Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst’s books include The Line of Beauty.

Forster was an only child whose father died when he was one, and he was raised by his mother in an atmosphere thick with aunts. It’s a milieu he turns to his advantage in his fiction, where the middle-class female world is observed with a tone that Cyril Connolly described as ‘demure malice’. Such a resource wasn’t available for his day to day dealings with Lily Forster, a figure whose presence permeates these volumes long after she is dead. When he rapidly made a name for himself as a writer Lily seemed underwhelmed. ‘Mother bored by my literary successes,’ he notes after Howards End was published in 1910.

Don’t Ask Henry: Sissiness

Alan Hollinghurst, 9 October 2008

The story of Belchamber’s publication is probably better known than the book itself, which, like its author, has suffered the ambiguous fate of becoming an accessory to the life of a more important writer. It is his friend Henry James who keeps Sturgis’s novel distantly in view, at the same time as casting a long shadow over it. James read it in proof, and wrote a characteristic sequence of letters to Sturgis about it, beginning with neat praise and mild demurrals, but quickly building up to such fundamental criticisms of the book that the demoralised author said he would withdraw it altogether; at which James protested and pleaded, successfully though not with any retraction of the criticisms he had made.

Diary: In Houston

Alan Hollinghurst, 18 March 1999

When I tell people that I’m working in Houston for four months, those who’ve been there say: ‘My God! The drive from the airport!’ They mean the drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, down Interstate 45 or 59. It’s a ten or 12-lane highway, flanked by teeming feeder roads, and you career along it to the gathering rhythm of power pylons, used car lots, motels, the cacophony of billboards selling burgers, judges, vasectomy reversal, everything exposed and unashamed, the great aesthetic shock of America in all its barbarity and convenience. After twenty minutes or so, the famous downtown towers of Houston appear in a distant silhouette across the utterly flat and uncharming landscape. The freeway traffic hurtles towards them with daunting confidence, and before long you are right up beside those thousand-foot-high buildings, looking among them from the circling elevation of the road as the chasms of the streets flicker past. They have an extraordinary presence, the glamorous giants of the Seventies and Eighties half-obliterating surviving brick-clad structures that were giants in their day, and spelling out the fiercely Darwinian message of this boom city. Then they are behind you, and you get a confused hint of the rest of the place, which looks to a British eye like an endlessly extended suburb. Houston is now the fourth largest city in the United States, but it is hard to imagine when you arrive that you could ever come to like it, much less, as I think I did, to love it.‘

Poem: ‘Mud’

Alan Hollinghurst, 21 October 1982

November was always mud. Crossing a ploughed field our feet grew footballs of clay; matted with leaves its crust dropped on bootroom floors. Its odour was sharp and cold as a rocket’s nitre, cold as gardeners’ hands daubing the hot tap.

Grandfather’s eastward view was mud, deepening and retentive. His fingers were never free of it, holding letters broken at their creases...


Alan Hollinghurst, 18 February 1982

There was a time when local or regional poetry was greeted and respected as a romantic phenomenon: its origins far from the literary vortex of the metropolis were the guarantee of authenticity, bardic purity of inspiration, and a closer access to the nature as well as the language of men. Even now, there is something disconcerting about the rural adage, as if beneath its apparent irrelevance or banality some potency or spell resided, choosing simplicity itself as a disguise.

Poets often mature earlier than novelists; behind the romantic image of young poetic genius lies a clearly identifiable pattern whereby all but the greatest poets write their best work before the age of forty; the novelistic genius, on the other hand, tends to ripen with experience – to accumulate slowly. D.M. Thomas was told at the age of 25 by his ex-tutor John Bayley that he would be a late developer. The truth of Bayley’s remark has been demonstrated by the switch Thomas has made, in his forties, from poetry to prose, and though last month saw the publication of Dreaming in Bronze, a new collection of poems, it is now as a novelist that he will continue to be known most widely. His third and most recent novel, The White Hotel, has been especially successful in America, with the film rights lately sold for half a million dollars.


Alan Hollinghurst, 19 November 1981

Michel Tournier’s Gemini was published in France six years ago under the title of Les Météores, but it arrives in this country, in Anne Carter’s convincing and sometimes virtuosic translation, with none of the trumpeting which announced his earlier triumphs, Friday and The Erl King. All his publishers have managed to come up with is an ambiguous commendation from Genet: ‘An exceptional, incomparable novel’. Le Roi des Aulnes is the only novel to have won the Prix Goncourt by unanimous decision, but Les Météores has enjoyed less acclaim, and it is not hard to see why: it is the work of a mind expanding under the apparent beneficence of praise, performing with both an obligation to grandeur and a licence to self-indulgence. The grandeur is frequently impressive, the project kept up with remarkable stamina: but the self-indulgence, as well as weakening the structure, also undermines the confidence of the reader. Tournier is not a man to make a point once if he can make it a dozen times, or to use one word if he can use a thousand. Subjected to this immense performance of reiterative loquacity the reader increasingly responds with both ‘I know …’ and ‘What, really, does it mean?’

