Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
While living in Durham, N.C., back in the 1980s, I met a guy who was studying creative writing at Duke University. I have come to think of him as the doomed acolyte. One day he told me that his teacher, venerable Reynolds Price, rolled into the classroom in his wheelchair and gave the class a curious assignment. Price told the students they were not to touch the short stories they were working on for the next week. Don’t change a single word. Don’t add or delete a comma. Don’t even look at your stories.
When the class reconvened the following week, Price asked how many had fulfilled the assignment. About half of the students, including the doomed acolyte, raised a hand. Price then stunned the room by advising those who were able to follow his instructions that they should consider dropping out of the course. His reasoning was brutal and simple: Anyone who is able to stop writing for an entire week — even for a single day — does not have the right stuff to become a writer. True writers, Price was saying, are in the grip of a compulsion. They have to write, and they are powerless to stop doing it. It is why they are alive and it is what keeps them alive.
That story came back to me — and it came into question — when I heard the news that Philip Roth has quit writing fiction. “To his friends,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times, “the notion of Mr. Roth not writing is like Mr. Roth not breathing.” I’m sure Reynolds Price’s friends felt the same way about him. Roth, author of more than 30 works of fiction over the past half century, has stuck a Post-it note to his computer that reads: “The struggle with writing is over.” Roth said he looks at that little sticker every morning and it gives him “such strength.”
I’ve been writing every day for the past 40 years or so, sometimes getting paid to do it and sometimes not, and through all those years I’ve assumed I will keep doing it until my wits leave me or I die. In other words, I’m a long-time disciple of the gospel according to Reynolds Price, a believer that writers are people who are both blessed and cursed by the compulsion to distill their experience of the world into words on a page. But Roth’s startling announcement caused me to begin rethinking this assumption. Why shouldn’t writers be free to stop writing when they they’ve lost their appetite for the grind, or when they feel they’ve lost their edge, or when they’ve said everything they care to say? Isn’t it liberating to think that writers are not slaves, after all, but are actually free to walk away from their desks and never look back? And even though many writers remain productive into their eighties and beyond– James Salter, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Elmore Leonard come immediately to mind — isn’t it preferable for some (most?) writers to quit rather than keep going through the familiar motions?
Of course Philip Roth was not the first writer to retire. Writers have been putting down their pens for many years. Here is a selective and thoroughly incomplete list of the ways half a dozen writers have retired — or tried to — with wildly varying degrees of success:
1. Retiring Prematurely: Arthur Rimbaud
Before reaching his 21st birthday, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), fueled by a diet of hashish, absinthe, and bad behavior, produced dazzling works of poetry and prose that became pillars of modernism. Then he quit writing. He spent the rest of his short life demeaning his literary output while wandering from Indonesia to Africa, working as a soldier, a foreman in a stone quarry, a merchant of coffee and guns. No one has ever solved the great mystery — why did this brilliant wild child quit writing? — though in Bruce Duffy’s novel about Rimbaud, Disaster Was My God, the poet’s lover Paul Verlaine may have come close. “Well,” Duffy’s fictional Verlaine says, “one big reason, perhaps obvious, is he grew up…the child in him died.”
2. Retiring Selectively: E.M. Forster
After publishing four novels in a six-year blaze, E.M. Forster (1879-1970) was silent for more than a dozen years before producing his most famous book, A Passage to India, in 1924. Then — no more novels. But Forster did not stop writing. He continued to produce essays, plays, film scripts, criticism, biography, and travel writing, even worked as a broadcaster and collaborated on the libretto for an opera. One theory has it that Forster, who was gay, stopped writing novels because he did not feel free to write about the theme that interested him most: homosexual love. In 1971, the year after his death, Forster’s novel Maurice was published. Begun in 1913 and revised several times, it tells the story of two men who are in love with each other, and happy.
Lionel Trilling wrote that his personal feeling about Forster’s abandonment of novel writing “fluctuates between disapproval of a dereliction from duty and a sense of relief that a fine artist has not seen art as a grim imperative.” That notion of writing as a “grim imperative” opened my eyes wider to the possibility that my original thoughts on compulsion were far too narrow. Trilling was relieved that Forster had overcome such a view. Maybe I — maybe all writers — should overcome it too.
