The Evolution of One of Fiction’s Gay Liberators

Alan Hollinghurst, one of England’s most celebrated novelists, has changed with the times and found new ways to surprise.

When he was in his early 20s, Alan Hollinghurst, the English novelist, had a very English conversation with his father, a regional bank manager who served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. They were driving through rural Gloucestershire, where Hollinghurst grew up. An undergraduate at Oxford University, he’d recently come out to a fellow student. It was the mid-1970s, a time of liberation and experiment, but the sexual revolution, it seemed, had yet to reach the English countryside.

“Any particular girlfriends at the moment, old boy?” Hollinghurst’s father asked him.

“No, Dad,” he replied. “I haven’t.”

“Not really interested, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“No, I didn’t think so.”

And that was that.

“It was clear he got the picture and didn’t feel it needed to be talked about,” Hollinghurst, who is now 63, told me recently at his home in northwest London. It’s possible that family discussion of the matter would have been suspended indefinitely had Hollinghurst not gone on to publish a series of revelatory novels about gay life in England. When his debut, “The Swimming-Pool Library,” appeared in 1988, two decades after the decriminalization of homosexuality, openly gay characters and the raucous milieu they inhabited remained almost wholly absent from English fiction, to say nothing of English culture at large. The novel, which instantly secured Hollinghurst’s reputation, not only brought into the light “things best covered by darkness,” as its promiscuous young narrator, William Beckwith, says; it did so with a stylistic prowess and attentive rigor that made previous writers of sexually explicit fiction, gay and straight alike, look squeamish and incurious by comparison.

Will’s voice in “The Swimming-Pool Library,” ornately seamed with mischievous wit and wordplay, bears the imprint of the gay writing Hollinghurst consumed as a young man, even as it draws upon a resource unavailable to earlier generations: unabashed sexual truth-telling. During a virtuosic description of foreplay with a man he has just picked up, Will notes his new lover’s “deeply beautiful, creamily smooth” buttocks, “cubic with built muscle,” as well as the man’s smell — “a soft stench like stale flower-water.” Hollinghurst’s nimble, richly textured prose, which lavishes as much attention on a pretentious “steel-framed building, tarted up with niches and pilasters like some bald fact inexpertly disguised” as an erection passing along a line of men in a public shower “with the foolish perfection of a Busby Berkeley routine,” doesn’t so much shift between registers as void any such distinction. This is a writer for whom sex and fine art, sensual and aesthetic bliss, are not categorically discrete activities but points along a spectrum of delight.

The novel appeared the same year that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, in response to growing public hysteria about AIDS, passed a bill prohibiting local councils and publicly funded schools from “promoting homosexuality.” Seen by some as doing exactly that, “The Swimming-Pool Library” achieved a notoriety uncommon for a work of literary fiction and became a best seller.

“Wish fulfillment,” Hollinghurst replied, not altogether persuasively, when I asked him what resources he drew on to create the character of Will, a handsome aristocrat who lives a life consecrated to pleasure. “He was someone richer, more glamorous than me. And he was having a lot more sex.” We were sitting on the sofa in Hollinghurst’s light-soaked living room, which looks out over the sloping fields of Parliament Hill, at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. Quick, low clouds were scudding across the rectangle of sky framed by the window opposite us; whenever Hollinghurst turned his head to mull something I asked, the view flashed in miniature across his rectangular spectacles. With his close-cropped silver hair, gnomish goatee and general air of placid competence, he could have been an actuary or an I.T. manager — that is, until he opened his mouth. “He didn’t have a model, particularly,” Hollinghurst said, and his voice, implausibly deep, sonorously patrician, seemed to come from another time; it would probably have sounded on the antique side at Oxford High Table in the mid-1950s, when he was born. “By then I’d seen quite a lot of handsome, self-confident, sort of public-school types, so it wasn’t a huge stretch.”

In “The Swimming-Pool Library,” Will is tasked with writing the biography of one Charles Nantwich, an octogenarian peer whose life he saves one morning while out cruising in a public lavatory. “I’m always forgetting how sexy the past must have been,” Will remarks after reading the diaries that Nantwich turns over to him, which reveal a very different kind of gay existence from his own, one haunted by the specters of legal punishment and reputational annihilation, and yet not without its adventures and satisfactions.

