Sunday, June 12, 2011


Thanks to Terry for pointing out this article in the Observer about Alan Hollinghurst, occasioned by the publication of his fifth novel The Stranger's Child. The following paragraph is so pertinent to the three dicussions we've had about him that I quote it in full:

The other criticism expressed about Hollinghurst's writing is that it lacks warmth, that his characters are essentially unsympathetic, even unlikable. It's a judgment that serves to reduce the novel to a personality contest. What might be fairer to say is that Hollinghurst does not conceal the less appealing human qualities – vanity, selfishness, jealousy – and nor does he seek to delineate his characters according to their distribution. "I don't make moral judgments," he has said. "I prefer to let things reverberate with their own ironies and implications."


DCSteve1441 said...

First, thanks to Terry for finding this article and to Tim for posting the quote.

It is striking (to me, at least) that Andrew Anthony doesn't deny the ACCURACY of the criticism. Instead, he performs a sort of literary jujitsu in an attempt to turn what I have long regarded as Hollinghurst's chief failing into a virtue.

That's a clever tactic, I grant you, but it distorts the basis of the argument. I have no quarrel with authors who present unsympathetic, even despicable characters, though I fail to see why that is any more praiseworthy than a decision to make everyone nice. (I'd also point out that John Milton doesn't cast Satan as the hero of "Paradise Lost," though he gives him plenty of juicy lines!)

Furthermore, when Anthony asserts that comments about the lack of sympathetic characters in a novel reduce the work to some sort of "personality contest," I infer that he sees such an approach as a weak-minded yearning to have someone to like.

But once again, this is a straw man argument. I don't expect an author to spell out which characters I should root for. However, I do expect him/her to know! Cheers, Steve

Philip Clark said...

A conversation I had recently with a gay writer who shall remain nameless yielded the following classic quote about Alan Hollinghurst's novels: "I assume people love Hollinghurst because his novels are highly literate porn. He writes beautifully, and the books are always sexy, but they're not interesting emotionally or dramatically."

Yes. This. It's a well-worded version of what I've always tried to say about Hollinghurst.

Tim said...

I suppose I should be glad no one is suggesting The Swimming Pool Library be excised of its non-pornographic parts (as per the parings proposed for the pederast dying on the Lido). As memorable as its naughts bits are, however, without them this novel would become a very short short story.

More generally what's at issue here is how important moral considerations should be in a novel. Should the main characters be sympathetic or even likable; and if not, or worse, dastardly, should we expect or demand the "author" to condemn them roundly? An argument can surely be made for a moral viewpoint dominating, if not initially and continually, at least eventually. I've never been persuaded ... and I regret that people have failed to appreciate these novels as far as they might. We readers are too often compelled to be moral agents in the world we must act in. What a shame to lose the repose of aesthetic distance when permitted!

I should emphasize that I'm not adopting a more-literary-than-thou pose. I've written here of my irritation with Andrew Holleran's first-person novels (though I've read them all and will read any more that should appear). The narrator of Christopher Coe's Such Times was such a twit that I threw the book away when I finished it (though thinking back on it, that—his twittiness—may have been exactly the point). I've read Madame Bovary a couple of times and found it a perfectly heartless book, a book whose main character excites her author's contempt, while every other character elicits his disdain. I read almost all of Anna Karenina once and threw it away unread cause I couldn't stand Tolstoy's patriarchal patronizing of Anna a single page longer. (By the way, I'm not sharing these literary experiences to have them be misread as judgments.)

Sympathy, like beauty, is not absolute, at least for mortals seeing only shadows on a cave wall. A character may not be sympathetic … or the reader's powers of sympathy may simply have been feeble. It's somewhat less so, I think, when it comes to a novel being dramatic or not, and here the charge against Hollinghurst is simply false. Just consider his first and best known novel, The Swimming Pool Library. It's a rake's progress and we're wondering how it will all end up. Will Will avert catastrophe? More particularly, is he going to come to the aid of his best friend James by testifying for him in court? One may accuse SPL for ending as a cliff-hanger, but not to sense that it has is not to have been reading the novel at all.