An Interview with Alan Hollinghurst

By · Illustration © · Date 10/31/2019

The English writer Alan Hollinghurst is one of the great chroniclers of musical experience and anal sex. His characters don’t simply hear music; they live with, through, inside it. I met Hollinghurst one bright afternoon at his home in Hampstead.

VAN: There are many classical music-related jokes in your novels. In The Swimming-Pool Library, a character is described as having the “stratospheric vagueness” of “some visionary anthem by Stockhausen.” Do your readers get those jokes? Do you care?

Alan Hollinghurst: Who knows. I’ve always thought that you can’t worry about what your reader is going to get, in terms of references and so forth. People will complain to me that they have to keep looking things up in the dictionary. You have to assume a readiness, and—you hope—a knowledge on the part of the reader.

I supposed they’re just part of the culture I grew up with, music being a very important sphere of reference for me. It’s often not a terribly calculated one; it just emerges naturally for my protagonists, who are usually musically quite sensitive and informed. Then I realized I was doing this too much, and in my book The Stranger’s Child I deliberately had one of the protagonists [be] a young man who is tone deaf and generally finds music rather annoying. I created a piano recital scene in it, which was supposed to be a reversal of the one in The Line of Beauty, where [the protagonist] Nick is the only person who is really appreciating the music, and everybody else is kind of impatient for the buffet. In The Stranger’s Child, it’s a social occasion where everybody’s loving it, and Paul, this young man, thinks they’re all terribly pretentious.

But generally speaking, I suppose I reach quite readily for musical references, which obviously suggests that music plays an important part in the lives of the characters. So the jokes—I don’t know. Perhaps there are others?

There are definitely others. At one point in my notes on The Swimming-Pool Library, I wrote that there were too many hilarious observations about composers for me to keep track of them all.

Oh really? Yes, well, Will has his own taste. He finds it very symptomatic of his doctor friend, James, that he’s very into punishingly grim late Shostakovich. His idea of a relaxing evening at home is listening to Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata.

At one point, Will is reading James’s diary. James is in love with some boy who doesn’t love him back, and Will compares the tone of the entries to a Wagner opera: “Weh! Weh! Schmach! Sehnsucht! and so on.”

[Laughs] My life was so Wagner-saturated at one time. I didn’t quite carry on like that, but… I first heard Wagner—you’ve brought me to reminisce about this—at my prep school, which was a boarding school that I was sent away to at the age of seven. One of actually quite a lot of good things about it was that after prep, which was the sort of homework type thing that, because you weren’t at home, you did after supper, a couple of evenings a week there was something called musical appreciation. It was just a voluntary thing: you went to a particular classroom and you’d be played some music, from lending records. And the master would write up on the board, “Kindly lent by…” So it was extremely miscellaneous.

But they were important occasions to me. On one occasion, I must have been about 11 or 12, we had the Overture and Venusberg music from “Tannhäuser.” It was one of the earliest aesthetic experiences which I can still feel. I can see the old Philips gramophone, and I can hear very clearly those opening bars emerging from it, and see, looking out the window across the drive, the summer evening. I’ve probably embroidered it a bit subsequently. But nonetheless, there was a sense of hearing something completely new. The sense of endless yearning in the strings. And it was clearly something to do with sex and adult passions, things which I didn’t yet understand. It was the music of the future. I could see that it was.

It must have started me off on my slow process of getting to know Wagner. In my later student days, at Oxford, I was totally obsessed with Wagner. There would always be a “Ring” cycle going on [laughs]. Obviously, I’d play some bits more than others.

How many times in total do you think you listened through the “Ring” in that time?

Well, I wonder. I saw it for the first time at Covent Garden in 1977. A Götz Friedrich production, conducted by Colin Davis. It was very thrilling. Gwyneth Jones, of course. But I think, in some sort of dotty way… Have you been prone to Wagner?

Yes.

It’s designed to take over your life. And it did. And I think I often found ordinary life rather disappointing in comparison. This fantastically overwhelming cult of high feeling the whole time…it was hard to sustain [laughs]. I don’t often put a Wagner opera on now. It’s a long time since I’ve had an evening with the libretto, sitting on the sofa. But whenever I do hear him, he does seem beyond anything.