The past is everywhere present in Hollinghurst’s work. In a sense, his entire career has been an attempt to recover a lost — indeed, an actively suppressed — gay cultural heritage. Sex is a way into history for Hollinghurst precisely because it is something historians tend to neglect, and nothing is more appealing to the novelistic imagination than a blank. His latest book, “The Sparsholt Affair,” which came out in England in October and has just been published in the United States, is a work of characteristic subtlety and forthrightness. It traces the shifting social identities available to gay people in Britain over the past 75 years while insisting on leaving as many blanks as it fills in.

Like “The Swimming-Pool Library,” the new novel trains its sights on the divergent fortunes of two men who come of age on either side of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, though in this case the two men are father and son. David Sparsholt, a member of the R.A.F. who is decorated for his heroics in World War II, presents as a conventional family man until a liaison with a male politician turns him into a household name. Johnny, David’s only child, is 14 when the life-wrecking scandal embroils his father in 1966, but he already knows that his erotic preference is for boys. Blessed with better historical luck, Johnny must nevertheless contend with the indelible mark of his surname and the inscrutable family history that comes with it. Late in the new book, a middle-aged Johnny, who has become a successful portrait painter, contemplates his father’s reluctance to visit him and his partner at their home in London, which he chalks up to “the irreducible fact that Johnny was doing openly what for David had been a matter of secrecy and then of very public shame.”

Such an irreducible fact might have served as the basis for mutual compassion and understanding, but this is a novel about the failure of cultural transmission, about stalled emotion and stymied confidences — in short, about being English. For Hollinghurst, writing about gay life has always also been a way of writing about the society that constrains and proscribes it. Magnetized by the establishment, he brings an outsider’s clinical perspective to its manners and customs and the psychological toll they can inflict. “The Sparsholt Affair” may be his most harrowing damage report yet.

“Contemporary life doesn’t suggest stories to me in quite the same way as the past,” Hollinghurst said, folding one leg over the other and leaning back so that I got a better view of the painting to his right, a nocturnal scene of boats on the Thames by the artist Walter Greaves, a student of Whistler’s who, after being reduced to poverty late in life, was said to use the stretcher bars of his canvases for firewood. The walls were covered with paintings in carved and gilded wooden frames — the fruit of a collecting habit that Hollinghurst acquired after his fourth novel, “The Line of Beauty,” won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. At the slightest prompting, he would begin unfolding the stories behind each item with the effortless fluency of a docent. “Contemporary life doesn’t have the things I find most interesting,” he continued. “Secrecy, concealment, danger.”

Little in Hollinghurst’s early life would seem to have predisposed him for the role of epochal silence breaker. An only child, he was born in the small market town of Stroud in 1954. His parents were Churchill-worshiping Conservatives. At the time, daily existence was still permeated by the war. Rationing ended a few weeks after his birth, but because many people who had been called up continued to use military titles in civilian life, Hollinghurst spent his childhood referring to neighbors and family friends as “Major This” and “Wing Commander That.” To keep him in line, his father would sometimes bark at him in a parody of military drill. (“Stand up straight, boy!” Hollinghurst said in a booming, somewhat camp disciplinarian voice, recalling the routine. “Put your shoulders back!”) At the nearby all-boys boarding school to which he was sent at age 7, he was studious and well behaved, terrified of being punished by the masters. It was there that he discovered Wagner, the English poets and, a few years later, with the onset of puberty, a keen interest in his fellow schoolmates.

Like olive oil or color TV, open homosexuals were not a feature of this straitened world; it wasn’t until Hollinghurst went to Oxford to read English in 1972 that he encountered his first unmistakably gay person. As a graduate student in the late 1970s, he took up the newly permissible project of constructing a gay canon. He read “Sexual Heretics” (1970), the groundbreaking anthology of gay Victorian writing, and Aleister Crowley’s “White Stains” (1898), a volume of erotic verse that had to be published abroad under a pseudonym, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. “There was so little material in those days, so I was rather turned on by this sort of terrible gay pornography,” he told me. His thesis, by contrast, a study of “the creative uses of homosexuality” in the novels of Ronald Firbank, E.M. Forster and L.P. Hartley, sought to elucidate “the stimulating effects of constraint.”

