The Loneliness of the Gay Aesthete: Alan Hollinghurst and Queer Theory

By Charlie TysonMarch 9, 2017

The Loneliness of the Gay Aesthete: Alan Hollinghurst and Queer Theory

Alan Hollinghurst: Writing Under the Influence by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery

I SHUT MYSELF in my bedroom, novel in hand, and read chapter after chapter in a solemn heat. It was the summer after I’d graduated high school, a period quickened by anticipation of the independence I had not yet achieved. I hid myself and my book by choice, not necessity. Had I sprawled on the couch, or lounged on the brittle-brown North Carolina grass, the blue paperback lolling in my hands, it would not have been a visible act of defiance. The novel’s cover art, an image of a latticed gate, was stately; its title, The Line of Beauty, tastefully abstract. My parents would not have known to object, would not even have noticed, that the acts and characters I was imagining belonged to a world for which they could feel only an incurious distaste. The “melancholy secrecy of reading,” as Alan Hollinghurst calls it in another of his novels, produced a demand for privacy untethered to any fear of anger or exposure.

It would be tempting but inaccurate to describe the throb of recognition I felt while reading Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004) as the dawning of an awareness that I was not, as Philip Kennicott writes in his memoir of adolescent reading, “entirely alone in my own desires.” That knowledge had come earlier, in fictions, films, and fumblings. Yet the novel seemed piercingly new. Never had I encountered such thick descriptions of gay male characters, with their yearnings, their little brutalities and tendernesses, their acts of self-regard and self-effacement, rendered with penetrating clarity. The work’s cerebral sophistication and explicit eroticism struck me as a vision of adulthood impossibly distant from my upbringing steeped in Carolina barbeque and the Grand Old Party. As I turned the final pages I felt a distinct sense that I had somehow come of age.

I left for college some months later, half-suspecting, half-hoping, that the author of such a novel would be the subject of enormous study among the people I would meet there. I found, however, only a small band of students and professors who had heard of Hollinghurst, much less devoured his books. What was true of my university holds for Hollinghurst’s American audience more broadly. Although his novels are widely reviewed and he has a Booker Prize to his name, he is more often read in his native England.


Critics frequently label Hollinghurst, who combines exquisite lyricism with uninhibited gay male eroticism, a “gay writer.” It is dispiriting but not altogether unexpected, then, that he assumes a marginal presence in scholarship on contemporary literature, postwar British fiction, the novel, and comparative arts, to name some camps of literary criticism that might claim him. Alan Hollinghurst: Writing Under the Influence (Manchester University Press, 2016), a new collection of essays edited by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery, is the first scholarly work to assess the full range of Hollinghurst’s writing. In addition to his novels, the book discusses his early poetry, his translations of Racine, and even the MLitt thesis he completed at Oxford on a trio of gay British writers: E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L. P. Hartley.

Writing Under the Influence adds to a corpus of Hollinghurst scholarship that is peculiarly sparse. The academic literature on Hollinghurst consists of a monograph published by Palgrave in 2014 (Allan Johnson’s similarly titled Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence), scattered chapters in books on gay fiction and contemporary British writing, and a handful of articles, mostly in such venues as The Henry James Review rather than journals dedicated to queer studies or contemporary literature. Compared to the academic criticism published on some of his British contemporaries — say, Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro — the scholarship on Hollinghurst is minuscule in size and modest in aims. Of the small body of Hollinghurst scholarship that exists, a wearyingly large proportion describes his appropriations from a small group of male modernists: Henry James, E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and, less markedly, A. E. Housman and Rupert Brooke.

Writing Under the Influence, as the title suggests, adopts this familiar frame of analysis. The “influence” approach is hard to resist in part because Hollinghurst has a habit of alluding explicitly to his literary progenitors. Nick Guest, the protagonist of The Line of Beauty, is writing a graduate thesis on James; Firbank appears as a character in The Swimming-Pool Library (1988). Yet appraisals of Hollinghurst too often focus on this narrow Edwardian genealogy at the expense of investigating less obvious predecessors (such as Iris Murdoch, another Oxford-educated writer whose novels mingle cerebral reverie with searching examinations of erotic relationships) or plausible descendants (such as Edward St. Aubyn or Garth Greenwell).