3. Retiring Aggressively: J.D. Salinger
No American writer became more famous for being silent than the reclusive J.D. Salinger (1919-2010). After producing an indelible novel and a book of short stories, he retired from the literary world — indeed from the world — in 1953, moving from New York to a 90-acre hillside compound in Cornish, N.H. He produced two more books of stories, in 1961 and 1963, then published his final work, the long story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” in The New Yorker in 1965. He never published another word, though in a rare interview in 1974 he revealed that while he had retired from publishing, he had not stopped writing. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Salinger said. “It’s peaceful. Still. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
3. Retiring Half-Heartedly: Alice Munro
Alice Munro, one of the undisputed living masters of the short story, published a collection called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001, when she was 70 years old. Ben Dolnick, a hard-core Munro fan, wrote here last year that Munro then entered what he considered the “cruising phase” of her career. When Munro announced in 2006 that she was retiring, Dolnick found himself, curiously, remembering the one time he saw Michael Jordan play basketball, then thinking of Jordan’s unpretty habit of over-staying his welcome after his best years were behind him. “When (Munro) announced her retirement in 2006,” Dolnick wrote, “I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the (Washington) Wizards.”
Munro’s retirement didn’t last. But unlike Jordan’s, her return to the game was not unpretty. Her 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness, was a critical success. Even Dolnick was delighted when Dear Life followed it late last year. He wrote, “Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.” Surely a writer’s desire to use up her allotment of words is justification for coming out of retirement.
In an interview in 2010, the year after Too Much Happiness appeared, Munro was asked what advice she would give to young writers. She replied, “If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think ‘There must be something else people do,’ you won’t be able to quit.” Munro is now 81, and still writing.
4. Retiring Ambiguously: Imre Kertesz
The Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, who survived the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, announced his retirement last November. Or did he? In an interview with a German magazine, Kertesz, who is 83 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, said, “I don’t want to write anymore. I consider my oeuvre, so closely related to the Holocaust, as closed, whether I succeeded or not.” Sounds like a retirement announcement to me. It did to the French journal ActuaLitte, too, which picked up the news. The Millions followed suit. As these reports spread, however, Kertesz’s American publisher, Dennis Johnson, posted a recollection of visiting Kertesz and his wife in Berlin last March. “The only really somber moment occurred when Imre spoke of his fear of not being able to finish the new book he was working on,” Johnson wrote. “Still, he was making progress, he insisted, and was determined to get it done.”
When the reports of his retirement began circulating several months after that meeting in Berlin, Kertesz wrote to Johnson that the rumors were “a bit too hasty.” He added, “Naturally, I will try to write as long as I can.” Ah, ambiguity.
5. Retiring Richly: LaVyrle Spencer
It’s always refreshing to meet writers who admit they’re in it for the money, and it’s important to remember that they’re not always hacks. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, no writer was hotter after the dollar than Henry James. The Master gets some competition from LaVyrle Spencer, who wrote her first romance novel when she was in her 30s and working as a junior high school teacher’s aide in Minnesota. She went on to produce 23 novels, including a dozen New York Times best sellers, and was inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Then, at the age of 54, she retired from writing. Why did she quit cold when she was selling millions of books and making millions of dollars? It’s downright…un-American. “I want to feel free!” she told Publishers Weekly. She added that she had set a financial goal when she was starting writing novels, and once she reached it she promised herself she would retire. Unlike so many others, she kept her vow. She told PW she planned to enjoy her two young grandchildren and travel with her husband. No grim imperative for LaVyrle Spencer.
6. Retiring Gradually: Roberto Bolaño
You can’t get any more retired than dead, yet writers of a certain stature have a tendency to keep publishing from the grave. Recent examples have included Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, David Foster Wallace, and James M. Cain. (Many fans are hopeful that J.D. Salinger did indeed keep writing during his long silence in New Hampshire, and that eventually he will join the club.)
