“It’s hard to know what the Booker means in America. Americans aren’t eligible. Does that make them lose interest, or does it give the prize a mystique?” Alan Hollinghurst wondered aloud during an interview last week in his office at 185 Nassau.
Hollinghurst is this year’s Old Dominion visiting fellow in the Creative Writing Program. Just before Princeton’s fall break, his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, was awarded the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Whether Hollinghurst’s American students are aware (or perhaps jealous) of the prestige of their professor’s prize, they appear proud of his success.
“They were so sweet about it,” says Hollinghurst. “Both of my classes bought bottles of champagne to celebrate.”
Since 1969, the Booker Prize has been given annually to the best novel by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or Ireland. If Americans are unacquainted with the Booker Prize, they are certainly familiar with many of its past recipients. The list of past winners reads as a “Who’s Who” of British Empire writers from the last thirty years: Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Arundhati Roy, A.S. Byatt, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch, V.S. Naipaul.
Along with placing a writer in the distinguished company of his fellow prizewinners, the Booker provides its winner with a considerable increase in income. The Prize comes with a 50,000 pound purse (approximately 95,000 U.S. dollars), plus an almost guaranteed boost in book sales. The most dramatic example of the Booker Prize’s ability to, in the words of the Prize’s website, “transform the fortunes of authors, and even publishers,” is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The novel, about a sixteen-year-old boy’s voyage across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with his pet tiger, went from unknown to number one international bestseller when it won the 2002 Booker Prize.
Though Hollinghurst does not expect to achieve The Life of Pi’s staggering sales figures, the prize has helped the sales of The Line of Beauty considerably. According to Hollinghurst, the novel had sold 13,000 copies before the Booker Prize’s shortlist was announced. By the night of the award ceremony, sales had reached 40,000; by the end of November 90,000 copies of The Line of Beauty had been sold in England.
“These sales numbers are in a totally new league from my other books,” says Hollinghurst.
Hollinghurst had been nominated for the Booker Prize once before this year’s win. His second novel The Folding Star, about a teacher’s obsession with his seventeen-year-old student, made the shortlist in 1994 but lost to James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late.
Asked what is different about The Line of Beauty from The Folding Star to make it a winner, Hollinghurst gives a fairly obvious answer: “The Line of Beauty is a much better book. It has a broader appeal.”
Hollinghurst adds that the Booker Prize is a “personal” award, decided by a group of people with a wide range of personalities. The five-person judges panel—made up of a literary critic, an academic, a literary editor, a novelist, and a “major figure”—changes every year. Hollinghurst believes that a decade ago, the judges did not like what he calls the “gay element” of The Folding Star.
“There has been a change in attitude over the past ten years,” Hollinghurst explains.
Nevertheless, Chris Smith, the head of the 2004 judges committee and first openly gay member of Britain’s Parliament, claims that the homosexual themes of The Line of Beauty did not come up at all in the discussions about the prize.
“I find that hard to believe,” says Hollinghurst.
And indeed, the so-called “gay element” of The Line of Beauty is difficult to ignore. The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a recent Oxford graduate who has just emerged from the closet. At the beginning of the novel, Nick touches the suede journal of the handsome rower he has admired throughout college, “as if he were thumbing some warm and hairy part of Toby himself.” Nick’s sexual fantasies and realities only become more explicit as the novel continues.
This should not suggest that The Line of Beauty is merely a “gay novel.” Though Hollinghurst has consciously injected homosexuality into his writing (in October he told the British newspaper The Guardian, “From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position”), he rightly bristles at the thought that his work only appeals to other gay people.
Before it is a “gay novel,” The Line of Beauty is a novel for serious readers.
It makes direct reference to such literary luminaries as la Fontaine, Trollope, Henry James, and Lewis Carroll (an excerpt from whose Alice and Wonderland serves as the novel’s epigraph). Though an understanding of the novel does not depend upon knowledge of these writers’ works, each character’s literary preferences do reveal key elements of their personality. Nick’s dismissal of Trollope—“I always think he wrote too fast”—reflects his overall distaste for anything done too quickly. When a man quotes the poem “One-and-Twenty” by Samuel Johnson (to whom the novel’s characters refer simply as “Dr. Johnson”) in a speech at his son’s birthday party, Nick thinks, “It was typical of Gerald not to have realized that Dr. Johnson’s poem was a ruthless little satire.”
“I know that I’m a quite literary writer,” admits Hollinghurst, adding that his favorite writers are “from long ago. That seems to be the way my imagination works.”
Hollinghurst’s writing style also echoes that of his preferred long ago writers. Aside from its sexual explicitness, The Line of Beauty is an almost maddeningly discreet book; the reader often cannot distinguish between reality and Nick’s imaginings. The fuzzy line between fact and fantasy in Hollinghurst’s work has elicited comparisons to Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, and Henry James.
Nevertheless, Hollinghurst denies a conscious attempt to imitate his forerunners.
“I have never tried to be Thomas Mann or Nabokov. I have never tried to write like someone.” Hollinghurst says. “I have been inspired, not influenced. Proust and James have an intelligence at play in their work that gives me a sense of what can be done. I’m not the sort of writer who tries to learn lessons. I want to figure it out for myself.”
Hollinghurst’s semester at Princeton marks his second extended stay in the United States. His first took place after the publication of his 1998 novel, Spell, when he spent four months at the University of Houston, also teaching creative writing. Hollinghurst appreciates the good timing of both of his American teaching jobs.
“I always feel a bit directionless after a novel’s release,” he explains. Teaching gives him something to do while he begins imagining his next novel.
Teaching at Princeton also exposes Hollinghurst to something that hardly exists in England: the university creative writing class. When Hollinghurst was in college in the 1970’s, the only school in England with a creative writing program was the University of East Anglia, and it only offered a masters degree.
Thus, before his job in Houston, the closest Hollinghurst ever came to a writing workshop was the poetry society to which he belonged as a student at Oxford. This society accepted anonymous submissions from its members, so a writer could freely praise (or criticize) his own work.
“It usually became clear by the end of the meeting whose work was whose,” says Hollinghurst, adding with a laugh that the meetings usually involved the consumption of a fair amount of alcohol.
Despite his lack of formal education in creative writing, from the time he was fifteen Hollinghurst always had a novel in the works. He remembers himself in front of his typewriter, blasting Mahler in the background. His youthful zeal for writing did not immediately translate into a complete novel, however.
“Writing a novel takes a long time,” says Hollinghurst. “When you’re young you’re bound to grow out of a novel before being finished.”
Perhaps because of his own lack of experience with creative writing classes, Hollinghurst approached his job at the University of Houston with some skepticism.
“There’s a mistrust of it in England,” says Hollinghurst of formal creative writing classes. “I had some of that mistrust before I went to Houston. I thought, ‘If someone’s going to be a writer, they’re going to be a writer.’”
Almost two semesters’ experience as a creative writing teacher has tempered what Hollinghurst calls his “brisk British attitude” toward university writing programs. He understands that though few of his students will become professional writers, the classes teach valuable lessons by requiring that students read each other’s work. Hollinghurst has also found himself impressed with the quality of writing produced by Princeton students.
“I have been wonderfully interested in my students’ work,” says Hollinghurst. “I have some extremely talented, funny, witty students.”