In conversation with the English novelist about the allure of realism, the traps and surprises of writing fiction, and his sense of Englishness.
In India and at the Jaipur Literature Festival for the first time, English novelist Alan Hollinghurst spoke to The Wire about the allure of realism, the traps and surprises of writing fiction, and his sense of Englishness. Hollinghurst, born on 26 May 1954, has won numerous awards, including the 2004 Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty. His five novels explore gay life in the UK, past and present.
You started off as a writer of poetry. You’ve spoken before about your inability to write short stories and also your love for ‘describing things.’ Why are you so drawn to the form of the realist novel? Do you find it has certain limitations as well, and are you ever tempted to write in any other mode?
No, I haven’t been tempted to. I find that how we define ‘reality’ is complex enough, so I don’t find the need to write magic realism or fantasy. In fact, I’m rather against fantasy. I’m suspicious of the abundance of adult entertainment these days.
My interest in the novel is giving a proper, morally complex account of what life is really like, for whatever specimen of people we’ve chosen. One of the great things of the realist novel is that it’s not a sort of allegory. It can give a properly nuanced picture of human interaction. I’ve always disliked moralising, the way fiction can reward and punish – that’s generally not what life is like. I think what I’m trying to do is write fiction that retains a formal structure but that opens up to capture things like the passage of time or the effects of memory.
The argument has been made that something like Game of Thrones can be as morally complex as a realist novel. What is it that makes you so suspicious of fantasy and adult entertainment?
I haven’t watched Game of Thrones! I was a Tolkien obsessive at the age of thirteen. But then I put him behind me and read Jane Austen instead. I think I just have a temperamental lack of affinity to science fiction and fantasy. Obviously you can do very worthwhile, complex things in those genres. They’re just not mine. And realism is a very pliant idea, isn’t it? There are other things too, like whimsy. I think the realist novel has plenty of life – people do all sorts of things with it and within it.
What’s the balance between control and letting go in writing fiction?
I find the idea of starting to write and ‘seeing what will happen’ a terrifying idea. I spend a lot of time preparing a book. You don’t want to plan it to death of course, but when I sit down to write I like to have a particular sense of what I’m doing and how it fits into the larger picture. In the course of writing, if it’s any good at all, you discover more and more about what you’re doing, and the thing opens up. So the plan becomes the basis of improvisation and change. I always write a proposal, for the publishers, just at the point of starting. It’s quite amusing, when I finish the book, to look again at this proposal. Usually the basic architecture has remained the same but there have been all sorts of changes I hadn’t anticipated. So I think the thing has to be alive, has to have pliancy and play – but with me, there is a plan. I don’t believe something takes over when you start writing. What happens is you access something you hadn’t expected to. That’s always very exciting.
What are some stylistic or formal methods you’ve found yourself taken by?
My first two books both needed to be in the first person. They were very subjective books. Their stories were seen through the mentality of the narrators. It’s an enjoyable thing to do – you can be shocking, you can loosen the normal moral compass you have as a writer because your narrator can have the most terrible thoughts. So there’s all sorts of mischief you can get up to.
But it’s also a terrible trap in terms of the information you need to introduce. The first person narrator has to always be either meeting people or reading the journals of someone else. Bringing experience outside the protagonist into the purview of the narrator is difficult and rather clunky, often not very satisfactory from the literary point of view. So when I started writing my third novel I found it tremendously liberating to have each chapter from the point of view from a different character. You get a much richer scope for irony, with the contrast as you move from one chapter to another. Oddly, the first section of the book I just finished is in the first person, a kind of memoir. I suppose people starting the book will think the whole book is in first person!
Richard Flanaghan has made the interesting comment that the success of a novel lies between its ambition and ultimate failure and the reader’s expectations…
That’s a very philosophical position. I don’t feel that myself. A novelist will feel that anything they do is a failure because it doesn’t match the platonic idea he started out with. But there are a lot of books that are pretty damn good! I don’t think anyone finishing War and Peace thinks, the poignancy of this book lies in its failure. I don’t follow that argument. I think almost all great novels have faults, but that sort of endears them to us more. Henry James was so preoccupied with form he wrote prefaces to his own novels later in his life, criticising his own failures. He wrote formally more perfect, controlled books than anyone before but still thought, ‘The first part of this book of mine was too long.’ I think one understands what he means without feeling any less that his were great books. I think it’s not always clear in what terms one sees failure or success. I might have a strong sense that what I’ve finished writing is not a success. But people reading it will say, ‘This is it.’
There are writers from all over the world here at the Jaipur Literature Festival being asked about their sense of ancestry and history. As a British author, what is this for you?
I have written an enormous amount about Englishness – not from a programmatic desire to write about that subject but because it has been naturally what my life and concerns have been about. I do feel a profound attachment to my country and a connection to its literary traditions. I am quite a literary sort of writer. I’m always taking my bearings from earlier writers. English places, landscapes, buildings are important in my books. So yes, I have a strong sense of ancestry.