Biographical Materials

Alan Hollinghurst, 15 October 1981

Donald Mitchell recalls that Benjamin Britten had a low opinion of music critics in newspapers. Alan Blyth’s compilation Remembering Britten would have done little to make him change his mind: it is a book fundamentally misconceived and often grotesque in execution. The tributary volume of memoirs, such as the one Stephen Spender compiled after Auden’s death, has the value not only of illuminating its subject but of providing a complex shading of reaction and relation through the personalities of the contributors. Alan Blyth has recorded reminiscences from 30 persons who knew Britten, and then systematically eradicated the element of personality by paraphrasing the recollections in his own words. Only Imogen Holst and Sir Michael Tippett have escaped this platitudinous reworking since their contributions had appeared previously elsewhere, and the effect of their words is of a far higher intensity than that of the others’. The absurd though sympathetic grandeur of Tippett’s style carries a real conviction: ‘The news of Benjamin Britten’s death brought a sense of loss to every musical person of the whole world’; or, ‘a sense of death was sharper still in Death in Venice, the last of all operas.’ This ‘last of all’, however, proves to be a mistranscription of the original article: the proof-reading throughout is slovenly – ironically in a book which repeatedly comments on the punishingly high standards Britten always set himself.


Alan Hollinghurst, 17 September 1981

In his moving first novel The Sweet Shop Owner Graham Swift illuminated the history of one man through flashbacks on the last day of that man’s life. Through the succinctly evoked provincial decades one of the engrossing features was the difficulty of love and of communication between generations, even within a family – a problem which threatened, at a local level, the transmission of a sense of history or a justification of the past which Swift so perceptively re-created. At the crisis of the novel, the separate lines of memory and present action converged in the riveting description of a running race in the principal character’s childhood, recalled during his last faltering walk. In Swift’s second novel, Shuttlecock, narratives of two generations are again developed in tandem – but with a more exhibitionistic cleverness; and again the failure, or, at best, distortion, of communication between fathers and children is witness to the compromise of ideals – often an ideal of nature – which should have transmitted themselves in a sense of the past.

Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst, 20 August 1981

By and large we are interested in the thoughts, opinions and intentions of writers we are interested in, and by and large writers are keen to express these things in reviews, essays and memoirs subsidiary to their main work. A critic lurks, an implicit presence, in every creative writer, and though most of them are starved of a Boswell to transcribe and irradiate obiter dicta as facets of the creative life, they are none the less eager to shine their light on their own work. At its best, self-consciousness is forgotten and the act of self-explanation becomes a part of the self-vindication of the work and even of the creative process in general.

Imperial Dope

Alan Hollinghurst, 4 June 1981

Creation is a novel that describes, creates and analyses history, and it is not the first of Gore Vidal’s novels to do so. He has already devoted a lengthy trilogy to American history, and Julian, though set some eight hundred years later than Creation, shares the new novel’s concern with history both political and religious in the ancient world. Both books examine critical ways in which ideas of a more or less religious kind impinge on and determine political and imperial growth. Julian’s apostasy could have prevented the development of the Christian Church and radically affected the progress of the Western world, and the novel captures a period of ideological instability. Similarly, in Creation, the counterbalance of emergent oriental religions is caught at the moment when paganism was being overthrown, and the course of world civilisation to a great extent conditioned.


Not Just Strings

16 July 2020

Philip Clark refers to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending as a ‘string piece’ (LRB, 16 July). In fact it is scored for solo violin, two flutes, one oboe, two bassoons, two horns and triangle as well as strings.

Amis resigns

21 June 2012

Michael Newton finds that D.H. Lawrence used the term ‘murderee’ before Martin Amis (Letters, 5 July). I always associate the word with William Plomer, whose poem ‘The Murder on the Downs’ ends:Under a sky without a cloudLay the still unruffled sea,And in the bracken like a bedThe murderee.That postdates Lawrence, of course, but the OED cites a poem by Horace Smith from 1846:Thus...

Unfair to Craig Raine

20 August 1981

SIR: I have no wish to be made to seem curmudgeonly about the talent of a poet who has given me as much pleasure as Craig Raine has; I felt it essential to approach his new book in the way I did, and Mr Hirsh (Letters, 17 September) acknowledges the justice of this. On the other hand, I did not say that Raine is an Imagist, and I considered it too obvious to mention that his imagery is interlocking...

Tied to the Mast: Alan Hollinghurst

Adam Mars-Jones, 19 October 2017

Alan Hollinghurst​’s tally as a published novelist is six books over 29 years, so that’s more than two thousand pages of astonishing responsiveness to light, sound, painting, the...

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The Rupert Trunk: Alan Hollinghurst

Christopher Tayler, 28 July 2011

Henry James met Rupert Brooke on a visit to Cambridge in June 1909, having been invited there by some young admirers who made him feel, he wrote in a letter, ‘rather like an unnatural...

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Welly-Whanging: Alan Hollinghurst

Thomas Jones, 6 May 2004

It is to be observed, that straight lines vary only in length, and therefore are least ornamental. That curved lines as they can be varied in their degrees of curvature as well as in their...

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Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is a spoiled gift which, as an ugly baby makes us search for deficiencies in its attractive parents, forces us to reconsider its creator’s talents. That...

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Lost Youth

Nicholson Baker, 9 June 1994

Alan Hollinghurst is better at bees than Oscar Wilde. On the opening page of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde has them ‘shouldering their way through the long un-mown grass’. A bee...

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Catch 28

John Lanchester, 3 March 1988

Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in...

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