During his time in graduate school, Hollinghurst paid intermittent visits to London, where, in his words, “the gaying up of Soho” was well underway. The dazzling world of bars and clubs and public cruising spots of which he caught a glimpse stood in bracing contrast to Oxford, with its dour emotional atmosphere of thwarted longing and romantic starvation. (There was a gay social club at his Oxford college, Hollinghurst told me, but “the other members didn’t necessarily make you keen to join it.”) When he moved to the city for good in 1981 and took a job as an editor at The Times Literary Supplement, he embarked on a process of euphoric discovery. “The whole idea of London became sexualized for me,” he said. “It just seemed it would be very interesting to try and capture some of that on the page.”

On Jan. 1, 1984, Hollinghurst sat down to begin writing “The Swimming-Pool Library.” Conscious of several previous novels he failed to finish, he’d recently acquired a yearlong desk diary and set himself the goal — a kind of New Year’s resolution — of filling up a page a day. Although he didn’t quite maintain this pace, he was several chapters in and feeling good about his progress when, in November, he received shattering news. Nicholas Clark, a close friend from Oxford who introduced him to London’s gay scene, had died suddenly. It had been clear for months that Clark was unwell; he always seemed to have a cold, and once, after he cut himself shaving, his face was swollen for weeks. AIDS was still little understood — it was something going on, or so Hollinghurst and other members of England’s gay community liked to tell themselves, elsewhere: i.e., America.

Clark was one of the first people in England to succumb to the disease, and his death signified a rupture with all that had gone before. The unexplored world that Hollinghurst had set out to chronicle was itself being radically transformed before his eyes. As he pressed ahead, he was confronted with the question of whether to incorporate this changed reality into his novel. He considered having Will, stricken with AIDS, narrate the entire book on his deathbed, or using a framing device in which the book is presented as being transcribed from posthumously discovered tapes. Finally he decided that any such gesture would be surplus to requirements. History didn’t need to be wedged into the book; the book was already inevitably permeated by it. Four years later, when “The Swimming-Pool Library” was published to critical and popular acclaim, the summer of 1983, during which much of the novel takes place, had acquired a similar poignancy to the summer of 1913.

When the English writer Geoff Dyer read the book shortly after it was published, it made him realize how “timorous and discreet” his own debut novel, “The Colour of Memory” (1989), had been. “I became interested in seeing to what extent one could do a heterosexual equivalent,” he said on the phone. Garth Greenwell, whose celebrated debut novel, “What Belongs to You” (2016), drew comparisons with Hollinghurst, told me in an email that “The Swimming-Pool Library” gave him “an immense sense of permission” when he discovered it at age 20 in 1998. “There was a great liberating thrill in reading, at that time when there was so much pressure to conform to a politics of respectability, a book that was so unapologetic in its representation of men having sex — pleasurably, promiscuously — with other men. It felt radical in its indifference to the moral judgments of straight people.”

“There was a need to do something defiant,” Hollinghurst said of the reactionary political climate in which his first novel was written and published. “?‘The Sparsholt Affair’ has come out into a world that’s so different.” This new world — in which gay rights are increasingly recognized and sexual truth-telling is ubiquitous — is one that Hollinghurst played his part in creating. What kind of literature it might demand is a question that “The Sparsholt Affair” tries to answer.

The novel opens one evening during the Blitz in the autumn of 1940, “in that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could still see into other people’s rooms.” A group of male students at Christ Church College, Oxford, has gathered in a dormitory to discuss literary matters. The conversation is quickly derailed, however, when one of them, Evert Dax, who is gay, spots a handsome young man in a singlet lifting weights in a room across the quad. They gather around to admire this alluring new figure, who, they soon learn, is in trouble with the college authorities for the “rhythmical creaking” that has been coming from his room. For Evert, “a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river,” an erotic obsession is born. Its object, the young David Sparsholt, is already engaged to his boyhood sweetheart, but by the end of term he and Evert will have slept together. It is a powerful sequence, as good as anything Hollinghurst has written, made all the more thrilling by the sexual invigilation to which the characters are subject.

