summer of 1983, "the last summer of its kind," and describes, with tragi-comic flourish, the amorous adventures of 25-year-old Will Beckwith, whose primary concern, he writes, is "making passes at anything in trousers." Hollinghurst's Will Beckwith, like White's unnamed narrator and Andrew Holleran's Malone, is one of the most memorable characters of recent gay fiction. That summer, Will writers, "I was riding high on sex and self-esteem—it was my time, my belle époque. " Egotistical and unreflective, Will lives a privileged life of luxury, supported by his wealthy grandfather. During the course of the summer, Will meets an elderly and eccentric homosexual, Lord Charles Nantwich, and their unlikely alliance forms the cornerstone of the novel's detective-like narrative. Will is commissioned by the older man to write his biography because, as a character tells Will, "he thinks you will understand." In the process of reading through Charles's journal entries Will discovers that in 1954 his own grandfather, as the former Director of Public Prosecutions, was responsible for entrapping and imprisoning Charles, along with many other homosexual men, for the sin of "male vice." When a similar event happens to James, Will's best friend, he is outraged and takes action to prevent history from cruelly repeating itself: "I decided that if necessary, and if it might save James, I would testify in court … and so perhaps do something, though distant and symbolic, for Charles, and for Lord B's other victims." In this act of defiance against his own grandfather, and, in turn, against the whole legal system which suppresses homosexual expression, Will puts aside his over-developed ego for the first time and becomes aware of his communal identity with other homosexuals. These "experiences," declares Will, "gave me an urge to solidarity with my kind." The suffering of Charles and James ultimately serves as a catalyst for Will's own developing sense of responsibility and underscores the central theme of Hollinghurst's novel: the journey toward liberation can only begin when one acknowledges a political responsibility to a community under siege.

Although A Swimming-Pool Library brilliantly achieved what the author intended, it can never be granted the status of a "classic" in general fiction. To achieve that universality, such a novel would have to embody a world where gay and heterosexual characters, including women, are integrated equally. Sexual description would have to be balanced against the rather obvious, deliberate purpose of much of A Swimming-Pool Library, and also his next novel, A Folding Star, where one feels that Hollinghurst is aware of the market demands of readers whose main concern is the enjoyment of gay erotic description. A Swimming-Pool Library partly delineated a gay world where frequency of sex on demand was easily achieved and nearly all the sexual partners were unrealistically physically perfect—it was amongst the last fiction of its kind that could do so. Since the advent of AIDS, the moral responsibility in writing of safe sex became obligatory, something Hollinghurst is conscious of in A Folding Star.

A Folding Star, with its exceptionally clear prose, is more impressive than Hollinghurst's first novel, for the charmed world of the 1980s is replaced by a broader range of personalities as well as more introspection. Hollinghurst also gives a welcome unblinkered handling of his main character, Edward Manners: gay, physically unattractive in his early thirties, and fond of a drink. The unrelenting ugliness of the Belgium town where Manners has arrived to teach English to two boys corresponds to Manners' hopeless and obsessional love for one of his pupils, the attractive and seventeen-year-old Luc Altidore. Hollinghurst's vivid account of the semi-underworld of gay life, represented here by a bar called "The Casette" and its inhabitants, is far less self-conscious than that of A Swimming-Pool Library, with more engaging and likeable characters. He also makes Manners a rounded portrait by relating flashbacks of his childhood experiences, often with comic humour and a strong awareness of the ridiculous. The circumstances of Edward Manners' love force him into repeated self-examination, as he knows he cannot yet escape the grip of this temporary insanity. He does have sex with Luc, an experience that has physical satisfaction but ridicules any hopes of love. The theme of loyalty and betrayal, traitors and victims, connects the main topic with the sub-plots. Although A Folding Star makes a significant contribution towards lifting gay fiction out of a narrow gay ghetto, it is not quite broad enough to escape limitations of the label of "genre writing."

—Thomas Hastings,

updated by Geoffrey Elborn

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