Mendelssohn and Flannery’s volume further plumbs Hollinghurst’s debts to such figures as James, Firbank, and Housman. But the essays collected here also place the novelist in dialogue with more surprising literary and artistic sources. Robert L. Caserio, in his chapter, sketches parallels between Hollinghurst’s The Spell, an intergenerational story set largely in Dorset, and Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (1897). Mendelssohn spies visual ideas borrowed from gay porn-art figures such as Tom of Finland. And Geoff Gilbert connects the novels, studded as they are with luxurious properties, to the lurch and swing of the London housing market. These moments of invention justify the collection’s staid framing.

The essays are often playful. Of an episode early in The Line of Beauty that takes place in private estate gardens, Gilbert remarks (accurately): “It is a hot scene.” The volume’s unpretentious, even confessional, engagement with Hollinghurst’s work marks the unabashed fervor of a group of fans. (Co-editor Flannery, for example, reminisces about a boyfriend who gave him a copy of The Swimming-Pool Library as a gift.) Readers who come to this collection with little or no prior knowledge of Hollinghurst, though, may find themselves occasionally adrift. Missing from the volume is a cohesive biographical sketch of the author, one that takes us from his upbringing as the son of an opera-loving bank clerk in Stroud to his years at Oxford, his work at The Times Literary Supplement, and his current position in the world of British letters. The volume’s introduction is instead styled as a conversation between the two editors, a format that mirrors the study’s concluding chapter, an interview between Hollinghurst and the biographer Hermione Lee.

Several of the essays assembled by Mendelssohn and Flannery read Hollinghurst in the light of queer theory. Affinities exist, of course, between Hollinghurst’s sensibility and the literary and intellectual styles of several leading queer theorists. We can see glimmers of Hollinghurst in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s playful intelligence, not to mention her fascination with Henry James; in the campy erudition of David Halperin, who mentions Hollinghurst briefly but approvingly in How To Be Gay (2012); in Tim Dean’s sexual candor; in Heather Love’s commitment to textured description.

These are not, however, the queer theorists to whom this volume turns. Sedgwick appears in the collection, but the main representatives of queer theory invoked here are Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani. In their writings, both Edelman and Bersani urge queer people to embrace forms of pessimism and antisocial withdrawal — to refuse the responsibilities and strictures of communal life and to resist a future-oriented way of thinking about time that finds (allegedly false) hope in nurturing the next generation of children. The distance between Hollinghurst’s lyrical clarity and the dense, psychoanalytically inflected prose of these theorists is hard to miss. But the extent to which Hollinghurst’s novels echo Edelman and Bersani’s radical political commitments is, several of these essays argue, up for debate.

“Hollinghurst might have an allergic relation to queer theory,” Julie Rivkin acknowledges in her chapter on The Stranger’s Child (2011), noting the opportunistic queer theorist that Hollinghurst parodies in that novel’s closing section. Kaye Mitchell, in her contribution, addresses the discrepancy between Hollinghurst and contemporary queer theory more directly: “[T]here appears little that is obviously ‘queer’ about Hollinghurst’s work, invoking as it does gay identities that pre-date Stonewall, never mind the activism and academic theorizing of the 1990s and since.” This distinction between “gay” and “queer” is most useful when kept fluid: to say that Hollinghurst, as a “gay but not queer” novelist, falls outside the boundaries of queer studies would seem like an obvious mistake. If novels about men loving and having sex with men do not fall under the remit of queer studies, then the field has narrowed its sights so as to be troublingly, if not illogically, exclusionary.

Two essays that engage with queer theory — Rivkin’s piece on “queer temporality” and The Stranger’s Child and Mitchell’s broader assessment of how Hollinghurst’s work connects with major topics in queer studies — share an argumentative structure. Rivkin and Mitchell argue that Hollinghurst is, in his way, “doing” queer theory, and they praise the novelist on those grounds.

What can The Stranger’s Child, which tracks the afterlives of World War I–era poet Cecil Valance (a Rupert Brooke–like figure) across nearly a century, reveal about memory? About the recoverability of historical truth? About our habit of revising cultural icons according to the needs of the present moment? Rivkin notices that recording technologies in the novel — a voice recorder wielded by an aspiring biographer, a microphone grasped by a speaker at a memorial — often fail, introducing gaps and distortions into the historical record. Similarly, she traces an alignment between two futile ways of making the dead speak: the séances and spiritualist sessions held by Cecil Valance’s grieving mother, and a website, alluded to in the novel’s last section, that animates photographs of Victorian poets so that their lips appear to move while recordings of their poems play.