Whatever the affair with Evert may mean to him (it is never made clear), David goes on to marry his fiancée and procreate; the next time we see him, it is through the eyes of his 14-year-old son. Johnny inherits a world of sexual freedom inconceivable to his father, sleeping with numerous men before finally settling down in his 50s (and then getting back in the game once again after his longtime partner dies). While most of Hollinghurst’s previous books ended on a note of poignant suspension, abbreviating the lives of his young protagonists, “The Sparsholt Affair” keeps on going, skipping over decades as it closes in on the present. During that time, we witness the growing normalization and acceptance of gay people, relatively new terrain for Hollinghurst. The scandal that upended David’s life and continues to haunt his son’s comes to seem ever more cruel and benighted, the relic of a culture now receding into history.

Yet this isn’t a story of straightforward progress and liberation; Hollinghurst knows that the present is never as enlightened as it likes to think it is, nor the past quite as backward. “The Sparsholt Affair” opens in a world in which private life is fiercely inspected and surveilled; by the end, that world has given way to one in which private life is turned inside out and posted online for all to see. Toward the end of the book, a recently widowed Johnny is on a date with Michael, a young man he has met online. They begin to fool around, though Michael seems to be more interested in showing Johnny amateur porn on his laptop than in having actual sex with him. Through Johnny’s eyes we witness an inventive but, it seems, rather joyless act of self-stimulation: “It wasn’t remotely the sort of thing he was used to looking at, and he was giddy for a moment at the sequence of casual revelations, that people did this, and that they filmed it, and that others watched it.”

Like the window through which Evert and his friends first see David Sparsholt, the browser window on Michael’s computer frames an object of male desire, though this one is rather less enticing. If “The Sparsholt Affair” shows how society has been transformed by sexual liberation, a process with its roots in people’s innermost desires, it also shows how people’s innermost desires have in turn been conditioned by a transformed society. Baring all, the novel suggests of our present moment, may not be the best way to hold an admirer’s — or a reader’s — attention.

Hollinghurst’s genius, in “The Swimming-Pool Library” and beyond, has been to speak in a voice steeped in English heritage about a subculture that England’s rigid and stratified society long refused to acknowledge, let alone accept. Naturally, such audacity has met with its detractors. When Hollinghurst’s third novel, “The Spell,” a game of amorous musical chairs involving four gay men of differing ages and a good deal of MDMA, appeared in 1998, its lack of interest in history, gay or otherwise, was perceived by many critics as a slackening of moral seriousness.

One of the most disparaging voices was that of John Updike, who, in a review for The New Yorker, complained that Hollinghurst’s novels were “relentlessly gay.” After a while, he wrote, the (presumably straight) reader begins “to long for the chirp and swing and civilizing animation of a female character.” For Updike, even subpar novels of heterosexual coupling still concerned themselves with “the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family,” and thereby possessed a certain inherent interest; in “The Spell,” by contrast, “nothing is at stake but self-gratification.”

Implicit in this critique is the notion that to write about gay life is necessarily to limit oneself as a novelist. Updike had this exactly backward. For Hollinghurst, homosexuality is a democratizing force; it brings people together across boundaries of race and class and age. Had he been straight, his social canvas would have been restricted immeasurably. As Geoff Dyer told me, “He could’ve ended up just reinventing some literary wheel if he’d been a heterosexual, comedy-of-manners novelist with a more than passing fondness for toffs.”

Nowhere is Hollinghurst’s breadth and range more evident than in “The Line of Beauty,” the novel in which he finally addressed the subject of AIDS head on. The book’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a graduate student from a solid if unglamorous middle-class background who is lodging with the family of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden, the object of an unvoiced crush. It is 1983, Margaret Thatcher is prime minister and Toby’s father, Gerald, is a newly elected member of the ruling Conservative Party. Nick, who has recently come out, divides his time between the elite world of the Fedden family, with its black-tie dinners and country-house weekends, and the gay underground of pre-AIDS London. Although he is at pains to keep a wall between these two domains, the book is at its most electrifying when Nick’s fraught compartmentalization comes under pressure.

