Alan Hollinghurst Essay - Critical Essays

Hollinghurst, Alan


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."

Principal Works

Confidential Chats with Boys (poems) 1982
The Swimming-Pool Library (novel) 1988
The Folding Star (novel) 1994


Peter Kemp (review date 27 May 1994)

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 carillons, stepped gables, canals, swans and Memling paintings suggest Bruges. As yet unheard-of in the hectic homosexual milieux of The Swimming-Pool Library, AIDS and AZT now cast shadows.

This more twilight atmosphere is appropriate to The Folding Star, in that the novel counterpoints two fin-de-siècle fixations: the 1890s obsession of Edgard Orst, with a flame-haired actress who inspired the Sphinxes, Herodiases and other hieratic temptresses on his crepuscular canvases, and the 1990s obsession of an English tutor, Edward Manners, with his seventeen-year-old pupil, Luc Altidore.

Rather as William Beckwith, who narrated The...

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Nicholson Baker (review date 9 June 1994)

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 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...

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Victoria Hollander (review date 10 June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

James Wood (review date 28 August 1994)

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...

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Felice Picano (review date September 1994)

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...

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Craig Seligman (review date 24 October 1994)

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...

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David L. Kirp (review date 23 January 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)

Chris Goodrich (review date 27 January 1995)

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...

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Further Reading

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?"

(The entire section is 104 words.)