Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2208
“My life was in a strange way that summer, the last summer of its kind there was ever to be,” says William Beckwith, the spoiled and rakish narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s highly acclaimed first novel,The Swimming-Pool Library (1988). “I was riding high on sex and self-esteem—it was my time, mybelle epoque—but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.” It is not only the coming of AIDS that makes the summer of 1983 a turning point for the twenty-five-year-old Beckwith, guilty of nothing worse than his own “mindless randiness and helpless sentimentality.” This is the summer that Beckwith, out cruising Kensington Park, saves the life of eighty-three-year-old Lord Nantwich, who later invites him first to lunch and then to write his biography. The difference in their ages, a variation on a theme from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), proves less significant than their considerable similarities, in education, in clubs, in sexual orientation. The temptation to write the biography of a man who had been friends with gay eminences such as Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank is great but not great enough—not because Beckwith has anything better to do with his time but because of what he discovers in reading Nantwich’s journals: that Beckwith’s grandfather was “really the driving force” of the 1950’s “crusade to eradicate male vice.” The crusade failed (a failure paid off with a peerage) but not before Nantwich had been arrested and imprisoned. “The one unspeakable thing that no one had been able to tell me threw light on everything else, and only left obscure the degrees of calculation and coincidence in Charles’s offering me his biography to write—a task he must have known I could never, in the end, accept.”
The Swimming-Pool Library is a startling, amazingly accomplished, and ambitious first novel, butThe Folding Star, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is an even better book, clearly indebted to the earlier yet in every way its superior in its artful exploration of homosexual desire. Neither polemical nor prurient, Hollinghurst’s treatment of gay life has at least as much in common with the postmodern novels of Peter Ackroyd, John Banville, and Julian Barnes as it does with the gay fiction of Edmund White. At once intricate, explicit, and elegiac, The Folding Star succeeds as both an engaging literary tour de force and a sad comedy of unrequited love and unfulfilled promise. Chief among its many strengths—its formal symmetry, verbal precision, attentiveness to the male body, and sheer intelligence—is the manner in which Hollinghurst creates and sustains, occasional humorous touches notwithstanding, a strangely, perhaps perversely inviting atmosphere, at once lucid and “tenebreaux.” As Hollinghurst has explained in Granta, “The writers whom I revere are grand and shadowy—Navokov, Proust, James. . . . I like things to reverberate, be suggestive.”
The novel is set in two shadow-filled locales, the small English town of Rough Common (as in “rough trade”) located southeast of London and, more important, the small and unnamed Belgian city with its bars (the Cassette for gays, the Golden Calf for old men), its Catholic gloom (St. Narcissus, St. Vaast, St. Caspianus), its small museums, its factories and baths, its working-class districts and the faded splendor of its once-grand houses and park, the Hermitage, now a cruising ground. In a world at once specific and spectral, the hero is right to claim, even late in the novel, that he knows “nothing of this country.” “To me,” he says, “it was a dream-Belgium, it was Allemonde, a kingdom of ruins and vanished pleasures, miracles and martyrdoms, corners where the light never shone. Not many would recognise it, but some would”—more, one suspects, by way of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic stories than by perusing Fodor’s and Michelin’s travel guides.
As the story opens, Edward Manners, the novel’s thirty-three-year-old narrator, has arrived in Belgium, his motives “too tenuous to explain” though ostensibly to tutor two boys: seventeen-year-old Luc Altidore, recently expelled from St. Narcissus, and sixteen-year-old Marcel Echevin, too sickly to attend. Overweight and shortsighted, a writer of limited abilities and financial resources, Edward is (his homosexuality aside) everything that William Beckwith is not. Longing for a future but locked in the past, he is only as self-deceived as he is self-aware, his life “one of understandings based on sex and misunderstandings based on love.” Even as he becomes infatuated with Luc, he takes on, or alternately is taken on by, a succession of sexual partners, including Cherif Bakhtar, a Moroccan from Paris, and Matt, also known as Vim Vermeulen, a confidence man and pornographer specializing in videos, stolen underwear, and most recently a telephone service at which Edward proves rather adept—disconcertingly so for Hollinghurst’s readers, if not for Matt’s clients.
Edward plays various roles—voyeur, vampire, victim, and more specifically in relation to Luc, mentor, father, lover. Clearly, Cherif, Matt, and the others only serve as substitutes for the adored and mistakenly idealized Luc, who as it turns out is himself a substitute, most obviously for Edward’s lost youth and more important for the doubly lost love of his life.
The latter becomes apparent only in the novel’s middle section, when Edward returns home to Rough Common for the funeral of his friend Dawn, né Ralph. Once back, he begins to recall his past. He thinks about his father, a singer of some ability but not quite enough; he recalls his own early promise as a poet, encouraged by his Aunt Tina and her friend Perry (Peregrine) Dawson, the one a minor novelist, the other an equally minor poet. Finally, he remembers his earliest homoerotic and homosexual experiences culminating in 1976, when he was seventeen and his father was dying of cancer, with Dawn, dead now in an automobile accident a few months before he would have died of AIDS. The driver, Dawn’s lover, “should have known the problem with [the car] in the wet.” The same may be said of Edward, who buys condoms once, more out of boredom than out of any commitment to safe sex, and seems to use them not at all.
