Alan Hollinghurst The Folding Star
Award: James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize for Fiction
Born in 1954, Hollinghurst is an English novelist, editor, poet, and critic.
For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 55.
Described as a homosexual version of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Lolita (1955), The Folding Star (1994) concerns Edward Manners, a gay British teacher who leaves his birthplace to begin a tutoring job in Belgium. Although he engages in various affairs with men of questionable intentions, Manners becomes so enamored and obsessed with one of his young paramours, Luc Altidore, that he follows him, spies on him, and steals articles of his clothing. After consummating their relationship—an event initiated by Luc—the teenager runs away and Manners, still preoccupied with his student, begins a search for him. Hollinghurst interweaves the story of Manners and Luc with that of a Symbolist painter of Flemish origins named Edgard Orst, who, like Manners, was infatuated with one of his young models.
Noted for its focus on physical attraction, sex and sexuality, fixation, and the feelings of anticipation and loss associated with desire, The Folding Star has received a mixed reception. Hollinghurst has occasionally been castigated for introducing the historical story line concerning Orst instead of focusing on gay characters in a contemporary setting and for refusing to examine the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship. The novel's main characters and its depiction of romantic love have also been faulted as unconvincing and undeveloped. Nevertheless, Hollinghurst has been praised for his examination of art and desire, and his use of a gay protagonist. Nominated for the Booker Prize as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Folding Star has also been lauded for its elegiac depiction of English society and culture—particularly in those sections recounting Manners's childhood—and for its literary richness. The novel, for example, has been compared to Lolita, Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice), and Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1954; Remembrance of Things Past); the story also takes its title from a poem by John Milton, which relates, in part, a shepherd's obligations to his flock. Gabriele Annan has noted, however, that these intertextual aspects of the book do "not make the novel a quilt of pastiches…. The texture of [The Folding Star] is as densely sophisticated as a Flemish tapestry (though tapestry is the one form of Flemish art that doesn't figure in it). That is one reason why it is an immense pleasure to read; the others are funniness and poetry, both handled with amazing sensitivity and accuracy."
SOURCE: "Aesthetic Obsessions," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4756, May 27, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Kemp lauds stylistic and thematic aspects of The Folding Star.]
Alan Hollinghurst's new novel is chock-a-block with visual artefacts: Symbolist paintings, still-lifes, pensive Virgins, country scenes, portraits, murals, etchings, engravings, waxen-looking historical tableaux, blackened Victorian allegories, charcoal drawings, townscapes, seascapes. The most significant of them, done by a turn-of-the-century Belgian painter, Edgard Orst, exhibit an imagination dwelling on the same patterns, but rendering them in different tones.
Not dissimilarly, The Folding Star reproduces—with one major new motif and pervasive alterations of shading and highlight—the distinctive configurations of Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988). That novel silhouetted a gay man against a city that was graphically portrayed and vividly populated. So does this book. But, this time, the setting isn't the flamboyant London of the early 1980s but a Flemish backwater in the early 1990s. The spring and summer of the earlier novel are replaced by autumn and winter. Instead of a wealthy, glamorous young swaggerer round the metropolis, this book takes as its narrator a slightly pudgy, bespectacled older man, teaching English in a silted-up museum city, whose...
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SOURCE: "Lost Youth," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 11, June 9, 1994, p. 6.
[An American novelist, nonfiction writer, and short story writer, Baker is the author of The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), U and I (1991), Vox (1992), and The Fermata (1994). In the review below, he offers a favorable assessment of The Folding Star.]
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 unmown 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 beelegs 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...
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SOURCE: "Dawdling Gay," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 306, June 10, 1994, p. 37.
[In the review below, Hollander provides a mixed assessment of The Folding Star.]
It is odd that nothing more in the way of an aesthetic has emerged from our fin de siècle than those cod modes designated by the drab prefixes post- or de-. The last end-of-century produced the movements of Symbolism and Decadence, from which emerged the modern sensibility. In The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst tips his hat to them, while enlisting their help to build an aesthetic and, indeed, an aestheticism for our time.
A large part of that aesthetic is homosexuality, of a particular kind. Like the similar narrating "I" of Hollinghurst's debut novel, The Swimming Pool Library, Edward Manners—the hero of his second—seesaws between affectless cruising and an obsessional yearning for a non-negotiable love-object, again an adolescent.
Whereas the earlier hero was an aristocratic golden boy, a swimmer in all elements, Edward is bespectacled, dark, 33, running to fat and possessed of a distancing erudition—a step on towards that portrait that lurks in the Hollinghurst attic. More monomaniacal, nay hysterical, in his pursuit of a fetishised beloved, he embodies the severance of emotion from carnality; a gay version of the Madonna vs whore sort of love much favoured by...
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SOURCE: "England Calling," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, August 28, 1994, p. 29.
[Woods is chief literary critic for the Guardian. In the review below, he lauds Hollinghurst's focus on and elegiac evocation of England, English society, and childhood in The Folding Star.]
A lot of people have noticed that Alan Hollinghurst's second novel [The Folding Star] is "beautifully written" of course—people now use this phrase very soothingly, as if it were the solution to a puzzle. Certainly, Hollinghurst's language, with its patrician roll, and its self-savouring languor, is worth keen attention; but the novel's real achievement is to have created a viable contemporary English prose, peachy with remembered glows, but not mopingly retrospective.
