Lines of Beauty

It’s been a nice few days, with my mum visiting me in Manchester for the first time since I moved here. The main reason for her visit was to see my graduation for my Open University degree (BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences with Psychological Studies and Sociology – 1st), although obviously it was also good to spend some quality time together. Plus I had a literary engagement last night…

The degree ceremony took place last Friday at Bridgewater Hall. It was the last of 20-odd that they’ve done this year all over Britain and abroad, but any jadedness that you might expect by that stage wasn’t at all visible. The staff were helpful, enthusiastic (without being forced) and genuinely interested, thus helping each graduate’s day to feel that extra bit special. The ceremony itself was preceded by some organ music and a very formal procession of the great and good of the Open University as they took to the stage. However, any fears that this might be a stuffy, pompous affair were quickly dispelled by the Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, a man full of joy and delight at the achievements of his institution’s students. I was one of 253 graduates whose hands were shaken and envelopes passed to them with little cards of congratulations inside, and every single one was enthusiastically welcomed on to the stage with “Hi (insert name)!”, a warm handshake and a few kind words. We were all encouraged to clap and cheer as well, so by the time the final graduate had been across the stage there were a lot of sore hands.

Cameras, understandably, weren’t allowed in the ceremony (official photos only), and my budgetary limitations meant I couldn’t really consider forking out upwards of fifty quid on ceremony photos. So instead, me and my mum took some photos of me in and outside Bridgewater Hall. Here are a few below, for the benefit of those who don’t follow me on Facebook (for those who do, they’re all up on there):

All-in-all, I can’t praise the organisation and presentation of this degree ceremony enough. It was a very positive end to what has been a very positive experience with the Open University, one that has seen me through almost six years.

Yesterday, sadly, my mum had to go back home to Kent. My sadness at having to see her off was, however, mitigated by the event I had lined up for the evening. This was the opening event of this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, a talk hosted at the Martin Harris Centre by Dr David Alderson, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Manchester. Taking part in the talk, two present-day literary greats: Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst. Tóibín is the University’s new Professor of Creative Writing, whilst Hollinghurst has just had his latest novel, “The Stranger’s Child”, published. Apologies, by the way, for any inaccuracies in the quotes given below: these were scribbled down by me during the talk…

Both men gave brief talks at the start of the event. Tóibín was up first, describing how, in 1980, he lived in Harker Terrace in Dublin for 7 years, next door to a house where Ireland’s most famous gay couple had lived (at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the country), in plain sight of both the police station and the censor’s office. The couple, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, were a pair of actors and theatrical impresarios. Mac Liammóir, although English-born and raised, reinvented himself with a new identity that was, from Tóibín’s description, more Irish than the Irish. Tóibín described how the pair negotiated their way through multiple layers of society and were thus able to live openly as a couple even though homosexuality was a crime (and continued to be so until 1993). Tóibín related a key moment in his childhood, when Mac Liammóir brought his touring play about Wilde, “The Importance of Being Oscar”, to Tóibín’s home town, a very conservative, rural Irish community, in 1965. Despite the show being about a gay man, Mac Liammóir never alluded directly to the issues that had led to Wilde’s downfall, instead relying on a combination of elision and allusion – thus his show proved hugely popular with conservative Catholic audiences, but also struck a chord with those to whom it spoke about feelings and experiences they dared not articulate.

Two decades later, Tóibín went to Buenos Aires to cover the trial of General Galtieri. He heard the harrowing testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured under his brutal regime, and came to associate the names of the streets in the city with this torture and darkness. Tóibín explained that, as far as the gay scene in mid-1980s Buenos Aires was concerned, there was none. It “lived in a silence between the courthouse and the railway station”, and consisted of furtive encounters in the dead of night. From his descriptions, whereas gay identities in Ireland at the same time were negotiated (such as those of Edwards and Mac Liammóir, the latter both in term of his sexuality and his nationality), in Argentina things were far more binary – you were gay at night, then not gay at all, to anyone, during the day: a silence about one’s own sexuality that Tóibín linked to the silence around the “disappearances” during the Galtieri regime; everyone knew it happened, but no-one dared articulate it. That was survival. And that survival could be aided in the strangest of ways, as Tóibín related meeting a gay Argentinian who had somehow come across, in Argentina, an English-language copy of Hollinghurst’s debut novel, “The Swimming Pool Library”, and how this had become his sole point of reference regarding his sexuality. For Tóibín, this was emblematic of how, in societies where homosexuality could not be out in the open (and here, of course, we should include our own up to less than half-a-century ago), “books were needed, because images were not there; or if they were, they were under so many layers that they could not be trusted or used productively.”

