The Folding Star
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst – why have you chosen this book?
I think Alan Hollinghurst is my favourite living writer. I think he’s extraordinary. He takes a very long time to write a book – I think he has only written five – so each one takes about six years. This one is my favourite because the writing is so beautiful. It’s about a young Englishman, Edward Manners, who gets bored with his life in England and goes off to teach as a tutor in Flanders. He has two students, one of whom is ugly and another, called Luc, who is unbelievably beautiful. Then there’s a previous lover of Edward’s named Dawn who lived in England and who died of Aids. This is his Aids novel, I suppose. One thing I love about it is that Aids is always there but it’s never sentimentalised. It acknowledges the existence of this terrible disease but at the same time it has an incredible enshrinement of physical love and physical beauty in the affair between Edward and Luc.
There are echoes of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Yes. That’s right. But the difference is that the boy in Death in Venice never puts out. He seems to be almost unaware of his effect on Aschenbach, whereas Luc actually has sex with Edward. You’re sort of conditioned by this type of book to think that there is this older man who’s mooning after this boy and the boy will never do anything about it, but, in fact, the boy is homosexual and very generously offers his body to his teacher and seems to be smitten by him. So that is an unusual, strange moment in the book.
Back in 1999, John Updike made some comments about Hollinghurst, saying his novels were relentlessly gay in their personnel and they lacked female characters. He also objected to the detailed observations of gay sex.
Well I think that’s just because he objected to homosexuality de tout coeur. He was a very narrow-minded working-class man who, even though he rose to the heights of American fiction, nevertheless retained the values of his childhood, which were those of a working-class family. You would think that Hollinghurst would have appealed to him. He did acknowledge how beautiful the writing was, but his objection to the homosexuality was sort of like Nabokov’s objection to Our Lady of the Flowers, which he saw as a masterpiece but thought, “Why isn’t this book about women?” Nabokov hated homosexuality and was very edgy around it, partly because his own brother was homosexual and his uncle. And he believed that it was hereditary, so he was always nervous about it. But anyway, it was a shame that Updike missed that opportunity to acknowledge Hollinghurst’s genius, because Hollinghurst is a writer who has real subject matter, unlike Updike. Updike could only write about suburban adultery and childhood memories. He had no subject matter even though he wrote 50 or so novels. One is more empty than the next. And he’s a writer who will be forgotten, except maybe for his trilogy about Rabbit.
You could argue that Hollinghurst did respond to this type of criticism by having strong female characters in The Line of Beauty, which won him the Booker Prize.
That’s true. Maybe he was nudged by the criticism. Alan Hollinghurst is a friend of mine and was actually very flattered that Updike wrote about him at all, even if negatively. In fact, he saw it mainly as a positive review.
Why have you picked Maurice, the classic from EM Forster?
Historically, it’s very interesting, as Forster is obviously one of the pillars of 20th century English literature. But this is a book he suppressed during his lifetime and thought it was unpublishable, which is sort of sad if you think about it. It’s about Maurice, who’s in love with a guy he meets at Oxford called Clive. They have an affair, but then Clive gets married to a woman. Maurice comes to visit him and is rejected by Clive in his new guise as a married man. Then Maurice finds consolation with Alec the gamekeeper. So it’s a novel that seems based on wish fulfilment, but it also has a lot of class analysis, and I think the thing that has always puzzled Americans about British gay writing is that the middle- and upper-class people always fall in love with working-class people. There is this important class theme in British gay literature which doesn’t exist in America, partly I suppose because we don’t have a class system in the same way. I mean we do have a class system, but it’s pretty well hidden even from ourselves.
It’s an interesting, groundbreaking book. Had it been published at the time that he wrote it, it would have been extraordinary, it would have opened up all kind of doors. It’s very beautiful and I think he had a real influence on Hollinghurst. People often discuss Hollinghurst as a Forster-influenced writer.
The book looks at the social implications of being gay. This was something Forster was very concerned about, opting not to publish the book until after his death and penning homosexual stories purely for his own amusement.
He would give the manuscript to other homosexual friends to read. It was designed to amuse them too. He himself had a working-class lover, Bob Buckingham.
I never quite understood that relationship. Buckingham was married wasn’t he?
