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 Hollinghurst possesses great talents is certainly not in question. There is probably no novelist alive with such a deeply historical feeling for English poetic lyricism. His prose is almost drowsy with inheritance. Yet he is wakeful, too – intelligent, droll, social, especially good at capturing snobbery’s self-grooming. He has a beautifully loitering instinct for form and sentence: his novels never hustle themselves to conclusion, or to heavily obvious theme.
The Spell flows with all these qualities, but is not a very ambitious or driven book (and differs sharply on this score from its predecessors, The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star). Its several qualities seem related to each other by acquaintance rather than by blood. Perhaps one problem is that he has chosen to set his story in a kind of sexual Arden, with symmetrical couplings and decouplings between characters, and an atmosphere of homosexual Iris Murdoch. (The book uneasily describes itself as ‘a comedy of sexual manners’.) Another problem is that few of the characters are likeable or especially worthy, and they are engaged only in somewhat self-obsessed emotional and sexual spelunking.
Robin, a well-born architect approaching fifty, has a gruff and difficult decency – and a vividness on the page which his new boyfriend, Justin, never attains. Justin is a narcissistic heartbreaker, whom Robin meets in lavatories on Clapham Common. He is randy, lazy, careless, and is dedicated to one thing only – ‘the crotch thing, of course, the packet, which was the first and final arbiter with Justin, and qualified and overrode all other feelings and judgments’. Justin’s old boyfriend, from whom Robin steals Justin, is called Alex Nichols, and is the novel’s most sympathetic man. He is a failure in love: at the start of the novel, he loses Justin, and at the end of the novel, he loses Danny, who happens to be Robin’s son. The ‘spell’ refers to the brief and transforming affair which Alex enjoys with Danny, a few months of high summer in which the older Alex is inducted by the younger Danny into a new world of sex, house music, raves, Ecstasy and cocaine. Like an Austen novel – and The Spell has had a little blossom from Sense and Sensibility or Emma shaken over it – the book moves between London and the Shires, between the source of corruption and the garden of its destiny. All the characters gather and regather at Robin’s cottage near the village of Litton Gambril, in Dorset, which Hollinghurst renders exquisitely.
At the same time, there is something too soft-edged, too hazy in this new book. His last two novels basked in a similar passionate reticence, a dreaminess and elegiac softness. But in those earlier novels, Hollinghurst took care to balance his lush and eerily perfect prose with a command of detail and an involvement with the local. In The Spell, one gets the sense of a novelist never lost for beautiful words, and thus never very agitated. The language of The Spell, as perhaps befits the title, glows with a general refusal to be interrupted. Language seems too soothing here, and begins to obscure distinction and our ability to distinguish. Consider Hollinghurst’s fondness for triads of the adjective-adjective-noun kind, on the model of Thomas Gray’s ‘mute inglorious Milton’. Nothing is more lyrically English than this smooth cluster, and Hollinghurst’s ability to spool these triplets throughout the book is marvellous. But they appear so often that they begin to act metronomically, regularising the pulse of the book into one beat, and making everything sound like everything else: when Alex first hears Danny in Robin’s kitchen, he hears ‘a young man’s classless indifferent tenor’; a pot of soup on the cooker is ‘a slow imponderable soup on the Rayburn’, elsewhere we find ‘humid unseasonal warmth’, ‘its tenuous accidental story’, ‘sheltered, sunstruck days’, ‘handsome unsuspecting schoolfriends’, and so on.
Does a phrase such as ‘a young man’s classless indifferent tenor’ bring us very close to the sound of that voice, to its individuality? Are we not brought instead to the sound of Hollinghurst’s softly obliterating literary voice – to a writer’s classy particular tremor? Two other examples suggest themselves. In London, Alex sits on a bench in St James’s Square, and Hollinghurst dabs in this fine phrase: ‘The plane trees, in their grandly reluctant way, were only just coming into leaf.’ Earlier in the book, Robin recalls the death of his boyfriend Simon: ‘The stoically observed sequence in the hospital, the emphatic last breath and the following silence, the subtle relaxation and emptying of the face, the timid but steady squeaking of the nurse’s shoes on the linoleum, and the dark confirming descent of the Indian doctor, came back to him with the clarity of something belatedly understood.’ Each stage of Simon’s demise is lovingly painted, culminating in that triad of genius, ‘the dark confirming descent’ of the Indian doctor. But this is poetry, not prose. It is archetypal in the way of a Miltonic lament, but it fails to individuate. The ‘dark confirming descent’ stirs an extra beauty from the darkness of the Indian, but it might be said of any doctor. Certainly, no particular doctor is made to exist in our mind’s eye, which is strange, for presumably an actual doctor exists very powerfully in Robin’s memory. The passage is lovely, with its smooth dormition, but it does not belong to Robin, with his particular vision, but to Hollinghurst, with his general vision. And so Robin slips away from us. One realises that Hollinghurst’s descriptions of nature are so fine in this book partly because nature presents him with generalised archetypes, without the surprise of human deviation. The phrase about the grand reluctance of the plane trees is aptly luxurious, and does not frustrate us in the way that the phrase about the doctor does, because it is a collective phrase; it douses all plane trees in the same rinse. But often Hollinghurst’s phrases are collective phrases applied to humans or to subjects which do not belong together collectively and which lose their individuality in the process.