Alan Hollinghurst then took to the podium to give his talk. He started by describing how he came out in 1975 at the age of 20. At the time he was writing a thesis at Oxford on gay writers, such as EM Forster, who were unable to come out because of the laws of the time, and how they (rather like Mac Liammóir in his Oscar Wilde show) concealed or gave clues to their sexuality through their work. He compared their situation with the state that has been reached today, and what Adam Mars-Jones describes as “the essential banality of homosexuality”, so that to write about homosexuality is no longer notable or the cause of outrage. He describes how this stage was reached, first via the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 (which coincided with Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, one which openly detailed gay activity in the Bloomsbury Group), through the “embrace of candour” in the 1970s and beyond. Returning to Forster, his sexuality, whilst still never mentioned at the time of his death in 1970, is now a central aspect of his identity when he is discussed. Hollinghurst also talked about “The Swimming Pool Library”, and about how he feels the book has some shortcomings, in particular in his attempts to try and cram in a whole range of issues, not just homosexuality. Nevertheless, he highlighted its themes of candour and concealment, themes central to this particular discussion.

David Alderson then opened up a brief talk between the two authors, commenting on how those themes of concealment and candour were reflected in Tóibín’s often very spare writing style, and on the discoveries and revelations that change our perspectives on characters in Hollinghurst’s narratives. There was some discussion of style, Hollinghurst remarking that it is a “bad thing to be self-conscious about one’s style”. Tóibín meanwhile recalls having read Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” when he was 17, and recognising something in how emotions were written, implicitly rather than explicitly, and finding clues and inspirations through the book to his own writing style. Tóibín added that “writing comes out of the self”, explaining that it is impossible not to put something of yourself into your novels and characters, as “the things of the self feed into the creation of work.”

Picking up on Tóibín’s account of his time in Buenos Aires, David Alderson asked him why the Hispanic connection was so important. Tóibín explained that in 1975, when he was 20, he moved to Barcelona. Spain at the time had just been freed from Franco’s rule, and the country was enjoying a political liberation that happened to coincide with Tóibín’s own sexual liberation in a city of light, colour and freedom (in contrast with the grey repression of Dublin). Thus these experiences were adapted for his debut novel “The South” (albeit filtered through a woman in the 1950s).

After this, the floor was opened to questions and comments from the audience. These ranged from wanting to know why Hollinghurst’s characters didn’t have more enjoyable, fulfilled lives (Hollinghurst pointed out that some of them did); to how Hollinghurst’s 20-year-old self would have reacted to learning he’d become an award-winning writer (he would have been surprised, Hollinghurst commenting that he “can’t even remember when I first heard of the sodding Booker Prize”); to whether it was difficult making adjustments when writing as a character rather than using the authorial voice (Hollinghurst said he actually found it easier when writing as a character than as himself).

One person asked Hollinghurst to expand on AIDS and how this affected his writing. Hollinghurst explained that he had started writing “The Swimming Pool Library” in 1984, and that later that year a close friend had died of AIDS. Whilst he gave a lot of consideration to incorporating AIDS into the novel, at the time he did not feel he could do the justice subject; hence “The Swimming Pool Library” (published in 1988) ends in the summer of 1983, just before the AIDS crisis began in Britain, and he only felt really able to tackle the issue in “The Line of Beauty”, where AIDS formed part of the historical tapestry of 1980s Britain. Tóibín meanwhile remarked on how there have been other instances where authors have depicted events leading up to a moment of change or crisis, but have chosen not to depict the moment itself, instead stopping there (as Hollinghurst did in his debut), or eliding the event and rejoining the action afterwards (as Hollinghurst does in “The Stranger’s Child”, which leads up to the First World War, but then resumes some years afterwards). I can also see the former in “The Line of Beauty”, with the central character on his way to receive the results of an HIV test. He thus exists for us, like Schroedinger’s cat, in a state where he may be either positive or negative, but with the box remaining firmly shut.

