Author Alan Hollinghurst On Secret Affairs, Narrative Gaps And Writing Gay Sex

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 1:20 am

Alan Hollinghurst is an English novelist who likes to explore private, secret lives. His characters are often gay men — sometimes living in an earlier era, when they wouldn't use the word "gay" to describe themselves.

Hollinghurst, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for The Line Of Beauty, has written a new novel called The Sparsholt Affair. It begins in Oxford in 1940, when a bunch of college friends spot a handsome young man through a window. He is David Sparsholt, and he's headed off to fight in World War II. Over the five sections of the novel, the narrative jumps forward decades in time, eventually bringing us to London in 2012.

Along the way we watch British society change, and we watch characters age and raise families. But there's a lot we don't see. Many of the most dramatic moments of the story happen between sections — off the page.

"I got more and more interested in writing narratives that are affected by major things," Hollinghurst says. "I mean, in [Hollinghurst's previous book] The Stranger's Child, the first World War happened between two of the sections, and in this one, most of the second World War happens between two of the sections. And I think, essentially, these are things which I'm not all that interested in describing. But what I am interested in is the effects of these major things. And they're not necessarily just wars — they might be large social changes or legal changes, which particularly affect this book."

In 1967 — when Hollinghurst was 13 years old — homosexuality was decriminalized in Great Britain. That's one of the large social changes we talked about in an interview.


Interview Highlights

On if Hollinghurst's life would have been different had he been born significantly earlier or later

I don't think about it much, but I suppose in a way I'm thinking about it in a book like this. And Johnny Sparsholt, David Sparsholt's son, yes, who is, I think, two years older than me, is sort of passing through a similar trajectory of social change.

I mean, I do think that — this is something that I've written about since my first book, The Swimming Pool Library -- the way that the young gay people in the present have little idea of the history of their kind, as it were. And that it's hard for them to imagine the struggles and the demands of more difficult early periods.

On the novel's arc from discreet mid-century affairs to today's smartphone hookup apps, and if something is lost in the modern era of romance

Well, I would infinitely rather live in the liberated present. But from the point of view of the writer, I do think that that earlier period is more rewarding and fascinating to write about because of the secrecy, the private codes of behavior, the sense of attendant risk — danger that comes from pursuing something illegal. And if everything is out in the open, the sort of things that I like exploring — the nuances of concealment, people not actually quite able to say or do what they mean — are lost. And I don't mean that the present can't be written about. But I think there's a general nostalgia amongst a lot of writers for the period before smartphones.

On being described as having 'made gay sex literary'

I don't play my own trumpet, but I think it hadn't — gay sex hadn't been written about in a literary way before the '80s. I mean, it was one of the fascinating things to me, in writing my first book The Swimming Pool Library, which came out 21 years after the decriminalization, to find that this whole area of human experience had barely been covered in a literary way. So I thought I had this thrilling new opportunity to explore this area, and I did so with some gusto. You know, having done it, I think I've tapered off, rather. There's not nearly so much in-your-face sexual activity in my later books.

On the way more people have openly self-identified as gay over time

I think you can say the opposite too — that definitions of sexuality are now becoming much more fluid. I'm very struck particularly amongst younger people I know, have — there are some who declare themselves to be non-binary. And I think I myself have felt more interested in writing not to categorize homosexuality, but to explore it. So there's a lot of sexual ambiguity in my last couple of books in particular, and bisexual characters, and — I've written quite a lot of books about gay men, and I feel much more drawn now to this much more ambivalent territory of sexuality.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alan Hollinghurst is an English novelist who likes to explore private, secret lives. His characters are often gay men, sometimes living in an earlier era when they wouldn't use the word gay to describe themselves. Hollinghurst won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for his novel "The Line Of Beauty." His new book is called "The Sparsholt Affair." It begins in Oxford in 1940 when a bunch of college friends spot a young man through a window. He is David Sparsholt.

ALAN HOLLINGHURST: When we first meet him he is notably handsome, muscular, with a very clear sense, unlike some of the students around him, of where he's headed.

SHAPIRO: He's headed off to fight in World War II. Over the five sections of this novel, the narrative jumps forward decades in time, eventually bringing us to London in 2012. Along the way, we watch British society change. We watch characters age and raise families. But there's a lot we don't see. Many of the most dramatic moments of the story happen between the sections off-screen.

HOLLINGHURST: Especially when you're selecting five episodes from a span of 70 years you have to be pretty careful in deciding early on what you're going to omit and what you're going to include. I mean, almost everything is left out of this kind of narrative. So the selection of what goes in has to be very careful.

