Born May 26, 1954, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. Education: Magdalen College, Oxford University, B.A., 1975, M.Litt. 1979.
Addresses: Office—c/o Bloomsbury USA, 175 Fifth Ave., Ste. 300, New York, NY 10010.
Lecturer in English at Magdalen College, 1977-78, Somerville College, 1979-80, and Corpus Christi College, 1981, all Oxford University; lecturer in English, University of London, 1982; Times Literary Supplement, assistant editor, 1982-90, poetry editor, 1990-95; visiting professor of writing, Princeton University, fall 2004. Author, c. 1970—.
Awards: Newdigate Prize for English Verse, Oxford University, 1975; Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Line of Beauty, 2004.
British novelist Alan Hollinghurst won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2004 for his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty. Called the first piece of gay fiction ever to win the honor, the story was also "a sprawling and haunting elegy to the 1980s, " wrote Entertainment Weekly critic Jennifer Reese. Hollinghurst started his writing career as a poet, but once he began writing fiction his carefully crafted prose earned scores of exceptional reviews, despite the occasional lurid passage describing a sexual encounter. Most literary critics deemed his mastery of the English language—not the plot pacing or characters—the real star of his fiction. "Part of the pleasure of Hollinghurst's writing, " remarked the London Observer 's Geraldine Bedell, "lies in the tension between the impeccably modulated prose and the pleasurably filthy things people get up to."
Born in 1954, Hollinghurst grew up an only child in the Cirencester area of south-central England, near the picturesque Cotswold Hills. His father was a bank manager who passed on his devotion to classical music to his son. After earning his degree from Magdalen College at Oxford University in 1975, Hollinghurst went on to graduate work there, and was granted an advanced degree in literature four years later. During his undergraduate career, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry, an Oxford honor dating back to 1806 and one whose past winners have included Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin. His first career posts came at Oxford as well, first as a lecturer in English at Magdalen College; he later taught at Somerville and Corpus Christi colleges as well. He moved to London in the early 1980s to take a job as a lecturer in English at the University of London, but was soon hired by the eminent Times Literary Supplement as an assistant editor.
While reviewing dozens of titles for the Times Literary Supplement, Hollinghurst continued to write verse on the side, and a collection of verse, Confidential Chats with Boys, appeared in 1982. When he landed a contract with the Faber publishing house in 1985 for another book of verse, however, he began to suffer from writer's block, and turned to fiction instead. A friend from his Oxford days, Andrew Motion—the future Poet Laureate of Britain— was then serving as the editorial director at Chatto … Windus, another esteemed London publishing house, and bought Hollinghurst's first novel.
That debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, caused a stir when it appeared in 1988, partly due to its frank sexual content. Set in London during the summer of 1983, the story centered around 25-year-old Will Beckwith, an aspiring writer who is also struggling with his sexual orientation. Though financially supported by a wealthy grandfather, Beckwith takes a ghostwriting job for a much-older gay man, Lord Charles Nantwich, to pen his memoirs. Will is stunned to learn that his retired grandfather, who had been a well-known public prosecutor, once had Nantwich arrested on spurious charges of what was then called "male vice, " in a long-ago era when homosexual acts were subject to criminal prosecution. Yet in Beckwith's own time, gay men are still the target of some harassment, as he realizes when a friend is arrested on similar charges.
The Swimming-Pool Library was set in the early 1980s, just before acquired-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) began to sweep through the gay community. A hedonist atmosphere threads through the novel, as Will delves further into London's secretive gay male subculture, but so too does a countervailing influence: that of Thatcherism, the catchword for a new political era led by Britain's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Elected in 1979, Thatcher and her Conservative Party colleagues ushered in an era of dramatic change in Britain. With tax cuts and policies that favored entrepreneurship at the expense of the working poor, Thatcher's policies roiled Britain, but also helped create a new middle class. The Swimming-Pool Library ends with her Conservative Party's 1983 landslide re-election.