The way you write about classical music, it feels like your characters have really lived with it. They talk about it the way the people I know who love classical music talk about it: they are irreverent and opinionated.

Yes. I’m sure that’s true. Nick’s detestation of Richard Strauss—his feelings are very much drawn from my own, actually.

I have areas of ignorance. I’m very blank about anything written before, say, 1770. The idea of having to sit through a Handel opera does fill me with gloom. But it’s interesting how one gets wiser about things. I grew up listening to Britten a lot, and then I did rather go off him. And I think some of that ambivalence is probably in that scene in The Swimming-Pool Library, where they go to see “Billy Budd.”

That occasion was based on [a time that] I saw it. We had the original production at Covent Garden for decades, with the old, massive scenery of the deck. I was sitting quite high up, and looking down at the end of the interval, and realized that Peter Pears was coming in. It made quite an impression on me, so I just put that right into the book. And one can be surprised and moved and startled into seeing things one has got fed up with or thought were not quite up to scratch, and they can be given new life, which is quite encouraging.

The Swimming-Pool Library is a nearly all-male novel, and “Billy Budd” is the all-male opera.

Well, yes, that was one reason I put it in, of course.

You know, John Updike wrote a very peculiar and in its tiny way rather notorious review of my novel The Spell. He said something like he missed the animating chirp of the female presence. [The original quote is “you begin to long for the chirp and the swing and civilizing animation of a female character.”—Ed.] That book does have some female characters in it, but it’s essentially about the relationships between four gay men. And he was very perplexed by this world which didn’t center around women and the desire for women. I’m interested in that: What does gay life revolve around? And “Billy Budd” draws so much strength from its not-quite-declared homoerotic feelings.

A lot of gay opera fandom is centered around the figure of the diva: think of Wayne Koestenbaum’s book The Queen’s Throat. But that is very much not a part of your work.

No, it’s not. I do like the great female divas. But I’m conscious of standing slightly aside from that cult-like adoration of the diva. There are great singers, like Christa Ludwig, whom I revere as artists, but it’s not quite the same thing as fan hysteria. But I think I’m not very susceptible to that, actually. I find it rather embarrassing.

Why?

I remember, it was the first time I went to Venice, back in the late ‘70s, and realizing that Rubinstein was this figure. There was an elderly man walking with a younger woman in a fur coat, going along the Riva. And I saw someone just come up and kneel down and kiss his hand. Absolutely extraordinary [laughs]. And this is what a great artist has to put up with. The sort of religio intensity of fandom. I have to say I’m pretty free of that.

That’s something I appreciate in your work. Your characters never adhere to the trope of gay people who project their sexual desires, into something else. They live closely with art and music, but they also often lead very fulfilled sexual lives.

That’s an interesting point. I’m very aware, having lived a lot of my life in the imaginative sphere as it were—it was a refuge and a place onto which one projected, music particularly, because of its inwardness and un-specificity, and often its state of heightened emotional intensity—I’ve certainly lived a lot of my life with my strongest feelings invested in music. I do think I’ve always been rather wary, not programmatically, but just naturally of these socio-sexual typologies. Part of the point all along was to present gay people on the one hand as fascinatingly different, but also just like anybody else who’s getting along with their life and having affairs and doing a job which they may or may not like.

So that type, which of course I recognize from your description, of the lovelorn queen, projecting all their feelings into Maria Callas or something, just didn’t interest me somehow.

I have a theory about your novels that if two characters have very different taste in music, later on they’re going to have a pretty serious break from each other. Do you think that’s true?

I haven’t quite thought about it. I mean, there is a question of how seriously you take your music. Gerald in The Line of Beauty is that type who thinks “great fun” is the highest term of praise.

In The Sparsholt Affair, Johnny has a crush on a boy named Ivan. When they are both young, Johnny says something about having seen a Mahler Symphony and Ivan answers, “Oh, you mean the really loud, really long one.”

[Laughs] The Mahler thing was very big when I was that age myself. The Mahler Revival as it’s called. The later ‘60s, early ‘70s was the time when Mahler really was rediscovered. Growing up, during my school holidays, I worked summers on a farm, humping strawbales. That’s how I earned the money to buy my first stereo, and the first records I bought were the Bernstein Conducting Mahler set.

