Alan Hollinghurst is a busy man- his output attests to that.
With seven novels, three collections of poetry, and various articles, translations, and editing jobs to his name, he has kept up a steady stream of writing since the late nineteen-eighties. It’s to talk about this stream that he finds himself at Trinity to address the College Literary Society, sitting down for a brief chat with TCS before his talk.
The shadows of the past move across Hollinghurst’s work- names pop up again and again, memories are changed and evaluated, and events echo down the years. The Stranger’s Child, for example, is held together by the changing reception of a poem written before World War One, and the memories of the man who wrote it. I ask him about this- does he think that events recur?
“They don’t always recur exactly, do they, but I’ve always been very interested in intergenerational understanding… partly through having written about gay subjects a lot- there’s this sort of recovery of a concealed subject from the past, rather like William Beckwith [a character in The Swimming Pool Library] has an opportunity to make, although how much he takes it isn’t very clear.” Moving from his past work to his most recent work, he oserves that “in The Sparshold Affair there are sort of patterns of comparable behaviour between two generations. I don’t think it’s exactly a philosophical position, but I think it’s based on my own observation.”
From there, he offers an insight into his focus as a writer, and where“What I’m interested in is recording the intimate lives of characters while, in the background, rather important changes are going on. But rather than writing about those big subjects themselves, I write about them on an intimate scale- the private life. So those are things which are changing all the time, rather than repeating.”
Picking up on this point about the private life, I ask Hollinghurst about his views on LGBT literature- does he think that we are living through a ‘golden age’ of LGBT writing?
“I’m not sure I do. I think there was a period that began when I started- in this country, at least; in America it had started a bit earlier-, in delayed response to the freedoms that came about in 1967. I certainly felt when I was writing my first book that I was broaching new territory. But I think then that the two stories of liberation and the AIDs Crisis meant that there was both a great deal of new subject matter and a new political urgency to it being explored. The world in which I’m writing now is one so changed from that in which my first book appeared thirty years ago.”
So- the world has changed. But what caused it? “My feeling is that gay writing emerged in response to these new circumstances and stimuli, and has then sort of merged back into the mainstream. It’s not as evident as a distinct genre as it once was.”
An author of private stories, who has seen literary moments come and go and continued to write throughout. Hollinghurst is prolific, considered, and- however mildly- transgressive. He is also a writer who, even if one does not admire his style, one cannot help but admire his topics.