Reviews for Hollinghurst's debut novel were enthusiastic, with Edmund White of the Sunday Times commending Hollinghurst's style, calling it "writing [that] is enviably supple and sonorously scored. This is not experimental writing. It is, on the contrary, classic English prose—capacious, sociable, extraordinarily efficient." White also asserted it was "surely the best book about gay life yet written by an English author. How exhilarating to have such a summery book appear during this winter of deepest discontent." White may have been alluding to Clause 28, a controversial anti-gay amendment of the 1988 Local Government Act. Its wording prohibited government funding for any community program or initiative that was deemed to intentionally promote same-sex relationships. As Hollinghurst told Charles Kaiser of the Advocate many years later, The Swimming-Pool Library "was held up as an example of the kind of book that you might no longer be able to buy for a public library" because of Clause 28, which ultimately proved unenforceable.
Several years passed before Hollinghurst produced his second novel. In the interim, he served as the poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement. Finally, in 1994 Chatto … Windus issued A Folding Star. Again, it featured a gay male protagonist who is somewhat conflicted about his sexual identity. Edward Manners seems to have a drinking problem and a penchant for furtive, anonymous sex in semi-public facilities, both of which he brings with him to Belgium when he takes a job as a teacher of English as a second language.
Edward has already fallen in love with one of his teenage students, Luc, from a photograph he was sent previously, and his crush is the focus of A Folding Star 's story; a secondary plotline concerns the restoration of a well-known work of art by the father of another one of Edward's pupils. The novel is set in the latter half of the 1980s, and this time the specter of AIDS appears in full—Edward returns to England briefly for a funeral, and at other points mentions certain pharmaceutical drugs that stave off the disease's progress. The Sunday Times 's reviewer, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, found Holling-hurst's second novel somewhat weakly plotted, but noted that "the strength of this novel lies not in its events but in the narrative that contains them. Hollinghurst is agile enough to be able to write equally vividly about the gradations of colour in a cloudy sky and about the feel of someone else's tongue in one's mouth."
A Folding Star was shortlisted for the 1994 Man Booker Prize, but two of the judges—a panel of four men and a female rabbi—were reportedly uneasy with the frankly chronicled sex scenes in Holling-hurst's story. The Booker Prize, as it is more commonly known, is considered one of the world's most prestigious literary honors, and has been awarded annually since 1968 to the best English-language novel written by a writer from one of the British Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, or Pakistan. Past winners have included V.S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rush-die, Michael Ondaatje, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood.
In 1995, Hollinghurst was finally able to devote himself full time to writing after he left the Times Literary Supplement. He next produced The Spell in 1998, which was shortlisted for another leading British honor, the Guardian fiction prize. This time, Holling-hurst introduces a quartet of gay men, led by Alex, an opera-loving civil servant nearing middle age who heads to the countryside for a weekend vacation with his former lover, Justin. But Alex falls for Danny, the 22-year-old son of Justin's new partner. Back in London, Alex falls into a club-hopping, drug-ingesting nightlife habit with Danny as his guide. Critiquing The Spell for the Independent Sunday, Mark Bostridge made reference to the title in his assertion that "the spell cast by the countryside during one long hot summer, and Hollinghurst's evocation of it, has produced some of his most exquisite, elegant and deeply felt prose. But at the same time he manages to hold in the balance the humour of the situations in which his characters find themselves, and the pain and miserable vulnerability of their emotional predicaments."
Hollinghurst writes less than 500 words a day, and so six years passed before he produced his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize for 2004. In a way, the story picks up where Hollinghurst's debut concluded, at the 1983 reelection of Margaret Thatcher, and the prime minister is mentioned frequently in the text. Often referred to as the "PM" or simply "the Lady, " Thatcher even makes a cameo appearance in the story. This time, the drama centers around Nick Guest, a proverbial fish out of water who takes up residence at the posh home of a friend from his Oxford college days, Toby Fedden, with whom he is secretly in love. The son of an antiques dealer, Nick is dazzled by the Fedden household in the ritzy London area of Notting Hill. Toby's father, Gerald, has just been elected to the House of Commons as part of the 1983 Conservative (Tory) Party landslide.
