One of them spotted a broken gannet / on the upslip of a wave. They sculled over / and saw it was a man, frozen in a storm / / of wax, with eagle feathers struck about him / and his arms and legs angled in fright / so he looked like an archaeopteryx, / / flawed and ancient. They pulled alongside ...
‘Hard-core Innocence’ —
Alan Hollinghurst, from Poet to Novelist
In 1981, reviewing D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, the 27-year-old Alan Hollinghurst wrote, ‘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.’ He could not have foreseen it then, but Hollinghurst’s own career has confirmed this maxim. Long before he was the internationally famous Booker-winning novelist acclaimed, in The Guardian, as ‘the greatest stylist of our age’, he was a poetry-obsessed Oxford undergraduate. And his potential as a poet became clear early on. In 1974, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry, to the evident delight of his tutor at Magdalen College, John Fuller, who ran the Oxford-based Sycamore Press. The following year, Hollinghurst had two poems published in a Sycamore Press broadsheet (No. 22)—a distinguished series also including work by W. H. Auden, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, and Andrew Motion, Hollinghurst’s Oxford friend and housemate who won the Newdigate in 1975.
Those broadsheet poems, ‘Isherwood is at Santa Monica’ and ‘The Well,’ are able if not especially memorable. Hollinghurst continued his studies at Oxford, writing his master’s dissertation on ‘The Creative Uses of Homosexuality in the Novels of E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L. P. Hartley’ (1979). These three gay writers, Hollinghurst argued, addressed their homosexuality through ‘concealment’; his dissertation examined ‘the subversive potential of cryptic meanings [and] the deliberately unspecific statement.’ By 1982, Hollinghurst had received his M.Litt., won an Eric Gregory Award for his poems, moved to London to work as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and published ‘Mud,’ a haunting poem on mortality, in the London Review of Books. He seemed set for a career writing primarily criticism and poetry.
These were, it seemed, mutually reinforcing activities. His trademark qualities—what The New York Times has called his fiction’s ‘precocious intellectual sweep’ and ‘ironic moral force’—began to emerge more fully in his poems, as his identity as a critic developed. His rapid growth as a poet became clear in July 1982, when the Sycamore Press published a remarkably accomplished pamphlet, Confidential Chats with Boys. Only 300 copies were printed; the pamphlet has become ‘intensely rare’ in the intervening period, but I located a copy in the Bodleian at Oxford. According to an essay that he contributed to a bibliographic history of the Sycamore Press, Hollinghurst himself typeset the volume, including ‘the oddly phallic printer’s flower that adorns the cover.’
This teasing, slinky title was lifted, ironically, from the least sexy of sources: a manual on puberty and hygiene originally published by the physician William Lee Howard in 1911. Howard—also author of tracts like The Perverts (1901)—sought to prevent young men from becoming ‘failures, misfits, despondents and diseased.’ He reserved particular contempt for homosexuals. Should they be confronted with such ‘vermin,’ Howard suggested violence to his ‘boys.’ ‘Never trust yourself in bed with a boy or a man,’ he wrote in his Confidential Chats with Boys. ‘Sleep on the floor, anywhere; go without sleeping . . . [and s]ometimes it is necessary to smash a boy who makes evil suggestions to you. Don’t talk to him, smash him in the face. Smash him good and hard.’
Howard’s fearsome dithyramb provided the young Hollinghurst with language to begin his own Confidential Chats with Boys. Of course, with or without the reference to Howard in mind, the pamphlet’s title is suggestively erotic. It anticipates the kind of murmuring barroom exchange that Hollinghurst protagonists like William Beckwith and Edward Manners might carry on with prospective lovers. But the opening words of the first poem in the pamphlet’s sequence, excerpted for Prac Crit, come not from the queer world of 1980s London but from Howard: ‘There are things in trousers called men, so vile that they wait in hiding for the innocent boy. These things are generally well-dressed, well mannered—too well mannered, in fact—and pass as gentlemen; but they are really human skunks hatched from rattlesnakes’ eggs.’ Hollinghurst, with deft lineation, draws out metrical patterns and highlights this surrealistic imagery.
The poem continues to describe what these ‘things in trousers’ do to lure in their unsuspecting boy-victims: games like croquet and charades (‘their impersonations are famous,’ a bit of camp wit), spreading their ‘germ’-like contagion. In increasingly original language, the poem circles closer and closer into the bodies of the men, deliberately never naming their sin but coming as close as a kiss: ‘[T]heir breath is the fog of blindness.’ The poem then jerks back from this intimate image—and the close call with temptation that it suggests—to end on a tight, ironic reworking of Howard’s tumid language.
The pamphlet as a whole explores, in a sequence of five neatly composed poems of five quatrains each, the question of what ought to be ‘called men.’ In the fourth poem in the sequence, which explores ‘virility’ and praises ‘the wonderful soprano prince’ in Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus, we learn: ‘When I was very young / my thrill was travesty: / My tiny aunt’s stilettos / were smuggled to school in a bag . . .’ In the fifth, also excerpted for Prac Crit, we find the boy eating ‘liqueur chocolates,’ which are ‘sweet, unpleasant, but addictive, / an overdrawn bachelor’s gift / not likely to be missed.’