Certainly, the characters in this novel, while all clearly separate from one another, are not really individual, or not individual enough. In the way of farce or comedy, their individuality is relational. They are very pleasant company, they have their foibles and strengths; but they are not demanding company either, because they demand nothing much of themselves, or because nothing much is demanded of them by their creator. The hero of The Folding Star, Edward Manners, was alive in his misery, as he tramped through Bruges in search of the object of his desire, young Luc Altidore. Alex Nichols suffers in rather similar ways in The Spell, but it is difficult to care about him as one cared for Edward Manners, because he is only foggily alive. The desperation which propelled Edward, and which transmitted itself so electrically to the reader of The Folding Star, is muted in the more summery sex comedy of the new book.
Perhaps, indeed, sex is part of the obstruction here. Hollinghurst has always written very well about sex, and this novel is no exception. But in the past he has always written about love, too. Here, because the novel’s compact balletic form insists on a sexual dance rather than on the shuffle of love, sex begins to seem the only current that unites these men and that binds them to their author. It does not help that they are all a little too handsome: ‘Justin was a gorgeous young man of 35, of course,’ writes Hollinghurst; Danny is ‘terribly beautiful’, and Robin is ‘very good-looking’. Elsewhere, one sees again that rapid sexual appraisal – the economy of male desire, both straight and gay – is a menace to complex fiction, because it deprives people of particularity. It is hard to get much sense, for instance, of what Robin looks like; and perhaps the reason is that he exists in Hollinghurst’s mind as no more than Hollinghurst’s own somewhat amorous description of him, as ‘the big English boy with his wavy hair and rower’s shoulders and beautiful long legs’.
The Spell might be a more affecting novel if it had lingered over Robin and Alex, the two characters who are more mentally strenuous than the others. But we spend too much time with Danny and Justin, who seem worthless, boringly indentured to sex and sex forages. It is dangerous for a writer to create several characters all of whom are overwhelmingly involved with sex, because they are then involved in the same thing, like a novel full merely of thieves or bus drivers. They pool their uniqueness. Justin, appraising Carlo, a rent-boy – ‘the boy was like a package holiday on legs’ – is little different from Danny appraising the back of a German – ‘Danny was imagining licking the back of his neck as he fucked him.’ St Augustine writes that sex makes us stupid, and that it make us simple. These are not obviously useful weaknesses for the novelist to cultivate in his characters. In The Spell, sex is too often a transparency, allowing the characters to speak only to their own simplicities, and depriving Hollinghurst of the ability to go deep into a character’s consciousness. Towards the end of the book, there is a scene in which Justin, sitting in his hotel room, has ordered up the rent-boy Carlo, and has a few hours to kill before his arrival:
Back at the hotel a more urgent excitement set in. He couldn’t help wondering what Carlo was going to look like, and the thought of having him here entirely at his disposal for hours on end made him prickle with pleasure. He wondered what he was doing now: working out, perhaps; or, more probably, simply working. An afternoon appointment with a dandruffed married man. Justin liked the idea of Carlo as a sex-machine, but hoped that he wouldn’t already be tired out at 7 p.m. Carlo was a strong name, though, like a fortified version of caro, which was the Italian for expensive. Of course, the English for Carlo was Charles, which was the name of his estate-agent friend. That was a coincidence. Maybe Charles too was Massively VWE [Very Well Endowed]. It was hard to tell with those expansive pin-stripes. How would he put it? – ‘enjoys a substantial erection’ ... well, who didn’t? And perhaps there had been something a bit sexy, after all, about chugging round with Charles from house to house. Carlo, though, would be more than a bit sexy. But then you had to remember that Carlo almost certainly wasn’t his real name. There was still an hour and a half to go. Justin was so worked up that he wondered about getting another rent-boy round, to fill in the time.
