Prac Crit

from Confidential Chats with Boys

by Alan Hollinghurst

Interview

by Julian Gewirtz

I met Alan Hollinghurst at home in London on a warm June day. From his house, which is nestled on a leafy, steeply sloping street near Hampstead Heath, one could begin to see the scenes of the south end of the park: children in bright swimsuits splashing in the kiddie pool, couples lounging on the sunny lawn, and a few lean, shirtless men loitering.

Hollinghurst and I chatted about the splendor of that day’s weather and the silvery, Whistlerian elegance of a painting by Walter Greaves that hangs on his wall; he lightly chided me for only having a glass of water while he took tea. I read Chinese, so he showed me the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese editions of The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. It is widely regarded as ‘a masterpiece,’ as The Observer put it, though each of his other novels—The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), and The Stranger’s Child (2011)—has its partisans. After inspecting the downstairs bookshelf that contains all of his novels and their various translations, we then returned to his sitting room and began to discuss what he called ‘that long-ago poem’—his poetry pamphlet, Confidential Chats with Boys, published by Sycamore Press in 1982. I began the conversation by saying that I preferred to think of it using the American term, ‘chapbook.’ The pun seems particularly apt for Hollinghurst: a book of chaps.

AH

Did you find it in the Bodleian?

JG

Yes, they have one copy, which is in pretty good shape. They also have the broadsheets, also Sycamore, which I guess were also published by John Fuller. And that has your poem about Christopher Isherwood.

AH

That’s right. That was my very first publication . . . John had said something about wanting to do a chapbook, and I was passing him various bits and bobs, and then I said that there was something that was one poem in several parts, and that seemed to fit the bill.

JG

John Fuller was your undergraduate tutor?

AH

Yes, he was one of the two English fellows at Magdalen when I went up. He taught me my first year—we did the Victorians and the 20th century. I saw a lot of him, because of his interest in the poetry society at the college, called the John Florio Society, where we submitted poems anonymously and drunkenly tore them to pieces. He was a very important figure in the lives of a lot of us.

JG

Was he the first mentor in poetry you had?

AH

When I was at school, I’d had one rather wonderful master who really introduced me to modern and contemporary poetry. He introduced me to people like William Carlos Williams. He was very interested in Pound. He translated a lot of contemporary Greek poetry, so I remember at school reading [Odysseus] Elytis and [George] Seferis. He very much broadened the whole horizon, and I wrote masses of poetry when I was a schoolboy. I think I was probably both helped and influenced by him.

With John, of course, there then came the possibility of his actually publishing something. Actually being involved in it, typesetting and such, was great fun.

JG

I’ve read, if I’m not mistaken, that you were writing fiction at that time.

AH

Yes, I was always trying to write fiction and abandoning things. It was partly that I hadn’t really thought them through and partly that I just grew out of them. I haven’t looked at those things for a very long time. A year or two before I left Oxford, I had a grant to work on a novel, and I did write quite a lot of one then. But at the end of the year, I dropped it. I don’t think I tried to write another novel until I started to write The Swimming-Pool Library, which was in 1984.

JG

In those years, even before you wrote The Swimming-Pool Library, were you interested in explicitly homoerotic or homosexual art? I found an interesting essay that you wrote on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in the early 1980s.

AH

I suppose I was. I’d written my thesis at Oxford about gay writers, and I was very preoccupied with it. In a way, it was how I came out, by writing that thesis. Those issues were always very fascinating to me.

I knew nothing more about photography than any vaguely artistic or literary person did, at that age, when my friend Sandy Nairne, who was then running the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts], asked me to go to New York—I’d never been to America before—to interview Mapplethorpe and look at his work. So it was a rather extraordinary introduction to New York for this shy, nervous, literary Englishman! I got very, very little out of him personally—he was very shy and taciturn himself. But I spent several days at his studio going through all his surviving work, which was fascinating. His brother, Eddie, wearing white cotton gloves, was touching up the pictures in there. To me, it was all very much part of the undying glamour of the New York experience, that first couple of weeks there.

The poems themselves, which would have been written a bit before, tackle those matters much more obliquely. It’s a funny sort of poem, isn’t it? [Gestures to the first section.] All this is really just a patchwork of phrases out of the book.

JG

I will say, I’m not very grateful to you for requiring me to read the William Howard book, his Confidential Chats with Boys . . .

