Alan Hollinghurst was awarded the 2004 Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, his deliciously witty dissection of Thatcher’s Britain. Nick Guest is drawn into the glittering world of the conservative, moneyed social circuit as he boards with the family of a Thatcher government minister during the 1980s. As the 1980s reach the heights of excess, so does Nick, inevitably coming to a crashing conclusion.
Readings were fortunate enough to host Alan in conversation with Australian Book Review’s Peter Rose at the Athenaeum in June.
“I don’t know whether it’s a political novel,” Hollinghurst told the audience. “But I wanted that decadent atmosphere of the 1980s to percolate through the book … I was very fascinated by this incredible hold [Margaret Thatcher] had, not only over the general population, but also over those in her immediate circle, and the psychological aspect of that.”
“It’s a book about decadence,” he continued. “It’s about the lure of the aesthetic life, but also its dangers. Nick lives in a world of his own sexual preoccupations. I hope the reader is aware of the terrible things happening outside the scope of the novel.”
We caught up with Alan earlier in the day to discuss his book, the Booker, the politics of Britain under both Thatcher and Blair, and a life in letters.
What was the inspiration behind The Line of Beauty?
Novels come to me in an oblique sort of way. I get an image or see a situation. It probably began with the idea of writing about the world of Tory power and money. The idea of leading an innocent somebody into this world and letting it work its magic on him and corrupt him. It just seemed to me to be an imaginatively interesting way of approaching the period.
It was a sort of picture of the house, too. The house is always very important to me in my books. When I first moved to London, I used to often walk along Kensington Park Gardens on my way to the swimming baths and wonder who lived in these enormous houses. They always seemed very impressive. It was a slightly bleak street, with these great white terrace houses six stories high, facing each other over an empty space. They are also rather beautiful in a way, I suppose. I’ve never been inside one of them.
Would you like to walk in and see if it’s how you imagined it?
A friend’s daughter actually moved into one. They’ve almost all been turned into flats now. She said she wouldn’t at all mind if I wanted to go and have a look, but I realised I didn’t want to mess up my imagined version.
Have you found that there’s been a big increase in attention to your work since you’ve won the Booker?
I think it makes a huge difference, actually. I would never have anticipated it. When you look at sales, I know it’s had a fantastic effect on those. I’ve sold ten times as much of this book as I had of any previous book.
Had it sold more before it won the Booker?
It did well, and was critically the best received of any of my books, but the short-listing doubled the sales. I myself would never buy a book just because it’s won the Booker prize, but then I’ve worked in the literary world for a long time, so I’m fascinated by how other people look on it as a sort of guide on what to read.
How similar are you to Nick Guest? I mean, you’re a Henry James fan and an aesthete yourself, for instance.
Yes, I gave him a lot of my own interests, but I tend to do that a lot in my books. I think I was trying to look at aspects of my young self. It’s certainly not a self-portrait. His story is not my story. But his shyness and his desire to please, and that sort of snobbery which young people have - I was rather like that.
What was your own experience of that era, the eighties?
I moved to London in 1981, having hung around for far too long in Oxford, mostly just sitting around on the dole, hitching a ride to London as often as possible - making the huge 40-mile trek. And I was almost immediately offered a very nice job on the Times Literary Supplement. I had been doing bits and pieces of teaching and so on, and I suppose I always sort of thought I’d have kind of an academic life, and then I was offered a much more well-renumerated role in journalism, so I guess I jumped ship without much thought. At the beginning of 1985 I became deputy editor of TLS. In 1984 I started writing my first novel in the evenings when I got home from work. So I just had a rather industrious sort of time. The London that had seemed to me - and to Nick - to be so romantic and full of exciting potential on arrival changed drastically over the middle years of the eighties. It was a very difficult and very uncomfortable time. It could have been very depressing going back and immersing myself in those years. I wrote the book as a sort of a social comedy, which was a bit of a reflex action, I now think, so as not to cut my own throat!
It must have been very interesting, having had that experience of that time, to go back and write it from the opposite perspective of someone who was really benefiting from that time and enjoying it?
I could have done something from the perspective that I’ve just outlined, where I felt myself positioned politically. But actually, though I was living in a world of people who felt like that, more than 40% of the population voted for her three times in succession and thought she was absolutely wonderful. I guess that part of being a novelist is imagining the lives of people different from you. There is something more interesting about that.
Nick, despite his efforts, does find himself marginalised, partly due to his background but also due to his sexuality. Have you ever found yourself marginalised as a writer because of your sexuality?
I’ve been very fortunate, actually, because it’s worked the other way round. My first book attracted quite a lot of attention because of it. That sort of became almost too much in my point of view. That became the point of interest. It was my calling card. No, I’ve never felt marginalised by it. I’ve been very fortunate in my trajectory as a writer.
I always think it’s quite sad that something as private and insular as writing, that you have to be able to go out and sell yourself.
There’s an absolutely extraordinary change that’s taken place in the last 20 years, and is accelerating all the time. It’s very tough on young writers who don’t have a hook or are not so gorgeously beautiful, or are not related to someone famous. The whole thing has become so superficial.
You’ve said in a recent interview that Blair is now doing things that Thatcher herself might have hesitated to do. Were there any particular policies you were referring to? Is there anything in particular that makes you angry?
There are all sorts. One would be the continuation of the Thatcherite policy of privatisation, flying in the horrendous face of established Labor policy and their election promises. I also think the increasing centralisation of power in the Prime Minister is very Thatcherite. The Prime Minister is supposed to be the first among equals, but more and more is taking decisions on his own, fortified by having this colossal majority, just as Mrs Thatcher had, which made her feel that she could do absolutely whatever she wanted. And of course this weird conviction of the politics of joining the war in Iraq. I’m sure she would have done the same if she had the chance.
Do you think that with non-conservative politicians it’s easier for them to go further with those sorts of policies because there’s no opposition? I mean, it’s hard for conservative politicians to oppose something they agree with.
Yes, you’re absolutely right, I think. The party political conflict was rather temporarily sidestepped. Blair could be confident that the Tories would be silent when he lied to them about the weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the leader of the Tories was rather outdoing the Prime Minister, whilst massive dissent was coming from the Labor backbenches. There is the sense that there is no proper friction or balance in party politics at all nowadays.
When Blair came to power after all those years of conservative rule, did you have hope?
I had huge hopes, yes. I remember it so vividly. There was this huge landslide. There was this modest confidence that Labor would get in, but the terrific thing was the scale of it. Here was this person who was maybe fractionally older than myself, [televised as] all sort of chatty in his kitchen, and he seemed like a decent bloke. I left for a period in the States soon after the election, thinking “how wonderful!” But it wasn’t all that long before it all dissolved.