In London, Nick finally begins experimenting with same-sex partners after he places a personal ad. His first lover is a working-class black man, a civil servant, and the experience transforms him. The next section of the narrative shifts to 1986, with Nick now conducting a furtive, cocaine-fueled romance with the son of a Lebanese supermarket millionaire. Other characters include Toby's mentally unstable sister, Catherine, and the Fedden mother, Rachel, "a marvelously nuanced portrait of velvety graciousness lined with steel, " remarked Anthony Quinn in the New York Times Book Review. Quinn commended Hollinghurst for creating female characters that were more fully drawn than in his earlier works.
Thatcher 's cameo comes during the Feddens' wedding-anniversary soiree whose preparations including painting the front-entrance door exactly the right shade of Tory blue. During the party, Nick stuns the worshipful Conservative acolytes surrounding the prime minister by asking her to dance. After their spin, he then steals away with Wani, his playboy boyfriend, for three-way sex in the bathroom with a member of the catering staff. Wani starts bleeding from the nose, and the plot shifts precipitously at this point. Nick learns that Leo, his first lover, is ill with AIDS, and then Wani succumbs, too. The final third of the story is anchored by the stock market crash in October of 1987, and the Feddens' fortunes begin a rapid decline when Gerald becomes embroiled in a politically disastrous scandal. It is in this final section, noted New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, that "Hollinghurst seems to really find his voice, exchanging the detached, faintly satiric tone of the earlier parts of the book for a more earnest, heart-felt one. In these final pages, as shadows of illness, loss, and scandal begin to fall over the characters' lives, The Line of Beauty becomes more than a well-observed portrait of a decade; it becomes an affecting work of art."
Hollinghurst's Booker Prize win in October of 2004 was an honor as well as a lucrative gift to any writer, with its $89, 000 prize purse, but the British press did seem eager to point out that it was the first win by a "gay" novel. Some of the less reputable tabloids ran titillating headlines the next day that included "Man's Gay Day" and "Top Man!" Other newspaper reports noted that the head of the judging panel was Chris Smith, the first openly gay man ever elected to Britain's House of Commons. Hollinghurst was relatively untroubled by the tag, as he told Stephen Moss in a Guardian interview. "I only chafe at the 'gay writer' tag if it's thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I'm writing, " he asserted. "I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well—history, class, culture. There's all sorts of stuff going on. It's not just, as you would think if you read the headlines in the newspapers, about gay sex."
Confidential Chats with Boys (poetry), Sycamore Press (Oxford, England), 1982.
The Swimming-Pool Library (novel), Chatto … Windus (London, England), 1988; Vintage (New York City), 1989.
A Folding Star (novel), Chatto … Windus, 1994; Pantheon (New York City), 1994.
The Spell (novel), Chatto … Windus, 1998; Viking (New York City), 1999.
The Line of Beauty (novel), Bloomsbury, 2004.
Contemporary Novelists, seventh ed., St. James Press, 2001.
Advocate, December 7, 2004, p. 73; January 18, 2005, p. 72.
Bookseller, February 13, 2004, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 2004, p. 98.
Guardian (London, England), June 22, 1998; October 21, 2004, p. 8; October 25, 2004, p. 16, p. 18.
Independent (London, England), April 16, 2004, p. 23.
Independent Sunday (London, England), July 5, 1998, p. 28.
New Statesman, June 10, 1994, p. 37; April 12, 2004, p. 54.
New York Observer, December 13, 2004, p. 1.
New York Times, November 23, 2004, p. E1.
New York Times Book Review, October 31, 2004, p. 19.
Observer (London, England), October 17, 2004, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, March 8, 1999, p. 48.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 21, 1988; May 22, 1994, p. 13.