The world of these poems is filled with male figures of ambiguous masculinity—not only Howard’s gay ‘vermin’ who appear in the first poem, but also a ‘soprano prince’ and the boy’s father, who works at a bank (as Hollinghurst’s own father did). It is in the third poem in the sequence that he treats his father most fully, remembering him by paging through ‘weighty ephemera / of Geographics and cuttings // that matured their hard-core / innocence . . .’ This oxymoronic phrase—‘hard-core innocence’—offers a succinct summary, as Hollinghurst suggested in our interview, of one way that he understands gay sexuality. ‘I always had the idea that gay sexuality was essentially innocent, even though it’s almost universally been stigmatized and criminalized.’ he told me. ‘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.’
At the same time, ‘hard-core innocence’ captures a tension at the heart of these moving poems: the genre of poetry itself seems to force Hollinghurst to enact a kind of formal innocence, both reserved and ironic, no matter how ‘hard-core’ or exuberant his impulses might be. In his dissertation, he had written that ‘the ambiguity’ of the novelists’ handling of sexuality ‘leads to a tone of moral innocence defensively (and often truthfully) assumed by homosexual writers about abnormal motivations.’ These poems experiment with that model of indirect and euphemistic writing about homosexuals (whether ‘human skunks’ or ‘overdrawn bachelors’)—seemingly enacting the sexually ambiguous position of the earlier generation of writers like Firbank and Forster whom he studied at Oxford.
In 1983, the year after Confidential Chats with Boys was released, Hollinghurst published two pieces of criticism that showed his growing dissatisfaction with that ambiguous approach—and a latent desire to write more boldly about sexuality. First, in a critical TLS review of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, Hollinghurst wrote, ‘Edmund White’s primary irony is to make his the story of a homosexual boy . . . Is he intentionally challenging some assumed norm of decorous heterosexual writing by creating a style that is overblown, self-advertising, narcissistic, the livery of a specifically homosexual literary position?’ He told The Paris Review in 2011: ‘It took a while for the impact of [White’s] book to settle in my mind—the idea that truth-telling was essential, and not incompatible with a highly aestheticized manner.’ Second, in an essay on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography published that same year, he wrote with praise of the raunchily homoerotic subject matter—‘hot and cold, horny and classical’—and the work’s ‘combination of detachment and love.’ ‘His art has continued to thrive on stereotypes which are allowed their full potency at the same time as they are ironised,’ he argued. The photograph ‘Larry and Bobby Kissing’ (1979), which depicts a tender kiss between two men in leather, received special attention as ‘important not only for itself but as perhaps the first time such a subject had been photographed.’ He concluded, ‘The person who stares at [the photographs], in arousal or boredom, is staring also at himself.’
What he saw, in White’s book and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, was a radical possibility: an extravagant homoerotic art of ironic moral vision. By simultaneously embracing the normative value of ‘classical’ forms and the raw truth of ‘horny’ impulses, he could, at last, fully realize the worldview embedded in the phrase ‘hard-core innocence.’ It became possible, in other words, to make art about queer sexuality that was both explicit and moral. The results were works with a surprising universality, in which ‘the person who stares at them . . . is staring also at himself.’
The next year, 1984, Hollinghurst began work on The Swimming-Pool Library. He told The Guardian in 2004 that his goal was to ‘write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically . . . When I started writing, that seemed a rather urgent and interesting thing to do. It hadn’t really been done.’ When his first novel was published in 1988, it was clear that he had achieved this goal: White, who had clearly forgiven his erstwhile critic, called the book ‘surely the best book about gay life yet written by an English author.’ Hollinghurst had succeeded in melding the possibilities of the novel with a radical unveiling of the historical and sexual realities of gay life. He had offered a vision, only latent or ulterior in his early poetry, of homosexuality as ‘hard-core innocence’—a vision that, despite more than 25 years of social progress toward more equal rights, remains radical and necessary today.
But what of poetry? Confidential Chats with Boys would be Hollinghurst’s only foray into publishing a volume of poems. Despite signing a contract with Faber in 1985, he never produced a full manuscript. The poet had become a novelist—a change that felt, he told me, like ‘switch[ing] tracks’, leaving him unable to return to writing poems. But poetry had not been pure play. The impulses that we see in his poetry—artful ambiguity, a complex, lyrical intimacy, and the early, tentative formulation of ‘hard-core innocence’—are impulses that recur and evolve in his novels. It does not seem an exaggeration to say that poetry had helped him to answer to a challenge from Henry James, which Hollinghurst had quoted in his Oxford dissertation: ‘the dear little deadly question of how to do it.’ By 1988, he had not just figured out ‘how to do it’; he had done it.