But no dead writer has out-produced the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño, whose estate has put out a torrent of titles since he died of liver failure in 2003 at age 50. The posthumous output peaked with 2666, a novel of breathtaking sweep built around the disappearance of hundreds of women near the Texas-Mexico border. The torrent is finally subsiding, but scholars, critics and biographers are sure to keep picking over Bolaño’s life and work for years to come.
Which brings us to the paradoxical answer to the question posed in this essay’s title: It turns out that, yes, it’s possible for any writer to retire, but the good ones live on long after they die, and the great ones are never allowed to die. William Faulkner wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to read, “He wrote the books, and he died.” More fitting would have been: “He wrote the books, and he died, but the books were so good that people kept reading them for years and years after he was gone to dust.”
Images courtesy of the author.
Alan Hollinghurst’s work combines the joys of the traditional tropes of the 19th-century novel with a contemporary sensibility unencumbered by the 19th century’s social strictures. The Line of Beauty, his 2004 Booker winner, employed the strategies of a “Jamesian procedure,” he says, in which one writes about a large period of time from the point of view of one person. The result is a series of “social events” that are all filtered through a singular main conscience. But unlike a Henry James novel, The Line of Beauty, a story set in the upper class milieu of Thatcher’s England, includes among these “social events” lyrical descriptions of gay sex. What is suggested by James’ strange use of the word “perverse” in his late story “The Beast in the Jungle” is here made explicit and definitive. There is an argument that the golden age of the novel died with the rise of divorce. A Portrait of a Lady cannot emerge from a society in which an upper-class woman can happily remain single. Hollinghurst’s examinations of gay culture in differing periods may suggest otherwise.
The first third of The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, indulges a pleasure common to recent historical fiction. The book opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance enjoys a day at a fellow Cambridge sodomite’s family estate, where he scratches off a poem in a 16-year-old girl’s album. That poem, thanks to a Churchill speech, becomes a national elegy for England’s World War I dead, of which Cecil becomes a member. In the third and fourth sections of the novel, set respectively in 1967 and 1980, an enterprising writer, Paul Bryant, sets out to write Cecil Valance’s biography in an attempt to uncover the contours of the poet’s sexual lilt. If the early sections of the novel excite our desire to read between the lines of the codes of the past, adopting a style not unlike Evelyn Waugh, but with fewer double entendres, the latter sections call that very desire into question.
I met Hollinghurst at his room at the Grand Hotel on October 27 in Minneapolis, where he was on book tour. The hotel was a hilariously ugly Vegas-like concoction in the city’s downtown. I sat down on an armchair next to a strange coffee table shaped like a silver tree stump. He sat on an office chair at a desk in front of his laptop. We started by chatting about James Wood’s unflattering review of The Stranger’s Child in The New Yorker and I turned my digital recorder on. What follows is a pared-down version of a one-hour conversation.
The Millions: Do you read reviews?
Alan Hollinghurst: I do, unless very strongly warned off them by some kind person. There’s no point in upsetting oneself unnecessarily.
TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?
AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.
TM: When he did the parody of you?
AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
TM: I know you lived a very social life during your time at the Times Literary Supplement. But when you’re in the process of writing novels, you don’t seem to be living a very social life, as far as I can tell. All these profiles describe you as somewhat reclusive.
AH: I do rather play that up for profile writers. (laughs) I’m actually very lazy, and put off doing anything for as long as possible. But a combination of reasons will bring me to my desk. And then when I get on with it, I do get on with it. It is, after all, how I make my living, what I feel I’m supposed to be doing in this life. So I’m then very disciplined. But I have quite a social life in the periods when I’m not writing a novel. This book took me four years to write, but there were quite a few periods during those four years when I wasn’t at my desk.