What do these omissions, these buried secrets, tell us? Hollinghurst’s story of ephemeral desires that escape record, of revelations that are withheld or undiscoverable, of a history that is not a straight line but a winding loop, amounts to an act of queer theorizing, Rivkin argues. The novel’s events, she holds, “queer the very project of seeking truth.” The Stranger’s Child, despite its “apparent traditionalism and antipathy to Theory,” becomes, in Rivkin’s account, “an ‘active contributor’ to the conceptualization of queer temporality.”

Rivkin and I would probably agree that queer theorists working on memory and history could learn much from Hollinghurst’s novel. Her emphasis, however, is on how the novel seems to confirm or replicate positions already articulated within queer theory. She praises The Stranger’s Child for probing “the same tender places explored by Edelman” and other queer theorists. She observes approvingly that Hollinghurst, discussing the novel in an interview, “sounds not entirely disjunct from Edelman.”

Mitchell’s chapter takes a similar approach. Bucking the conventional strategy of reading Hollinghurst in the light of Victorian and modernist forebears, Mitchell sets the novelist alongside contemporary gay authors such as Edmund White, Colm Tóibín, David Leavitt, and Michael Cunningham. In the same move, she finds resonances between Hollinghurst’s work and ideas from contemporary queer theory — again, focusing on Bersani and Edelman’s rejections of sociality and community. She detects in Hollinghurst’s reminiscences of schoolboy sexual indulgence an ambivalence about homosexuality as a concrete adult identity. This attitude of nostalgic melancholy, she proposes, echoes Edelman’s view that queerness can only disturb or trouble an identity, rather than serve as a positive basis for a person’s self-understanding. The novelist also marches in lockstep with Edelman in his focus on isolation and pessimism. Hollinghurst’s novels disclose “few obvious debts to recent queer theory,” Mitchell writes, but they address many of the same questions with which queer theorists concern themselves. His work, though it may at first appear “immune to the political and theoretical developments” of queer theory, is “in tune” with figures such as Edelman and Bersani after all.

This pattern of argument, in which Hollinghurst’s novels are revealed to corroborate a queer theorist’s positions, occludes more fruitful ways that queer theory could engage with aesthetic objects. These arguments feel static because they work on the assumption that a particular theorist (say, Edelman) is basically correct and that the novels under discussion confirm, rather than daringly modify, theoretical insights already in circulation. This approach grants queer theory dominance over its aesthetic objects. The result is a smoothening out of the novels’ messy and ungovernable features in favor of ethical and political commitments determined in advance of the literary analysis. The theory and the novels are placed on discrete, if parallel, tracks. A richer queer theory would be one that could admit Hollinghurst’s novels as interlocutors in a debate about what it means to live as a queer person.

Crediting Hollinghurst’s fiction with conducting acts of queer theorizing and queer critique pays tribute to the intelligence of his novels and links his work to active research agendas in queer theory. But these grounds of evaluation fail to grasp what the novels do best. In the case of Hollinghurst specifically, an adequate critical assessment needs to give more ground to the aesthetic. Few contemporary stylists can match Hollinghurst for precision and verbal sumptuousness. Consider what he does in a single sentence with a teenage boy’s lock of hair, as Edward Manners, the teacher-protagonist of The Folding Star (1994), looks on with lustful raptness:

And he nodded, so that his hair fell forward again. Through the coming hour I would see that tumbling forelock dry from bronze to gold, and get to know the different ways he mastered it, the indolent sweep, the brainstorming grapple, the barely effectual toss, and how long the intervals were of forward slither and lustrous collapse.

To open a Hollinghurst novel is to enter a highly charged aesthetic world, one brimming with swells of Wagner and patters of James, Boschian paintings and looping Oxonian architecture. Hollinghurst’s distinctive claim to value is as a virtuoso of the sentence. If formalist critics are hesitant to incorporate his stylistic achievements into contemporary canons — distracted, perhaps, by the preponderance of pricks in his pages — then it is up to scholars in queer studies to claim for him the place he deserves.

The present volume reveals Hollinghurst’s artistic and intellectual breadth — his achievements in a range of genres, his promiscuous borrowing from other arts, his penetrating accounts of England’s cultural, political, and sexual life across the 20th century. If we combine this collection with further biographical study, with criticism that shows Hollinghurst not just as a beneficiary of other artists but as an influential figure in his own right, and, above all, with the reading and teaching of his novels and poems, we will begin to take the measure of one of England’s most essential contemporary writers.


Charlie Tyson is a PhD student in English literature at Harvard. He holds a master’s degree in English from Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes scholar.

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Charlie Tyson is a PhD student in English literature at Harvard.


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