AH

It’s fascinating, I expect, as a sort of instance of what people thought about or wanted other people to think about such matters. The barely suppressed violence in it is absolutely extraordinary.

JG

How did you come across the Howard book?

AH

I came across it because my parents were rather too shy to talk to me about any matter of this kind. They’d been lent it, or had it passed onto them, by an aunt, and it was put away in a cupboard where there were a lot of old books. Of course, one spends a lot of one’s adolescence rooting through cupboards, so I soon found it and read it with hilarity and amazement. Nothing was ever said about it at home, and god knows what became of it, but I remembered the title, of course. And years later, I must’ve gone and ordered it up in the Bodleian and read it again and got those phrases out of it. But if you didn’t know what it was—I don’t know what someone coming to the poem for the first time would make of it. Did you find it very cryptic?

JG

I first read it without having read the Howard, knowing that the title was a reference but not knowing that, say, ‘hatched from rattlesnakes’ eggs’ was lifted. [laughs] I just thought it was fantastic as an exercise in toying with these modes of indirection. You said it’s oblique, and that’s true, but by framing the sequence with that title, you come to it by seeing a wink first. And then I was reading the Howard, and I realized. Later on, of course, the sequence moves fully into your own experiences and language.

AH

[Turning to the second poem in the sequence, pointing to the opening lines: ‘My lap was heavy with the pictures / and terror a second away / where Zambesi fell off the world: / I could not turn the page alone.’] This was a Ladybird image—do you know what Ladybird Books are?

JG

No.

AH

They’re illustrated books for children. You’d have the Ladybird Book of Rabbits or the Ladybird Book of Aeroplanes. And they had a full-color page of illustration facing a page of text in large print. I suppose it was the Ladybird Book of Africa, and I was just terrified of the picture of the Victoria Falls, of the Zambezi River plunging into this abyss. It was an early sensitivity to the sublime, I suppose. If I knew it was coming up, I would turn over two pages at once to avoid having to look at this picture. It had this extraordinary charge. I was terribly sensitive as a child to the power of images. Perhaps I still am.

JG

[Turning to the section’s final line, which has the mother say ‘so terribly bored’] Do you know the John Berryman Dream Song, number 14, ‘Life, friends, is boring’?

AH

Yes, I do.

JG

‘Life, friends, is boring’ is the setup, ‘We must not say so.’ But then it has the mother come in and say, ‘Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’ I thought there were just fabulous parallels, not to suggest any direct influence, but perhaps you’ve both tapped into some universal connection between mothers and boredom . . .

AH

I can remember reading the last volume of the Dream Songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1969), not long after it came out, and I remember at Oxford going to hear Al Alvarez talk about it, and reading out some of the poems—and just saying, How good can you get? But I don’t think this was a conscious echo, in my poem.

JG

Sure, I agree.

AH

[Pointing to the next section’s images] I can remember that dark oak bureau with a fold-down writing service, with three drawers underneath, and I can remember having all these old National Geographics—they weren’t my copies, my father must have had a subscription to it at that time—it was where I hoarded things. [Indicates a particular phrase.] ‘Hard-core innocence.’ You mentioned your interest in that phrase in your mail. I suppose it’s that later on the adolescent would probably have a stash of something which was less innocent.

JG

An obvious thing that we haven’t touched on is that at some point you stopped writing poems. Have you completely stopped?

AH

I have, yes. The simplified narrative I always give is that I was signed up by Faber on the strength of half a book to write a whole one. And the moment the ink dried on the contract, I never wrote another poem, which is broadly true. It was the time when I was really in the thick of writing The Swimming-Pool Library, and I’d just switched tracks, somehow. The only time after that when I did have a burst of poem-writing was when I had a month in Carriacou in the West Indies in 1987. I was in a completely new place and not doing anything very much apart from hiking and swimming and lying in a hammock reading Stendhal and drinking rum punch, and I found myself writing descriptive poems about the island. A couple of them were published in the TLS, and there were others which weren’t published. That was 26 years ago or something. Since then, since I absolutely dread having to make a speech, whenever I do have to make a speech I always write it in rhyming doggerel. But they don’t really count as poems.

I can’t explain this in any other way apart from the fact that my energies had been diverted into a different thing. They just stopped happening. It’s not uncommon, I think. People write poems when they’re young and stop. Some young poets turn into novelists. And some can carry on doing both. Are there many Americans who’ve written not just one novel like Randall Jarrell, but who’ve been both practicing novelists and poets at a similar level?