I love society. And it’s true I used to live a more social life before. Working at the TLS threw me into the whole world of literary parties and book launches, which I used to go to all the time. Like any professional world, the behavior is extremely repetitive in nature. I described in The Stranger’s Child, Paul Bryant having this experience, of going to a party and staggering out at a quarter to nine, drunk, hoping to find someone to have something to eat with. And then having a horrible blur of that night after night. (laughs) So that was a kind of socializing I really quit quite happily. I think as one gets older one just wants to see the people one really likes and not be bothered by all sorts of mere social obligations.
TM: I’m trying to get at the machinery of writing. Joseph Conrad takes a trip around the world and finally settles down to his desk and writes about Africa and Latin America. My assumption had been that you had lived your youth and then decided to sit down and write about what life is like in society.
AH: One has reserves of memory, which is obviously a writer’s main resource, really. It’s not really a problem. I think the way I write I tend to have periods of exposure to life, as it were, where particularly dramatic, thought-provoking or stimulating things might happen. Then there are periods where I withdraw and reflect on them. But it’s not as if I did everything in my youth and then retired to write about it for the rest of my life. Writing is a constantly growing, alternating process. It’s reassuring to know that one still has pockets, areas of one’s life that can still be explored.
TM: There are a lot of holes at the end of this book. There are lingering questions about all sorts of things we realize won’t be answered. When you leave those holes, do you, as the novelist, have them filled in for yourself?
AH: No, I don’t actually. I really want the reader to be left in as great a state of speculation as a lot of the other characters are both [in the earlier sections] and those who weren’t there but were trying to work it out later on [in the later sections].
What to leave out is so important. I like the fun of withholding information, the trickle of disclosure, the distance that might create in the reader.
TM: But does not knowing those things make it harder for you to do your work as a novelist?
AH: Yes, it was very hard. (laughs) But you’re right, if I had written a more substantial outline of all the stuff it might have felt different. But actually being in uncertainties seemed to be somehow part of it. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps I could have written it much more quickly if I had outlined it all.
TM: But did you consciously decide that there were things that you yourself wouldn’t know when you started the book?
AH: Yes, I suppose so. It’s so peculiar talking about unknown things in stuff that is fiction. In a way, I feel I don’t know anything about my books except what’s on the page. It’s not completely true, because in the process of writing there are projected scenes that don’t get written and scenes that do get written that get cut out. So there’s a slight blurring of that idea. People often come up and ask what happened to characters in The Folding Star and it’s not just me being tediously teasing when I say, “I don’t know.”
TM: So there’s Paul Bryant in The Stranger’s Child and Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. They’re similar characters in that they’re likable as we see them. We read them from their point of view. Nick is something of a moral coward. Paul is covered in moral turpitude. In both novels, I’ve heard you say before you don’t like to tip your cards, you don’t like to make moral judgments. And yet there’s a moment at the end of both novels where you snap the reader awake to the point where they realize these characters may be worse than they have been presented as being.
AH: But there’s a complicated moral thing going on. I don’t like to seem as a novelist to be rewarding and punishing. I hope the reader is led on these complicated processes of identifying with the character instead. I deprived Paul of all sorts of things which Nick has. That came from a determination not to keep writing characters who shared all my own enthusiasms and experiences. He has no understanding or appreciation of music at all.
I hoped that in the long confrontation with Daphne in the end, we would have two characters the reader had an inward relationship with and now were head-to-head with each other. Neither behaves terribly well. The reader might not know where their sympathies lie.
TM: But there’s a trigger in both. Why do you wait to the end to give us this little knock?
AH: I guess it seemed to me quite effective. I’m trying to get away from certain novelistic stereotypes not to write books where the last minute revelation of a secret explains everything else. But nonetheless it’s hard to resist putting it in.
TM: I didn’t much care for the television adaptation of The Line of Beauty. I thought the book was very funny, but when I saw the adaptation I saw moment after moment that seemed to suck the comedy dry from the book.
AH: Well it was different in a lot of ways. I did sometimes feel that even the characters who more or less had the lines in the original book didn’t quite seem to get them. It would be a bit invidious to pick out people who don’t live up to my expectation. I think I hear the tone of things in my head and I’m gratified when readers do. But I don’t think they do necessarily. And the shooting script is such an exiguous thing. It’s this tiny little column. The dialogue is so pared-back. I think it worked best in the things that weren’t funny at all. My feeling was it got better after a rather clunky start. I was actually quite moved by the third episode. It’s a very constrictive sort of medium, the TV.
