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.)