Sexual secrets underlie Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child—his first since his Booker Prize-winning 2004 book The Line of Beauty. I ask him whether part of the novelist's fascination with them is that they're so subjective and so unlikely to be documented, always having to be reconstructed, even by the people who experienced them. "Exactly. Yes. Forgotten, misremembered, invented perhaps," he agrees. "Invented for them by others, wishfully, supposing that things happened which perhaps didn't."
Near the centre of Hollinghurst's novel, which spans the 20th century, are the hidden sexual and romantic truths that lie behind the poem 'Two Acres', a suburban idyll written by charming hedonist Cecil Valance, an aristocrat trying not to condescend to the Sawle family who own the home of his title – he is entwined with two of them, young siblings Daphne and George. "There's the idea that this poem, supposedly addressed to a girl, may be addressed to a boy," Hollinghurst explains. "Perhaps there's also a hidden text within it, a forbidden love."
Valance becomes a symbolic figure after his death in the First World War, his poems entering not only the curriculum but the collective memory. The poet himself as he appears in the pre-war section of the novel is anything but saintly, more of an unscrupulous young animal, and his image is contested by later generations who may be less interested in his virtues than what were once seen as vices.
"When I was just starting the book, I had a conversation with my old tutor and friend John Fuller. I said I was writing about a First World War poet, and he was very emphatic: 'I never want to read another novel about Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Craiglockhart ever, ever again.' I saw his point. I also felt that writing a novel like that, about the trenches, has been done to death." He winces at his own phrase. "And would require such a huge amount of research, which is something I've never been a bit keen on."
"You don't do research at all?"
"A tiny bit. Research sort of shows itself off, doesn't it? I did do a little wintry foray round Stanmore Hill and all that bit before I started writing. There was a knobbly Gothic house, which I mention, called Stanmore Hall. I love that it was right on the edge of London then. Obviously there are allusions to the world of E.M. Forster, the whole London-suburban thing. One's sense of how people might have spoken to each other in the Edwardian/early Georgian period comes entirely from reading novels. I thought I must find a way of writing it that wasn't pastiche Forster."
The liberal secrecy of sex
Forster himself had the courage to write a novel about forbidden (gay) love, Maurice, but not to publish it. Over the decades before decriminalisation there was a shifting vocabulary, and a changing set of insider phrases. Hollinghurst is careful to use the terms current in each period. "I deliberately use different terms," he says, "so, 'sodomite' in the first section, which is true to the period, if you read Strachey's letters." (There's an unforgettable line in the book about somebody being "the most arrant sodomite in Harrow.") "Then 'bugger' in the 1920s – very much the Bloomsbury word. Then in the middle section, 'queer' becomes the usual term."
I point out that the word 'gay', the familiar modern term, is used only once in the book, despite the fact that half of it is set in 1967 or afterward, when a bank clerk called Paul, captivated by the Sawles, takes on the story. At the risk of coming across as an incorrigible old ideologue – since the gay liberation movement, for all its occasional silliness, was an important part of my development – I pick him up on it.
"I'm not sure how conscious I was about not using it," says Hollinghurst. "I don't think that was terribly significant. I may have cut out some uses of it. I was never terribly involved in it [the liberation movement], really. Paul certainly isn't. It did change the world around me, I think I was just too shy to get involved. I never became part of any group."
I can't help feeling that shy people make the best activists, I tell him, just because they go straight from shy to shameless. "Of course I know there is that special boldness of the shy… and I am rather ashamed of my lack of shamelessness. It was something that, I remember, very much impressed me about you when I first met you, 30 years ago."
"My total shamelessness?"
I stammer something about what a glorious way this is to be remembered, when of course I'm very disconcerted. The odd thing is that, on the page, Hollinghurst is far more explicit than I have ever been. No better evidence for the special boldness of the shy. I find that Hollinghurst isn't a difficult interviewee, although he chooses his words carefully and doesn't rush into a reply, pointing out that this is one of the first interviews he has done for The Stranger's Child, a time when a book's author can feel like a newly appointed ambassador, not yet fully briefed. There's an element of wary circling in our dealings with each other. I seem to have a reputation for unsparing criticism, while as novelists I feel we are competing for the same readers… and he's winning.
Recovering my composure, I suggest homosexuality is actually pretty banal, not inherently interesting in any way, but I think that for him it is, certainly historically, a repository for different sorts of secret.
"That must be partly why I keep hopping back to earlier periods, when the sense of its forbiddenness, its secrecy and all the other things that came with that, were so much stronger. I feel that gay lit was a historically determined phenomenon that is ceasing to mean what it once did. With social change and legal change… the whole atmosphere in which we live and work is so different from the one in which we started out, 30 years ago."
"There was a time when to be a sodomite, a bugger, a queer, was both to be an outcast and a member of an in-group," I suggest.
"Yes." He sounds very guarded.
"Perhaps that has some attraction?"
"Perhaps it does. That was something you heard said quite a lot by older people after the time of gay lib, that they rather regretted this liberalisation
because the secrecy, the illegality, were an essential part of the excitement of being gay. I don't fully take that line, but I do understand that sense that you went somewhere and you read the codes to find the forbidden thing, the secret thing that you wanted."
Jumps and blanks
The structure of Hollinghurst's new book isn't easy to grasp, arcing as it does across the 20th century, leaping decades between chapters yet providing few signposts for readers to help them recognise their surroundings.
"I was so familiar with the time structure that I can't quite imagine how it strikes someone reading the book," says Hollinghurst, but to me it comes across as deliberately alienating – we leave 1913 and we're suddenly in a different period, which is (presumably consciously) disorienting; we flounder in those first pages of the second section. It's a sensation that Hollinghurst actively seeks to create.