Yes. But Genet was often involved with married men. I think a lot of men of that generation were only attracted to straight men. It’s something I try to take up in my book Jack Holmes and His Friend because Jack is in love with his straight friend Will. That was a very period taste. You didn’t want another homosexual in your bed; you wanted a real man who was, by definition, heterosexual. So, if that’s the case and you could only fall in love with heterosexual men, they do have a tendency of getting married to women. Then you have to deal with them. Genet actually chose the wife of one of his male lovers and built a house for them with a room for himself. Even his last lover, who was a Moroccan, Mohammed al-Qatrani – he lived with him and his wife and child.
Before we talk about your final book, perhaps you could tell us something about the New York literary group, The Violet Quill, that you and Holleran were members of in the early 1980s.
It only ever met about seven or eight times. But it did represent a real moment in gay fiction because earlier gay fiction had been addressed mainly to straight people in the form of an apology, complete with explanations about how the characters got to be gay – because they had a suffocating mother or an absent father or something like that. It was about the terrible pain they suffered and the books almost always ended in suicide.
The Violet Quill really represented a break with that tradition, in that suddenly there were in place various institutions of gay literature like good literary magazines and almost 70 or 80 gay bookstores throughout the country. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, which was sort of a banner year for gay fiction. Lots of books were published that year which were important, including Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, Larry Kramer’s book Faggots and my book Nocturnes for the King of Naples. Literature often trails politics by about 10 years – I mean, a lot of books about World War II weren’t published until 10 years afterwards, and in the same way these books came 10 years after Stonewall, which was the beginning of gay liberation.
The function of the group was partly to claim a certain turf for each writer. So Andrew Holleran, who wrote Dancer from the Dance, his turf was Fire Island in New York. Mine was childhood, which I exploited in A Boy’s Own Story and which I read to the group as I was working on it. There was Robert Ferro and he wrote about the family and the gay child’s efforts to establish himself in the eyes of his own parents and wanting to be accepted with a lover as a couple with the same status as heterosexual siblings and their mates. So I think that was part of the function of that group. Another function was simply to provide an audience and encouragement for us as we tackled these new areas of experience, which required a certain amount of courage to write about. We all felt we had something to lose by coming out and writing about gay stuff. We had some sort of literary reputation that we were afraid of sacrificing by being identified as gay.
Dancer from the Dance
Can you tell us about Dancer from the Dance?
Like the Genet and the Hollinghurst books, it has a sumptuous, beautiful, poetic style, which isn’t really present in Maurice or A Single Man but which I think is a characteristic of gay writing in general. Anyway, Dancer from the Dance has some of the most beautiful, lyrical writing, plus it’s very, very funny. It’s about Anthony Malone who is an ex-lawyer who comes from the Mid-West to New York in order to have a gay lifestyle; to dance at discos and to have lots and lots of sex. You have to remember this is a book from before the Aids era so it was the golden age of promiscuity. He’s described as being beautiful and everybody who’s gay desires him. The other main character, who barely knows him, is called Andrew Sutherland and he’s a drag queen and a speed freak and he’s very funny. He lives on Madison Avenue and is fascinated by Malone. One thing he wants to do is sort of sell Malone as a potential mate for somebody who’s rich and clean up from the transaction. At the end of the book he overdoses and Malone disappears and the Everard Baths, a large sauna of that period, burns down, killing many people. That really happened, historically.
This book has been described as a period piece about the pre-Aids era.
Yes, in the same way that The Great Gatsby sums up its era. It is very influenced by Fitzgerald, who is one of Holleran’s favourite writers.
Holleran is still writing today, isn’t he?
Yes, still beautifully. He wrote a book called Grief a few years back, which was a superb book. It’s about an older gay man who’s been nursing his parents, who have just recently died, and who’s now cut adrift and who returns to Washington DC and is living in the house of an old friend of his who has become entirely celibate because he’s afraid of Aids – he’s in mourning for his life, as you might say. It’s a very sad book, which is also, oddly enough, a lot about Mary Lincoln, [President] Lincoln’s wife, who went mad after he and one of her children died. She became a shopaholic. She bought so many clothes her children had to have her institutionalised or else she would have dissipated their entire fortune. Anyway, it’s a sort of tribute to Mary Lincoln and a meditation on what it’s like to outlive all the people you love.