JG

Let me think for a moment. I can think of a Canadian, Margaret Atwood. And in the United States there’s a very exciting writer named Ben Lerner who’s done both. But they’re viewed as extreme rarities, you’re right.

But back to ‘hard-core innocence’ in your Confidential Chats. Can you say more about that phrase?

AH

I suppose I always had the idea that gay sexuality was essentially innocent, even though it’s almost universally been stigmatized and criminalized. But actually it was innocent and natural, and [in The Swimming-Pool Library] that was one of the main things I was trying to put across, that you see the natural, youthful exuberance of gay sexuality, and get a picture of the ways in which it’s been ensnared in legal prohibitions and punishments. So what you’re writing about might in a conventional sense be ‘hard-core’ because you’re writing very explicitly about sex, but actually it was something to which no opprobrious moral definition could be applied.

JG

And so much of the literature that had depicted gay sexuality was pornography, or at least classified as pornography.

AH

Exactly. And rather disappointing if you were hoping it was going to be pornography . . . [The Swimming-Pool Library] was a book that I hadn’t really looked at in a very long time, probably 20 years, until my French publishers offered to do a new translation, which came out at the very beginning of this year. I said I would read the proof, so I had to read it again. I’d forgotten so much of it. One’s always ready to be embarrassed by something that one wrote such a long time ago, but I wasn’t, really. It did seem to me absolutely jam-packed with all these things that I was interested in, all these plot twists, getting everything in—but in general I thought it was OK.

JG

I’m glad you feel that way. One small metric is that to readers my age and younger, I do think the book still has that thrill and appeal that it must have had right when it was published. It’s particularly remarkable because we’ve since had 25, almost 30 years of writing doing what you were doing there, in terms of being more explicit and treating sexuality more directly.

AH

There’s been just such a change. The world in which that book came out and the present one are so different, in terms of how sexuality is thought about, in terms of public perception of and acceptance of gayness. So much has happened—young people having no sense of the AIDS crisis, for instance.

JG

To me, that in particular is mind-boggling. My uncle George died from AIDS in 1994, so maybe I am in that sense connected to it more directly than many are. I think it’s not just that people have no sense but a willful ignoring.

AH

In our culture, it’s history now. And the related sexual health issues are constantly being redefined, although the uptake of HIV now seems to have alarmingly accelerated. What young people think about those changes is quite hard to grasp. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether someone’s gay. I’m sure that’s not universal, but here it’s even quite cool to be gay. Quite often some attractive young person is so gay-friendly that they have to ‘come out’ as straight. But there’s generally a freedom from definitions and classifications, which is thrilling.

JG

I’ll admit that the first thing that came to mind when I saw the title of the chapbook is that in an era when smartphones and dating apps are ubiquitous, Confidential Chats with Boys takes on a whole new valence.

AH

Yes [laughs], yes, that’s right. It was a great title, wasn’t it!

from Confidential Chats with Boys

by Alan Hollinghurst

1.

There are things in trousers called men,
almost too well-mannered, passing
as gentlemen – human skunks
hatched from rattlesnakes’ eggs.

You meet them in fashionable hotels
where families stay, playing croquet
and the gallant, sought after for charades;
their impersonations are famous.

Avoid these men who avoid
real men and manly sports,
who prefer to go bathing with boys
and plan a pretty five-mile walk.

Their germs are everywhere, in schools,
on hotel towels and drinking cups,
left on linen and the tasting-spoon;
their breath is the fog of blindness.

Keep your eye on that jug,
that candlestick, and when he moves,
hit him to leave him scarred:
scar the skunk and coward for life.

  

5.

With mother ill at Christmas
there was no Swiss crib
or consolation for her
withdrawn presence.

Not to make a noise
I lay in state on the floor,
a black speaker at each ear,
to hear my Russian music:

with lilies on the suicide’s grave,
with Lorelei and the cold river,
with the girl’s toy drum burying
her soldier, brother, lover,

each day I reduced
the box of liqueur chocolates,
crushing the little barrels
between my molars, coughing

and warming at the stuff on my tongue:
sweet, unpleasant, but addictive,
an overdrawn bachelor’s gift
not likely to be missed.

© Alan Hollinghurst. First published in 'Confidential Chats with Boys' (Sycamore Press, 1982).
Reproduced with permission of the author.

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