Nick is not the only one who strives for a rigid social compartmentalization. The Feddens, while seemingly a tolerant bunch, make it subtly but unmistakably clear that Nick’s being gay is perfectly all right — so long as it’s never discussed. This prohibition recalls the philosopher Michel Foucault’s suggestion that what society finds so disturbing about homosexuality isn’t the act of gay sex itself but gay relationships, which demonstrate that procreative heterosexual monogamy is not the only way to manage the chaotic energies of erotic life. It is striking how much the Feddens’ attitude toward Nick resembles Updike’s attitude toward Nick’s creator. One is seen as a threat to the institution of heterosexual family life, the other as a threat to the literary form that has traditionally taken heterosexual family life as its principal subject matter. Yet far from threatening the novel, Hollinghurst has rejuvenated it, revealing how many more kinds of experience — how many previously unrepresented gestures and impressions and longings and relationships — it was possible to include in a novel than had been dreamed of by literature’s straight gatekeepers.

After he begins seeing Leo Charles, a working-class man of West Indian descent, Nick receives a visit from his new lover at the Feddens’ opulent Notting Hill townhouse. Gerald answers the door and summons Nick. There follows a moment of flustered intimacy:

It was the first time in his life he’d had a lover call for him, and the fact had a scandalous dazzle to it. Gerald didn’t ask Leo in, but stood back a little to let Nick pass and to see if there was going to be any kind of trouble.

“Hello, Nick,” said Leo.


Nick shook his hand and kept holding it as he stepped out onto the shallow porch, between the gleaming Tuscan pillars.

“How’s it going?” said Leo, giving his cynical little smile, but his eyes almost caressing, passing Nick a secret message, and then nodding him a sign that Gerald had withdrawn; though he must have been able to hear him saying, “ … some pal of Nick’s … ” and a few moments later, “No, black chappie.”

The queer theorist Sara Ahmed has enjoined readers to “think of the kinds of experiences you have when you are not expected to be” in a particular place or environment. “These experiences are a resource to generate knowledge.” “The Line of Beauty” — the entire Hollinghurst oeuvre — is a horde of estranged, surreptitiously acquired knowledge about English high society, generated by the experience of not belonging to it, of being tolerated without being accepted. Consider the centuries of tortured history that haunt the short, ostensibly rather comic sentence, “Gerald didn’t ask Leo in, but stood back a little to let Nick pass and to see if there was going to be any kind of trouble.” Or consider the fathomless ignorance — always a sure index of privilege — betrayed by the following exchange from later in the book. The AIDS crisis is at its height, and Nick is doing his best to speak reasonably with a friend of the Fedden family’s, the kind of comic gargoyle at which Hollinghurst excels, who believes that “the homosexuals” have brought the disease on themselves:

“But as we all know,” Nick went on flatteringly, and with a sort of weary zeal now the moment had come, “there are other things one can do. I mean there’s oral sex, which may be dangerous, but is certainly less so.”

Sally received this stoically. “Kissing, you mean.”

“This is one of the more ghastly recent accessions,” Hollinghurst murmured enthusiastically as we paused before Paul Emsley’s painting of a sallow-faced, almost vampiric Kate Middleton (the cause of much public consternation when it was unveiled several years ago) on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery in London’s West End. Fifteen minutes earlier, in the basement cafe, he had been somewhat subdued, stoically hunched over a cup of coffee. His rumbling drawl, lent even more texture and resonance by a persistent cough, was only faintly audible above the reverberating din of trapped voices. Months of promotional events for “The Sparsholt Affair” had taken their toll, and soon he would head to the United States to do it all again. “I haven’t quite got my pep back,” he conceded apologetically.