SHAPIRO: Well, that was one of the things I noticed when I described this book to people. I described episodes that are not in the book, that take place between the sections, that the reader is left to imagine based on what happens when we rejoin the narrative.

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I'm delighted to hear you say that. I mean, this book and my previous one, "The Stranger's Child," they have a similar sort of five-part structure with sometimes very big gaps of time between the episodes. And it seems to me quite an interesting way of involving the reader imaginatively in the narrative. The reader at the beginning of a new section will be plunged into a new place, a new time, and will probably take a few pages to get their bearings. So I'm pleased you sort of say that your own imagination has been working overtime to fill up the gaps.

SHAPIRO: Why did you choose to write that way? In some of your other novels - I'm thinking, for example, "The Swimming Pool Library" - you take us deep into intimate, private scenes that other authors might gloss over. In this one you let actions happen off-stage often.

HOLLINGHURST: I think that's right. I've got more and more interested in writing narratives which are affected by major things. I mean, in "The Stranger's Child" the first world war happened between two of the sections, and in this one most of the second world war happens between two of the sections. And I think essentially these are things which I'm not all that interested in describing. What I am interested in is the effects of these major things. And, you know, they're not necessarily just wars. They might be large social changes or legal changes which particularly affect this book.

SHAPIRO: 1967 was a key year in the United Kingdom. That's the year that homosexuality was decriminalized. You were born in 1954, if I'm correct.

HOLLINGHURST: That's right.

SHAPIRO: And so you were 13 when homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain.

HOLLINGHURST: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Do you think about how your life would have been different had you been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later?

HOLLINGHURST: I don't think about it much. But I suppose in a way I'm thinking about it in a book like this. And Johnny Sparsholt, David Sparsholt's son, yes, who is, I think, sort of two years older than me is sort of passing through a similar trajectory of social change. I mean, I do think that this is something that I've written about since my first book, "The Swimming Pool Library," the way that the young gay people in the present have little idea of the history of their kind, as it were, and that it's hard for them to imagine the struggles and the demands of more difficult early periods.

SHAPIRO: There's this amazing arc from the darkness of the blackouts in World War II where people are having affairs in private to, by the end of the book, people using meetup apps and having sex with people they barely know via these digital tools. But boy, it also feels like something is lost. Do you find yourself at all nostalgic for that age of secrecy and romance even though it also meant oppression and persecution?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I would infinitely rather live in the sort of liberated present. But from the point of view of the writer, I do think that that earlier period is much more rewarding and fascinating to write about because of the secrecy, the private codes of behavior, the sense of attendant risk, danger that comes from pursuing something illegal. And if everything is out in the open, the sort of things that I like exploring - the nuances of concealment, sort of people not actually quite able to say or do what they mean - are lost. And I don't mean that the present can't be written about, but I think there's a general nostalgia amongst a lot of writers for the period before smartphones.

SHAPIRO: I have heard people use a shorthand to describe your work which I hope does not offend you, which is that you made gay sex literary. (Laughter) And...

HOLLINGHURST: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...I mean, the Guardian newspaper also called you the greatest prose stylist writing in English today, so we...

HOLLINGHURST: That's something.

SHAPIRO: ...Want to give credit where credit is due. But I wonder how you feel about that characterization.

HOLLINGHURST: I don't want to play my own trumpet, but I think it hadn't - gay sex hadn't been written about much in a literary way before the '80s. And, I mean, it was one of the fascinating things to me in writing my first book, "The Swimming Pool Library," which came out 21 years after the decriminalization, to find that this whole area of human experience had barely been covered in a sort of literary way. So I thought I had this thrilling new opportunity to explore this area, and I did so with some gusto.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HOLLINGHURST: And so I - you know, having done it, I think I've sort of tapered off, rather, and there's not nearly so much kind of in-your-face sexual activity in my later books.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that changes over time is the way people self-identify. In the 1940s, you have men who long for other men, maybe sleep with them, but don't necessarily identify as gay. And it's very different in the 21st century. How do you think about the way people categorize themselves and the way it changes over time?

HOLLINGHURST: Yes. I mean, I think you could say the opposite, too, that definitions of sexuality are now becoming much more fluid. And I'm very struck particularly amongst younger people I know have - there are some who declare themselves to be nonbinary. And I think I myself have felt more interested in writing not to categorize homosexuality but to explore it. So there's a lot of sort of sexual ambiguity in my last couple of books in particular and bisexual characters. And I've written quite a lot of books about gay men. And I feel much more drawn now to this more ambivalent territory of sexuality.

SHAPIRO: Well, Alan Hollinghurst, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for joining us.

HOLLINGHURST: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: His new novel is called "The Sparsholt Affair."

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