Alan Hollinghurst is better at bees than Oscar Wilde. On the opening page of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde has them ‘shouldering their way through the long un-mown grass’. A bee must never be allowed to ‘shoulder’. Later that afternoon, Dorian Gray, alarmed by Lord Henry Wotton’s graphic talk of youth’s inevitable degeneration, drops a lilac blossom that he has been ‘feverishly’ sniffing. Bee numero due appears, taking most of a paragraph to ‘scramble all over the stellated globe of the tiny blossoms’ and further interrogate the ‘stained trumpet of a Tyrian convolvulus’. Here again, when you’re talking about bee-legs and their prehensile dealings with plant tissue, ‘scramble’ doesn’t quite do the trick.
In The Folding Star, on the other hand, Alan Hollinghurst’s narrator (who has several traits in common with Wilde’s disillusioned, youth-seducing Lord Henry) describes lying on a bench in the sun, ‘breathing the seedy vanilla smell of a bush on which half a dozen late bees still dropped and toppled’. ‘Dropped and toppled’, with its slumping music, is brief and extremely good: avoiding the mention of blossoms altogether, it nicely captures the heavy, dangled, abdominal clumsiness of those end-of-shift pollen-packers.
There are things like this, and better than this, to be grateful for on almost every page of Hollinghurst’s new book – in almost every paragraph, in fact. And yet it isn’t glutting to read because its excellences are so varied and multiplanar. Hollinghurst, it seems, has an entirely sane and unmanic wish to supply seriatim all the pleasures that the novel is capable of supplying. The conversation, especially, is brilliant, but everything – depraved or refined or both – is tuned and compensated for, held forth and plucked away, allusively waved at when there’s no time for a thorough work over, and neatly parsed when there is. The narrator is a sad man, past-besotted, unachieving and ‘drinky’ if not drunken, with moments of misanthropic Larkinism (‘Books are a load of crap,’ he unconvincingly quotes near the beginning), but his lost-youth mood is the opposite of depressing because he describes whatever suits him with an intelligence that cheers itself up as it goes.
He – Edward Manners – has come to a mythical, silt-choked, fallen Flemish city (Ghentwerp? Brugeselles? some hybrid, anyway) to start fresh by tutoring two boys in English. One is the son of an art historian who has been plugging away at a catalogue raisonné of a minor (and fictional) Burne-Jonesite Symbolist and syphilitic with the wonderful name of Orst – Edgard Orst, that is, depicter of fabric-draped interiors, spare seascapes, and allegorical women with orange hair and racy chokers made of Roman medals. But this first boy has asthma and is plump, so forget him. The other ‘lad’, Luc Altidore, 17, he of the wide shoulders and wondrously puffy upper lip, is the descendant of an eccentric luminary named Anthonis Altidore, a 16th-century printer (Christophe Plantin?) who, so we learn, successfully traced his ancestry straight back to the Virgin Mary. (‘One imagines some pretty murky areas around, say, the third century,’ somebody comments.) Despite the presence of a bewildering array of men and their variously sized and angled organalia in Edward Manners’s gay bar-coded sensibility, young Luc, though he may possibly be a heterosexual (mixed blessing!), and though the thought that he is related to Jesus Christ is ‘slightly unnerving’, utterly appropriates our likeable if occasionally glum hero’s romantic imagination. Luc is no rocket scientist. ‘I could have impressed him, even gently squashed him with my knowledge,’ Manners thinks, but allowances must be made for the language problem, and anyway, as Lord Henry Wotton explains, ‘Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius as it needs no explanation.’ Manners, in a fever of early-thirties infatuation, can’t stop thinking about that cursed ‘molten trumpeter’s lip’ which blows all the available competition away; like some ‘creepy old hetero’, he finds himself sniffing used lad-undies and crusty lad-hankies, tasting dry toothbrushes and stealing negatives in order to get closer to this unattainable Altidorian Gray, who though he is at his best in white jeans can ‘ironise’ even a pair of khakis, leggy piece of work that he is.
Like Hollinghurst’s great first book, The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star has many characters but few women. The author takes pains to greet them and make them feel welcome in a chapter or two, and he clearly bears them no ill-will, but he can’t focus on them for longer than half an hour. It’s too bad that we don’t have a little more time with the charming (and page-boyish) Edie, for example, who is willing to listen to any lurid sketch of gay fetishism with ‘the open-minded expression of someone on holiday good-naturedly learning the rules of a foreign national game’. But Edward is fundamentally suspicious of, or at least uninterested in, the ‘never fully plausible world of heterosexual feeling’. An awed or intrigued reference to the male ‘genital ensemble’ occurs every fifteen pages or so, as well it should. (For instance: ‘sometimes modest and strong, sometimes lolloping and heavy-headed, its only constants an easy foreskin, a certain presence, and a heather-honey beauty’; or, he ‘pissed fiercely in the bushes; then stood for a while slapping his dick in his palm as a doctor smacks a vein he wants to rise’.) An analogous visual insatiability within the straight world, however, Edward views with fastidious distaste. Presented with some antique dirty pictures of a laundry-woman, he says: ‘I made my interest scientific, dimly thinking what a prig I was when it came to women and the indignities men demanded of them.’