Now this is a kind of interior monologue, the mind distracting itself with itself. But even though the novel is moving to a climax, and even though Justin, having temporarily parted from Robin, is in something of an emotional crisis, the notation of Justin’s thought has a strange, lolling evenness, and a flat tedium. Why? Because Justin is involved in a kind of lazy mental masturbation. His thought is no more than idle, onanistic, sexual gossip (‘Maybe Charles too was Massively VWE. It was hard to tell’). If we compare this with the agitated reclusion, the important revolutions that the heroine would be undergoing at a comparable moment in an Austen novel – an agitation, by the way, generally represented by Austen with something close to Modernist stream-of-consciousness, in other words with much greater technical daring than Hollinghurst’s representation of Justin’s sexual dawdle – we see the loss to fiction in merely flooding a character with erotic curiosity.
For there is, in the end, nothing very mysterious about male sexuality. At the end of the book, Alex goes to Hampstead Heath and engages in quick, anonymous sex: he lets a man come over his face. Afterwards, surprised by what he has done, he feels that ‘he had just paid a visit to a remote suburb of himself.’ It is a typically lustrous phrase, but it allows us to realise that the weakness of this novel is that none of the characters does pay any visits to the remoter suburbs of himself. Like Justin, they loaf in the centre of themselves; mentally, they are always feeling themselves up. The swiftly accessible sex of the gay world tends to squeeze the metaphysical out of characters. Getting sex in the world of this book is like buying sweets; and while something so easily achieved can bring its own disappointment, and while this disappointment is often Hollinghurst’s theme, the time and space lavished on the sex, or on the obtaining of that sex, mean that the novel itself becomes devoted to easy pleasures rather than to difficult ones.
Yet Hollinghurst also gives evidence again and again in this novel of the writer who produced The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star. He is a writer whose lapses are worth rebuke, and that is rare in contemporary English fiction. He is able, here and there, to cut an actuality out of his characters, particularly from Alex. As he has shown before, he writes movingly about love: ‘And then he remembered waking in Danny’s room on the Sunday afternoon, their foreheads pressed together, the same tired lungful of air breathed back and forth between them, the muted sunshine through unlined curtains ... Alex had rolled gently away and examined his happiness to the rhythm of the wallpaper, the clutches of pink roses like featureless putti floating hypnotically ceilingwards.’ At his best, Hollinghurst has a descriptive innocence that suggests a capacity to surprise himself, to smart his writing into the unexpected. A passage like the following, composed and precise and yet fatly lyrical, reminds us why he has been considered such a promise:
They looked out, frowning into the sun, at what was left of a High Victorian garden, a wide round pond with a disused fountain of crumbling tritons, like angry, pock-marked babies, at its centre; the water had dropped to show the weed-covered pipe that fed it. The surrounding parterres had all been put to grass ten years before, when help had become a hopeless problem; though here and there a curved seat or a sundial or an unkillable old rose made a puzzled allusion to the plan it had once been part of.
His real voice, one suspects, is Larkinian, as a beautiful trench of description, both complaint and elegy, opens up on the subject of Litton Gambril, the Dorset town which is the book’s pivot:
The poverty of the little supermarket, with its own-brand biscuits and jams ... the brown old men who slapped down all their change on the newsagent’s counter, not yet used to the decimal currency, or leaned wheezily at the urinal under the town clock with their leather shopping-bags; the old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes, and the charity thrift-shop indistinguishable from it, and the derelict boutiques with a spew of mail across the bare floor; the photos of fêtes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of the newspaper office, which might almost have been the window of a museum; the peeling front of the main hotel, with its promise of fire-doors and meal smells; the word MONUMENTAL on an undertaker’s sunlit window thrown in sharp-etched shadow across a waiting tablet ...
Here all of Hollinghurst’s talents are visible. Unlike the passage in which Robin remembered the dark confirming descent of the Indian doctor, each observation is lyrically argued for. The challenge for Hollinghurst is to apply this talent to the creation of people as well as of gardens and trees and towns. Certainly, the combination of irony and lament, the lyrical and the sardonic, recalls his fine previous novels, and presages the next, one hopes.