But the very first time I heard Mahler was at my big boarding school. I was standing outside the house—the school being divided into houses which were where you actually lived—and I heard this extraordinary sound coming from an open window. I was riveted by it, and remember going and asking the senior boy whose study it was about the music. I was very attracted just to things being very loud and very long.

Mahler is now so ubiquitous. It’s rather hard to imagine one’s way back into the time where a performance of Mahler was a fantastic event not to be missed. He was also very much dispraised. I can remember listening to music record review programs on [the BBC’s] Radio 3 when I was a late schoolboy, a university student. You would hear quite senior music critics saying that they found his music intolerably exaggerated and overblown. There was quite a strong feeling against it. That suspicion of emotionalism that perhaps is stronger in British culture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edA9Zard3-U

Yes, that sounds right.

An Englishman is allowed to sob discreetly at Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

When you write a scene that has music in it, do you listen to the music that you’re writing about at a certain point in the writing process?

I might just pop it on again to remind myself. It’s a very difficult thing, isn’t it? Describing music interestingly without been swotty about it, the battle of making it seem relevant to what’s going on in the scene. I suppose I convey its effect on the feelings or perceptions of a particular person rather than making general remarks about it. I’m not writing as a critic; I’m using it as a means of exploring the inner perspectives of a character. E. M. Forster has famous fun with this in Howard’s End, the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth: the quite different ways that the various people in their little party are responding to the music.

Perhaps I do tend to imagine people responding to music rather as I do, which I can’t properly describe, except that there is some sort of subliminal, spatial dimension to it. Which I write very, very vaguely, like a landscape or something like that. It’s part of something: a sense of apprehended, visible expanse. Do you have anything similar when you listen to music? Do you hear it purely as an abstract pattern of sounds, or does it take you into some cloudily divine sort of space?

I don’t know. I don’t tend to think in stories like some people do.

No, I don’t think in stories either. Except, again, that kind of progress which seems to be encoded in so many romantic and post-romantic symphonies. They take on some sort of subliminal narrative quality—often quite explicitly. You’re encouraged to see it in narrative terms; everything, especially the harmony, makes you feel you’ve arrived somewhere, you’ve gone through some struggle to achieve. People find that moving because they are investing in it something personal. It’s fascinating how the emotions created by music are not the same as the emotions created by real life. They coexist, I think.

Perhaps it is a way of dealing, by proxy, with real feelings. Of course, one can be overwhelmed by the summary of an emotional process whilst listening to music. And there are times where one is in a state of emotional crisis where music can be quite difficult.

But I’m speaking so wafflingly about all of this, because it’s something which is invisible. How do you describe this thing, the incredible importance it has in our lives? I do enjoy trying. I don’t think I’d be capable of writing a book about a musician because I don’t have the musician’s understanding of music.

Do you have formal musical training?

I never learned an instrument or sang. I don’t read music. But by now, I have accumulated quite a lot of technical understanding about music. My musical memory is engaged in probably a rather different way from that of a professional musician, and I feel that I have quite a good musical memory. I was very delighted: I used to do a lot of switching on the radio and having to guess whatever it was and having professional musician friends making wildly wrong attempts.

For example?

I couldn’t possibly incriminate them.

I think you’re the only novelist I’ve come across with this simultaneous appreciation of classical music at home or in the concert hall, and then the music in gay clubs, and the combination of that with drugs. That’s a really important part of life in Berlin, and the lives of other classical musicians whom I know. Classical music on the one hand, club music on the other, enhanced by substances like ecstasy and MDMA. I’m not really sure exactly where I’m going with this question except to point out that I don’t think I’ve read about characters who appreciate both, besides in your novels.

Yes. In my raving years, I did have quite a lot of friends I went out with regularly who were classical music fans. But I think I wouldn’t have got interested in house music or danced for hours and hours and hours to three repeated notes if it hadn’t been for the drugs. It was rather a revelation of one’s under-appreciation of the music. You could then play it at home and sort of half feel you’re back under the sort of spell of the place. It was obviously so fused with sexual feelings, and was generally very charged and exciting.

There’s the scene like that at the end of The Sparsholt Affair.

That was my farewell to the dance floor really. That scene was much, much longer when I originally wrote it because I put in a lot more that I remembered. Everybody said, “For God’s sake, get a grip of yourself.” I cut it down. [Laughs] ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.