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


Eslah Attar, NPR

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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