It quickly returned, however, once we climbed the stairs. Surrounded by canvases, Hollinghurst seemed to come to the surface of himself, moving from one source of delight to another in a state of observant rapture. The visual arts have always been central to his work; his novels are themselves galleries, abounding in descriptions of paintings, sculptures, photographs, ornaments, interiors, buildings. I thought of a sentence from “The Line of Beauty”: “Nick stayed on in the church, and the loneliness heightened his pleasure and his pride in his own responsiveness.” Solitude is the natural state of the Hollinghurst protagonists and, also, it would seem, of the man himself. “I love to just put a line through the diary and go into purdah,” he said of his appetite for seclusion while writing — a capacity he attributes to the experience of growing up an only child. Though there have been exceptions, he has lived alone for much of his life.

At the same time, Hollinghurst is an avid socializer. “He moves in an exalted realm,” said the philosopher Galen Strawson, who met Hollinghurst when they worked together at The Times Literary Supplement in the early 1980s. “He seems to know everybody in a high sphere of English cultural life.” The novelist Edward St. Aubyn, who spoke of Hollinghurst’s “altruistic stamina,” asked Hollinghurst to be his son’s godfather. Susannah Clapp, the theater critic at The Observer, told me that whenever his friends have an “O birthday” (40, 50, 60), he takes them to see an opera of their choice. He has also been known to deliver speeches in rhyming couplets at his friends’ momentous occasions. Naturally, the National Portrait Gallery’s former director, Sandy Nairne, was another old friend of Hollinghurst’s. A decade ago, Nairne asked him to be a selector for an exhibition at the museum called “Gay Icons.”

We turned a corner into a room dominated by another royal portrait — John Lavery’s immense, obsequious painting of King George V with his wife and children from 1913. “Sort of the manner of Sargent,” Hollinghurst commented, “but nothing like as brilliant.” In the final section of “The Sparsholt Affair,” which is set in 2012, Johnny, now in late middle age, takes a commission from the nouveau riche Miserden family. Bella, the matriarch, a vain TV personality, wants him to model his painting on Lavery’s. Rankled by the Miserdens’ self-importance, Johnny instead envisions a work of scalding honesty (Bella’s husband, Alan, a dot-com millionaire, “fit and sleek in tight jeans, with no apparent genitals, had the overall smoothness of features that expects good fortune but never attracts much personal devotion”) before finally settling on something, if not exactly flattering, at least more respectful and sedate.

The episode underscores one of the novel’s central themes — postwar English decline. A century earlier, Johnny would have been painting the Windsors; now, in a society made by and for such pampered materialists as the Miserdens, he is left with a less-exalted subject. To be clear, Hollinghurst is no Tory; his reverence for the past is scrupulously qualified. As a gay man, he certainly harbors no nostalgia for an earlier time. As a novelist, however, he admits to finding the present a little thin.

At the NPG, Hollinghurst acknowledged certain paintings as though he were greeting, or purposely avoiding, the regulars at a private members club. “Dear old Vaughan Williams,” he said as we passed Gerald Kelly’s portrait of the composer in old age, with his immense jowls and tragicomic hearing aid. “Clement Attlee there,” he said, not pausing to look at George Harcourt’s rendering of the prime minister. In a hushed tone, Hollinghurst said, “Very dull picture.” My guide was especially eager to see the John Singer Sargent portrait of Henry James, one of Hollinghurst’s personal gods, that a group of admirers commissioned for the writer’s 70th birthday. “Have they moved the Master?” he said, as we entered a smaller room. “He was here just the other day.” I wondered aloud if we should ask one of the attendants, but Hollinghurst gracefully accepted defeat. “They must have taken him down — part of the perpetual rotation.”

We paused in front of a self-portrait by Glyn Philpot, an early-20th-century painter who, when he was still in his early 20s, established himself as one of the most successful society portraitists of his time. Philpot, who lived with a male partner, painted dashing young men with a boldness and fervor that now seem patently gay. In the self-portrait, smartly dressed in a waistcoat and cuff links, he stares out at you with a languid composure that, after a while, in its decorous way, begins to take on a hint of the confrontational. Hollinghurst stood before the painting, returning the young artist’s gaze.

by Giles Harvey
Source – The New York Times