Tóibín was asked if he thought people automatically looked for gay connections or messages in his books that had no overtly gay content, or whether he thought he felt a duty to include gay references or allusions in his work. Tóibín responded initially by quoting Anne Enright’s comment that she’s “only Irish on a Tuesday”. He said writing “The Master” was not a problem, as Henry James’s 19th-century London was in many ways similar in its mores to the small Irish community in which Tóibín himself grew up. Meanwhile, “Brooklyn” was based on experiences of his mother and sisters. He said he found that his heroine in the latter had a distance that he could not always “get through”, and would wonder “was it gay, me, or it”. With regards his duty to include some gay reference in his work, Tóibín quoted John McGahern as saying “my duty is to my next sentence” – the words come first, the meaning can be dealt with afterwards.

Both writers were asked to clarify whether they thought a gay “style” was linked to secrecy and code, and whether this particular style would die out now that these were needed less and less. Tóibín said that he identified with a number of authors when younger, such as Thomas Mann and Thom Gunn, without realising at the time that they were gay – however, he did discover that they, like him, had lost a parent when they were children. He thus highlighted how sexuality is merely one part of one’s identity and just one aspect of that identity that others may latch on to. Hollinghurst meanwhile speculated that “gay lit” would become an historical phenomenon, and said he was not sure what gay “style” would mean over a larger historical period. Tóibín meanwhile gave examples of work by straight female writers such as Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” and Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” that gave detailed and convincing depictions of gay sex and relationships, thus giving lie to the notion that only gay writers can “do” gay fiction.

Finally, Tóibín had a question to Hollinghurst about the recurrence and importance of architecture in his novels, and wondered if Hollinghurst would be able to write a book that did not feature architecture. Hollinghurst said that architecture had always been integral to how he sees the world (as a child he had dreamed of becoming an architect and would spend many hours drawing plans of huge imaginary buildings), and hence it was central to how he constructs his books. He said that he liked the idea of entering the book being like entering a house, and the reader knowing their way around that house by the end of the book, adding that characters’ attitudes towards the architecture will often say a lot about them.

There ended a fascinating discussion, and one that got me thinking about some other authors, and in particular Sarah Waters. Two of her novels, “Affinity” and “Fingersmith” rely on concealing essential truths from the reader and from the narrators – thus at the end of the former comes a shattering revelation, and in the latter one a revelation in the middle which serves to completely invert everything we have so far learned. Thence we find the themes of concealment and candour and ways in which our perspectives are shifted. It also brings up the notion of the unreliable narrator – seen in these novels, and in a slightly removed sense in “The Line of Beauty”. Although that novel is delivered in the authorial voice, every single scene is depicted through the eyes of its central character, Nick Guest, and what the author describes is how Guest sees the world and assumes regarding the people in that world. Meanwhile, Waters’ novel “The Night Watch” uses not only concealment and candour, but also elision (with its reverse narrative that feeds us important revelations with three-year gaps in between). The novel also contains a sense of characters failing to find liberation, both emotional and social. And architecture is very much a key player in her most recent novel “The Little Stranger” (also her first “non-lesbian” novel, although many readers will doubtless have looked for gay references in there). Finally, there is a running theme in her work of characters negotiating and re-negotiating their identities: from Nan’s picaresque odyssey of self-discovery in “Tipping the Velvet”; through the shifts in identity and station in “Fingersmith”; to the identity negotiations that entangle the key players in “The Night Watch”, each one revealed to have an almost tragically simple origin.

The notion of architecture as a theme is also a reminder of what one can expect, thematically and stylistically, when reading a novel. I know that, when I read Douglas Coupland, I can probably expect dysfunctional families, a quasi-apocalyptic scenario and a wealth of pop-culture references; or that Margaret Attwood will have something to say on the role of women in society as relational to men; or that Sarah Waters will make copious ironic use of the word “queer”. That is part of their own personal architecture and part of what makes them appeal to me as writers. And after this talk, I’m looking forward to getting lost some more in the literary architecture of both Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst.

Chris x

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