After finishing The Line of Beauty, his 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel, Alan Hollinghurst was determined not to write another long novel, and planned to write a book of short stories instead. He had “gems of ideas” for stories, but “in an absolutely infuriating way” the stories suggested connections between themselves: “I thought actually what one could do was write a novel which would have four or five not exactly freestanding stories, but five widely spaced episodes. My idea was that it would take about a year; I’d write these short episodes and I would save myself the sweat of writing a great big book.”
In fact, his latest novel The Stranger’s Child (Picador) took him four and a half years, and runs to nearly 600 pages. It opens in 1913, the last summer before the First World War, with the young aristocratic poet Cecil Valance paying a visit to the family home of his Cambridge chum George Sawle. During the weekend – “a sort of comedy of sexual misapprehension with everybody getting the wrong idea” – Cecil writes “Two Acres”‚ a poem for George’s 16-year-old sister Daphne. The events and secrets of that weekend reverberate through the following century as others – biographers and critics included – seek to uncover the story behind the poem‚ and what has been concealed or forgotten over time.
The next episode within the novel is set in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike. Daphne is now “part of the post-war generation of people living apparently frivolously, but above all sorts of seething unresolved traumas which were left over from the war.”
“I loved the idea of leaving the characters at one point and then joining them 10, 15 years later without any real explanation; making the reader work out what’s happened to them,” says Hollinghurst. “Part of the reason it took so long to write was deciding just what was going to go in. Always when writing a novel the important decisions are about what you leave out.”
A literary reputation
It is a novel about a literary reputation – “the history of what happens to a particular dead writer over the years”. Hollinghurst explains that Rupert Brookes’ 1912 poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” was a prototype for Cecil’s “Two Acres”, a poem which becomes “ripe for nostalgic appropriation for people later on”.
The novel picks up again in 1967; significantly the year of the Sexual Offences Act and also Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey: “the first great book which speaks with unprecedented candour and evidence about gay lives”; then again in 1980; and finally in 2008. Daphne’s story is the principle thread running through the novel, as we follow her from childhood through to old age against a backdrop of a rapidly changing England. “The book is about the workings of time, which occupies one more and more as one gets older as a writer, the surprises and disappointments.”
When Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, it occupied, in one way or another, the next two years of his life. A jump in foreign rights sales meant lots of invitations to new countries to promote the book, “very enlarging of one’s horizons generally”. But he was also “shackled to [the] book,” and unable to start work on a new one. He now has to isolate himself for long periods of time when writing: “I sort of go into purdah.”
Each new book is harder to write than its predecessor, he says, “which is rather annoying really. I suppose I feel I’m setting myself new and harder tasks each time so it’s right in a way‚ and one doesn’t want to repeat oneself.”
“Booker Won by Gay Sex‚” ran the Daily Mirror’s headline after his triumph. I wonder if he finds it irritating to be referred to as a gay novelist rather than just a novelist? “The Swimming Pool Library and The Spell were very much about a gay world. All the principle characters really were men. I’m not writing such completely gay [novels] any more, so that as an issue seemed to become less important, partly because there have been huge social changes.
“It doesn’t preoccupy me as a subject in the same way . . . Of course it is the sort of thing I’ve been given and I shall always write about it one way or another. It forms an important thread of this novel, but actually there’s much more about sexual ambivalence in this book, I think, than my earlier ones.”
And what of his next project, a short novel perhaps? “A short novel, yes,” he laughs. “Ask me in eight years’ time.”
The Booker shortlist will be announced on 6 September and the winner on 18 October.