"I love the idea of pitching readers into a new situation and them having to get their bearings. It's to do with not having hindsight in the book – it doesn't have a framing narrative. I wanted each section to be people living at their time in history, without a sense of their own historicity."
It's certainly a powerful effect because of the huge things that have happened in the turn of a page. Readers of The Stranger's Child are spared an account of the war but have to make sense of the world from scratch after it ends.
"The original idea was to write a book sort of about the First World War but without the First World War in it. I originally thought it would be in two parts, one before and one after, and you would just pick up these people again. Then that idea rather took hold, and we have further jumps, following the story in different ways through further periods."
Henry James, a frequent reference point for Alan Hollinghurst, might have raised an eyebrow at the way that he returns to the point of view of Daphne Sawle, first seen as a 16-year-old in 1913, near the end.
"Yes, it's a break, an impurity," he admits, "I should have got rid of it, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do that."
Perhaps he liked the character too much? "This whole business of 'liking' characters is such a strain. I suppose one does sometimes feel one likes or loves a fictional character, but it's not a terribly important part of my own approach to reading fiction. I'm terribly struck by the widely varying personal relationships that people seem to have with the principal characters of my books. Nick, in the last one, some people loathed from the first page, others thought he was okay and others that he was adorable. I love that openness to interpretation, and it makes it very hard to pronounce whether a character is likeable or not. I thought Daphne was likeable early on – a more difficult case, probably, was Paul, who I found the most difficult character that I've ever attempted to write. I hoped, in the fourth section, to bring together these two people who you have beenencouraged to feel quite sympathetic towards — and then neither behaving particularly well or being nice to the other. I hoped it might be rather a puzzle where one's sympathies might lie at that point."
If I preferred the first half of the book to the second, it was partly because there are so many things in it that seem miraculously recovered from history. It's as if Hollinghurst dives into the wreck of the past and brings things back, without ever letting us forget that the pressure down there is different from ours.
"I was very struck and moved," he says, "not long before starting writing this book, by reading Alice Munro. Her book Runaway has three stories about the life of one woman. There are big gaps in time between them. First she's a girl, in the last (or is it the middle one?) her daughter has joined some strange cult and repudiated her. She wonderfully does that thing of inhabiting the past without any self-consciousness on anybody's part of it being the past. There were wonderful things that gave me confidence in the structural idea of my book. That you could have a set of stories – I think I imagined at first that they'd be more self-sufficient, long short stories in themselves."
Hollinghurst's fictional world is dependably rich and lush, but his novels also withhold a lot of the satisfactions they promise, and their plots sometimes run into the sand, I tell him.
"That's part of the design, really. When the American publishers bought it they announced it to the trade as a 'multi-generational family saga'. And I thought, yes, a multi-generational family saga with all the multi-generational family saga bits left out…"
This is true enough, but there are certainly genre elements, like children whose parentage may not be straightforward. There are heterosexuals, but their goings-on are rather muted. Has he ever written about straight sex in any direct way?
"Absolutely not, no."
I point out that his posture has just changed; he suddenly puts his knees together. "I've shown men and women together in this book, which I haven't done before. In the last book, you heard some copulation through a bathroom wall, it was rumoured but not actually seen. Essentially, no, there aren't any sex scenes in The Stranger's Child, they're cut away from. I didn't feel it was necessary. I've never written from the point of view of a female character before, and I felt wary, a bit self-conscious about it, actually. I felt if I did try to describe the more intimate sexual sensations of a woman I might make a fool of myself."
I mention that gay novelist Michael Cunningham wrote a well-managed sex scene in his recent book By Nightfall, though not from a female point of view.
"Of course. I absolutely feel that a writer of any sexual persuasion should be able to write about any other… [but] I don't think I particularly wanted to, actually. Do you feel it as a… lack in the book?"
I don't, I say, though I sometimes do have reservations when a book seeks to represent a whole world while there's gravitation towards one part of that world and a shying away from another. In this book, as he points out, his cast is very selective – he's not offering a cross-section of humanity or a full historical panorama. I ask if there's a problem reconciling the desirability of a dramatic structure with a distaste for conventional resolutions and climaxes.
"I've become increasingly resistant to the idea of the novel in which there is some secret revelation that will then explain everything, because it doesn't seem to me to be terribly like life," Hollinghurst says. "The unknowability of things strikes me increasingly as I grow older, even when they have happened to me. My own memory seems to be incredibly patchy and fallible – the whole thing that Daphne meditates on at the end, about memoirs and how people can possibly remember [what happened]. So this seemed to me more truthful than the more conventional novelistic structure you're referring to. These jumps and blanks and unresolvable things are more true to my sense of things as I've grown older."
I say that he seems to be in some ways a romantic writer who moves steadily towards disillusionment in each book.
"I think that's clearly true. I'm just now trying to think at this early stage about the book I'm planning, and yes, I suppose it's a romance that turns into a disillusionment… oh God." He laughs, unperturbed.
"I don't have the sense, though, that you're trying to kill off romance altogether."
"No, I don't think so. I'm very drawn to it, while also having some sense that it's doomed to disillusion. There's an element of fantasy even in the playing out of the disillusionment, I suppose, because it's in one's power to bring people to a bad end… I always have to restrain myself from killing people off towards the end."
"Oh yes. I feel my hand twitching… there's a scene towards the end of The Spell where the four main characters have a wary reunion at the top of a cliff, and I was conscious of the urge to push at least one of them off. But I made them stay there and hug each other instead."