TM: I interviewed Colm Tóibín a few years ago and he went on a rant a bit about John Updike’s infamous review of The Spell. He said that it just showed that Updike had a “super-developed heterosexuality” that just “eats” into his work. I thought I would just let you respond to the review yourself.
AH: Well, it was deplorable in various ways, but I also remember being very amused by it. There was this person who had gone to rather extraordinary lengths in his details of heterosexual sex and for whom the analysis of sexual behavior seemed to be so fundamental to his work as a novelist. But who was giving the impression in this review that everything he knew about homosexuality he gleaned from my novels, like he had never come across it in real life at all. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary, therefore so absurd, the old way he put it about the animating chirp of the female presence or something that he so missed in my books. It was terribly silly. It showed that he had chosen to emphasize his own failure with this large and interesting aspect of human behavior.
TM: You have a lot of very good-looking characters who seem to enjoy this aristocratic privilege of their good looks. I know so many gay men, who no matter how good-looking they are, are extremely uncomfortable with their looks, simply because they are subject to the interests of other men. So why do you keep returning to this character who I don’t believe exists in real life?
AH: (laughs) Yes, well, I suppose vanity is a form of insecurity isn’t it. It’s true. Nick is uncertain about his looks. He looks in a mirror when he’s going on his first date. And he’s seeing what could be attractive to someone else. That’s the fundamental thing that’s happening at that point. But really he is magnetized by what seem to be the greater attractions of other men. Perhaps people rather lose themselves in the worship of beautiful people. You think these characters should be more neurotic? (laughs)
TM: Well, maybe it’s again what I like about your books. There’s a certain indulgence of fantasy and then a deconstruction of it. You have these characters for whom the obtaining of and the act of sex is so easy.
AH: Well, I’ll certainly ponder it when I write my next book. There’s a yearning for a world of superb sex and beauty, but there’s often quite a lot of anxiety and comedy about the failure to attain that. Will’s adventures in The Swimming-Pool Library are quite farcical
TM: In your profiles you say you don’t want to be seen as a gay writer. I guess the best defense of that is that you don’t wish to be seen as a herald of your people.
AH: Yes, I don’t feel able or have any desire to take on any representative role or take on anyone else’s agenda. I always wanted to write my own books about rather odd people. This came up again recently in an interview in The Guardian with someone who didn’t really understand what I meant. I was so hoping that we could get beyond the whole gay writer thing now, which I feel stuck in. It’s a very changed sexual world in which we live now. It’s changed a lot from when I started writing. [Being gay] just wasn’t such a significant thing anymore. But I’m afraid the interviewer adhered to the type of broad-minded straight bloke who had come to interview this demon of perversity and that was the story. There’s a strong desire in the media to maintain these types. I believe that article was entitled “Sex on the Brain.” And there was nothing in it about sex. [It was] the idea that gay books have to be dangerously and obsessively sexual.
TM: But being dangerous is part of what has made being gay a rich and interesting literary subject for so long. So if it ceases to be dangerous can an interesting novel still be written about homosexuality?
AH: I see your point absolutely. I think that’s why I keep going back to write about periods in which being gay was more challenging, more emphatically critical of the status quo. That thing E.M. Forster said about Maurice that being gay is what saved him because it turned him into a critic of his own society. That’s always been rather fundamental to me actually.
But I was bored with the association of gayness and licentiousness in the straight imagination. I feel a certain thinness in the social subject of gayness at the present moment.
TM: Do you laugh at your own jokes when you write?
AH: Yes. But not absurdly…Wit is a quality which I really appreciate in novelists. I don’t mean telling jokes. You get it in James. You get it in George Eliot. This wonderful play of intelligence which I really prize, which often finds things funny in something more serious. That’s something I admire and strive to maintain.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group”To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club