Dawn looms large in The Folding Star, even though he figures in it directly very little. In this he is like virtually all the novel’s characters (and there are plenty of them), who do not so much enter and exit as in a stage play as float in and out, materializing and then dematerializing as in a dream (a more or less bad dream, though a decidedly good novel). Only briefly sketched, they are remarkably real if never quite realistic. They are figures in a world that manages to be both physical and psychological, a world not unlike Alice’s Wonderland, a virtual reality of comic terror. Luc’s mother, for example, “the most prolific needlewoman in Belgium,” has transformed her house into “the shrine and workshop of an obsession.” No less grotesquely, Marcel has been struck not dumb but asthmatic by the unusual circumstances of his mother’s death:
I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy. It turned out he had been shopping in the town with his mother: he was only six, it was ten years ago, in the summer. They had gone into a florist’s and were waiting to be served, when he saw a bee hovering around his mother’s shopping-basket. He knew she mustn’t be stung by a bee, but she was talking to a friend and she told him not to interrupt. He tried to flap it away, but only frightened it, and as his mother turned to him it flew up and stung her in the face. She groped for the antidote in her handbag, but she’d brought the wrong bag. She fell to the floor in front of Marcel, and within a minute she was dead.
Then there is “Rodney Young, Researcher,” whom Edward frequently encounters and especially loathes—as well he might, for this bête noire is Edward himself, slightly older, slightly less occupied, slightly more lecherous.
More intriguing and more important to the narrative is Marcel’s widowed father, nearly fifty years older than his son. Paul Echevin gave up a promising career as an art historian to become the curator of an obscure museum devoted to the work of a once-famous but now largely and perhaps justly forgotten local artist, Edgaard Orst. Devoted to and overprotective of his subject, yet well aware of the relative insignificance of this labor of perverse love (the brainchild of Orst’s spinster sister), Paul finds in Edward “the right person” to confess both his misgivings and his darkest secret, which transforms his devotion into an act of penance. During the Occupation, when he was seventeen and his parents were active in the Resistance, Paul fell in love with a man who turned out to be a member of the fascist militia. As the Allies advanced, Paul tried to save the lover he now despised. Instead, however, he inadvertently betrayed an elderly couple and the half-Jewish invalid for whom they had been caring, the artist Orst.
Edgaard Orst is the novel’s most fascinating character, even more than Dawn, its absent center. Though he had once been famous and wealthy enough to build his fantastic Villa Hermes, a House of Usher (now fallen) in this City by the Sea, he lived out his last days “a premature ghost,” syphilitic, blind, forgotten. He lives on in the museum that attracts few visitors, in the catalog Paul seems unable or perhaps unwilling to finish, and finally in Paul’s efforts to complete the museum’s collection, particularly the enigmatic triptych entitled Autrefois. One of the panels depicts the love of Orst’s life, the actress Jane Byron, whom he met in 1899 and who died within the year, drowned at sea. Her body was never recovered except figuratively by the painter, who found a prostitute to play the divine Jane’s part, the model filling in for the absent actress. If, as Paul contends, “Orst’s tenacious remembrance of Jane was an ideal form of the collector’s passion,” then it was a passion that had “taken the fatal turn into fixation”—a fixation that all too closely resembles Edward’s pursuit of Luc, the simulacrum of his long-lost Dawn. Looking “at the familiar panel of Jane,” Edward sees
a dream of beauty, glimmering silk, folded angels, troughs of velvety dusk. Then I pictured her splayed successor, the plunge from reverence to cruelty. I assumed that, after once being robbed of what he loved, Orst had needed to chain his girl down (Marthe she was called), to insist on his power while he could, with a kind of futile force—it was like watching the angel of bereavement hugely delayed. I met the face in the dark oval of the mirror, and caught my breath as much at my own stupidity as at the halting gaze of chrysanthemum eyes.
The Folding Star is itself a triptych, a tenebrous imitation of life, a series of mirror images that both reflect and distort. The novel is all done with mirrors, an art of self-conscious conjuring that alternately reveals and disguises itself in its cunning relay of duplicate characters, parallel scenes, and intertextual echoes. Here history occurs not twice but thrice: first as tragedy, then as farce, and finally as something other. Thus when Luc runs away, his mother outfits Edward in her son’s too-tight clothes and sends him off in doubly hot pursuit in her car, which he nearly crashes when a jealous Cherif tries to jump out just before Marcel (at Paul’s insistence) gets in. The chase, worthy in its way of the Keystone Kops, comes to naught. Edward learns soon after that although Luc was indeed running away, he was not running away from Edward after they spent a night together; he was running from his friend Patrick, whom he loves but who does not love him, for Patrick loves Sibylle, who loves Luc. Worse still, Edward learns by chance that Matt has been using Luc, presumably for his nefarious commercial purposes. Yet not even this knowledge quite prepares the reader for the novel’s final revelation.
The Folding Star may derive its title from John Milton’s 1634 masque Comus (“The Star that bids the Shepherd fold”) and its plot from Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), but its power to intrigue, seduce, and astonish the reader derives from Alan Hollinghurst’s extraordinary narrative skills and compelling psychological insights.
Australian Book Review. July, 1994, p. 52.
Library Journal. CXIX, October 1, 1994, p. 114.
London Review of Books. XVI, June 9, 1994, p. 6.
New Statesman and Society. VII, June 10, 1994, p. 37.
The New York Review of Books. XLI, November 3, 1994, p. 23.
The New Yorker. LXX, October 24, 1994, p. 95.
The Observer. June 25, 1994, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 25, 1994, p. 31.
The Spectator. CCLXXII, May 28, 1994, p. 38.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 27, 1994, p. 19.