All this seems both true and very funny – there is a deep chasm, no doubt essentially vulval, of reciprocal incomprehensibility that normally separates the gay cosmology from the prevailing straightgeist; we might as well recognise the obvious cleavage and wrest some entertainment out of (for example) our mutually baffling pornography. Manners, with refreshing intolerance, goes so far as to say that ‘there was always something lacking in those men who had never had a queer phase as boys, it showed in a certain dryness of imagination, a bland tolerance uncoloured by any suppression of their own, a blindness to the spectrum’s violet end.’
Blind and violet-deprived though we few remaining creepy heteros are (and sleep-deprived, as well – Hollinghurst includes a glimpse of a new father, who ‘yawned like a dog, with a whine too’), we nonetheless do our best to learn as much as we can about our cross-pollinating betters, and we welcome, or ought to welcome, with foot-stamping and cheers and the earnest rattling of our model-airplane kits, the inspired historical verisimilitude that Hollinghurst brings to bear in both his books on the making of an alternative creation-myth of artistic evolution. The retroactive homosexualisation of poetic history, and especially of the tradition of pastoral elegy and rustic reflection as it works its way down through Milton, William Collins, Wordsworth and Shelley all the way to the fictional Georgian poet ‘Sir Perry Dawlish’, is accomplished with astonishing ease and plausibility in The Folding Star.
In one scene, the adolescent Edward waits outdoors for the evening star to come out and thinks over his phrase-hoard of nature poetry and ‘becomes a connoisseur of the last lonely gradings of blue into black’; and in doing so somehow leads us to the conviction that all the grunting, groping and ‘stubbly frenching’ that apparently goes on at dusk between men and boys in decrepit parks and overgrown commons, in ruined abbeys and hermitages and other handy arcadias, has always gone on and is good and worthwhile – is, indeed, the secret triumphant undertheme of all pastoral verse. Edward looks over the trees at that trope of tropes, Hesperus, star of the muse and of poetic attainment, the ‘folding-star’ of Collins’s ‘Ode to Evening’ or (as in Milton’s ‘Comus’) the ‘Star that bids the shepherd fold’, and it seems to become for him the winking lure and symbol of all things perseveringly evanescent, immortally short-lived, bravely tearful and impeccably campy. Edward never goes so far as to say that his private muse, his beloved vespertine twinkler, is actually puckered, forthrightly anal, but he is too visually on the ball not to want to allow us to infer that cinctured sense of ‘folding star’, as well – he refers to Luc (the name is a broken spangle from ‘Lucinda’, perhaps) as a ‘star’ and as ‘starlit’ and we concede the point. And it’s a star of mourning, too; the Aidsy sadness of so much recent loss, the disappearance of brilliant youths and the disappearance of one’s own youth’s brilliance, and the more general sadness of the unknowable generations of self-stifled and closeted poets that preceded our outspoken time, and then, too, the simple asexual unattainability of much of what we really want and the unretrievability of what we best remember, are some of the emotions toward which Hollinghurst shepherds us.
The Folding Star turns out to be one of the few satisfying books around that treats the relationship between art and life and the secrets they keep from each other. In the 13th century, the English exported wool to Bruges, where Flemish guild-members wove it into cloth and tapestry. Edward Manners here exports himself, his native language, his wool-gathered raw-material of educated reading, his sexual appetite, to a Brugesed and battered city that goes to work on him and knots him as we read into a figure in its ancient hieratic carpet. The allegory in the book is thick and ambiguous and un-Jamesian: like a well-hung (shall we say) Flemish tapestry – like the Flemish tapestry, perhaps, that hangs in the childhood room where Dorian Gray secretly stores his horrifying portrait, or like the tapestries Edgard Orst paints behind his mysterious orange-haired models – it’s decorative and plush and fine, exuberantly pictorial but uninsistently in the background.
Given the man-boy theme, we may be forgiven for keeping half an eye out for gender-flipped Lolitanisms. There are at least two: a pointed passage about the pronunciation of ‘Lucasta’ (‘the darting buss with which it began, the upward and downward flicker of the tongue against the teeth’); and the Frenchified ‘dream palindrome’ of ‘Luc’ and ‘cul’. One could conceivably call these defects, but they aren’t – as a matter of fact, the play on ‘Luc’ and ‘cul’ helps dissolve another minuscule potential reproof, which is that there are a few too many uses of the vogue word ‘clueless’. For ‘clueless’ is only a dream anagram of ‘Luc-less’ – and the pain of Luc-lessness is what this clue-laden book, lucky for us, is all about.