This is not a negligible or insular achievement. Post-war English fiction has, largely, been unable to tell convincing national epics; instead of English novels, we have novels of Englishness (most egregiously in Peter Ackroyd's work). Balzac called fiction "the secret history of nations", and Alan Hollinghurst seems to know this secret epic cannot be blustered into being. On the contrary, nationalism in art is like a medieval town: it radiates out-wards from a neglected centre.
The Folding Star begins foggily. Edward Manners, an old and seedily fatigued 33, arrives in a Bruges-like Flemish city. He is...
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SOURCE: "The Tutor's Tale," in Lambda Book Report, Vol. 4, September, 1994, pp. 18-20.
[An American novelist, poet, editor, memoirist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter, Picano frequently writes on gay culture and issues. In the following, he assesses the strengths and weaknesses of The Folding Star.]
Alan Hollinghurst's debut with The Swimming Pool Library was so sudden and complete a few years back that many Americans were surprised to discover that he didn't just pop out of nowhere, but in fact had been the editor of the prestigious Times Literary Supplement for some time. This fact may have explained the rapture with which the book was received in England, but it didn't explain what a wonderful first novel it was, and how, after an excruciatingly long wait, there was finally another gay British novel fit to place next to A Single Man, not to mention a dozen American gay novels in between.
The Folding Star is Hollinghurst's newest book and already garnering high praise across the Atlantic. For American fans, it may prove more problematic. I suspect it's an earlier book than The Swimming Pool Library, one he returned to after that book's success. Like the other novel, it opens with a casually related gay pickup and its narrator is a good-looking, youthful, over-educated fellow. Also like the earlier book, unsavory incidents from the...
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SOURCE: "Sex and the Single Man," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 34, October 24, 1994, pp. 95-100.
[In the excerpt below, in which he compares The Folding Star to Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, Seligman faults the author's development of character in The Folding-Star and argues that his depiction of homosexual love is unconvincing.]
Alan Hollinghurst's 1988 début, The Swimming-Pool Library, made a bigger splash than anyone might have expected of a book that could be labelled, uncharitably but not inaccurately, a gay sex novel. Nicholson Baker documented his enthusiasm in the fourth chapter of U and I and it was typical of the reaction: "Once you get used to the initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex, which quickly becomes really interesting as a kind of ethnography, you realize that this is really one of the best first novels to come along in years and years!" But even allowing for the element of self-parody in Baker's response (which the context makes clear) and tiptoeing around that "disgusting," I think his evaluation misses the point: without all the gay sex, there wouldn't be any novel. It's the book's reason for being, its one distinguishing note. From a formal standpoint, The Swimming-Pool Library might have made its appearance in a much earlier era. Hollinghurst produces an easy, artful, gabby prose that is...
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SOURCE: "A Man's Own Story," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 260, No. 3, January 23, 1995, pp. 101-02.
[An American critic and educator, Kirp frequently writes about educational matters and issues related to gay culture and politics. In the following negative review of The Folding Star, he compares the novel to other recent works by gay writers. Acknowledging that Hollinghurst occasionally offers telling moments and details in his portrait of gay culture, he describes the novel's protagonist as pathetic and the plotline as "crudely visible" and "patently artificial."]
During the dozen years between the 1969 Stonewall riot and the advent of AIDS, a host of writers reinvented gay fiction. (Lesbian fiction was also being reconceived, but that's another story.) Banished were the accounts of wracked consciences and suicides in the making, tearstained tales of tea and sympathy. Gone as well were the coded references and coy asides of writers who, afraid for their livelihoods in straight America, dared not even reveal their names.
"Come out! Come out!": The political anthem of that era echoed in fiction that unceremoniously tossed out the old conventions as if they were last year's Halloween drag. Storytellers of varied persuasions—among them Andrew Holleran in the almost mythical Dancer from the Dance; David Leavitt in the New Yorker-ish short-story collection Family...
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SOURCE: "A 'Lolita' Tale but without the Conscience," in Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1995, p. E4.
[Goodrich is an American critic and nonfiction writer. In the review below, he discusses similarities between The Folding Star and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), focusing on the ethical questions posed by Hollinghurst's novel.]
Vladimir Nabokov knew very well that Lolita would provoke an enormous scandal upon its U.S. publication in 1958. A teacher so infatuated with a 12-year-old girl that he determines to marry the girl's mother—imagine!
But the novel works, and brilliantly, for Nabokov knew just how far to push his material, how to make it echo with understanding—of the Western romantic tradition, of the tragi-comedy inherent in obsession, of taboo and vice and self-delusion. Humbert Humbert's love for Lolita is pathetic and wrong but also powerfully real, and it's a thrill to watch Nabokov walk the tightrope between pornography and art, indulgence and illumination.
Alan Hollinghurst, author of the widely praised The Swimming Pool Library, attempts to walk a similar tightrope in The Folding Star, but in this novel, at least, he shows little of Nabokov's acrobatic skill.
Edward Manners, a gay, well-educated, 32-year-old Englishman, has moved to Belgium to tutor high-school boys Luc and Marcel, and even before...
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Review of The Folding Star, by Alan Hollinghurst. Kirkus Reviews LXII, No. 13 (1 July 1994): 871.
Brief plot summary and critique of The Folding Star.
Shone, Tom. "Manners Maketh Boy?" The Spectator 272, No. 8655 (28 May 1994): 38.
Mixed assessment of The Folding Star. Shone praises Hollinghurst's portrait of his gay protagonist as well-defined, but laments the novel's focus on history: "How can someone who has single-handedly done so much to put a contemporary gay sensibility on the map, not find enough adventure in exploring it?"
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