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literature

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Hollinghurst, Alan (b. 1954)  
 
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The greatest grief in Nantwich's life proves not to have been the loss of reputation and social position that he suffered upon arrest and imprisonment, but the death of his beloved Tata--whom he had brought to London with him upon his return from Africa--at the hands of a group of racist thugs, the supposedly superior white race proving more savage than the blacks over whom it rules. Nor, however, can Will's race and social class protect him when he is set upon and viciously beaten by a group of homophobic skinheads, much as Lord Nantwich's sense of well-being was shattered by Will's grandfather through a sadistic, albeit entirely legal, persecution decades earlier.

Will's summer experiences teach him that not only is he not superior to others, but he is not even as desirable sexually as he has always presumed himself to be. Lord Nantwich forestalls Will's obtaining a piece of evidence that would allow Will to save his friend James from a guilty court verdict, but only at the expense of exposing another, semi-closeted, gay man. And, after reading in James's diary of how unattractively shallow and self-involved his closest friend sees him as being, Will suffers the further shock of having his boyfriend, Phil, leave him for someone whom Will has dismissed sexually, but who proves far more emotionally available and generous to the boy. Physically, even Will's golden looks have been tarnished by the blows that he took to his face during his beating by the skinheads.

Sponsor Message.

The Swimming-Pool Library questions the extent to which the expression of sexual desire is, by nature of its need to seize another person's body for one's own gratification, an imperialistic act. Likewise, it raises the larger issue of whether any happiness or good fortune can occur without the concurrent disappointment or tragedy of others.

Shrewdly, Hollinghurst does not judge any of his characters but reveals them all to be caught in a web of desire and self-delusion, motivated by feelings so mixed that it is impossible for a person to know clearly the reason for his or her actions.

The Folding Star

Hollinghurst's second novel, The Folding Star, deals with the enigma of love. Thirty-three-year-old Edward Manners, seeking to break out of an unsatisfying routine of working days and spending evenings with friends at the local gay pub, moves to an unspecified Belgian city to tutor seventeen-year-old Luc Altidore, the scion of a once-wealthy family, who has been expelled from a local prep school for a much gossiped about, but never detailed, scandal involving a group of sailors.

In addition, Edward offers private lessons to the sickly son of a local museum curator, who takes a liking to the modestly attractive Englishman and hires him to help prepare a catalog of the works of Edgard Orst, a symbolist painter who died under the Nazi occupation.

As Edward's obsession with Luc grows, the tutor regularly goes out of his way in order to pass by the boy's house on the chance of running into him, spies on him during a weekend holiday at a beach resort, steals photographs of him, lifts soiled underwear and socks from Luc's laundry hamper, and searches frantically for him in a blinding rainstorm after the boy, depressed over a failed love affair, runs away from home.

Hollinghurst's psychological drama of the pursuit of an elusive and enigmatic love object by a man who is himself no longer youthful has been compared to Swann's obsession with Odette in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, von Aschenbach's shadowing of the boy Tadzio in Mann's Death in Venice, and Humbert Humbert's obsession with the barely post-pubescent Lolita in Nabokov's novel of that title.

A more telling analogy, however, may be to the drama of unrequited passion played out in the works of Jean Racine, whose Bajazet Hollinghurst has translated. In Racine, as Roland Barthes points out, the erotic is a stage on which is enacted the conflict between one person who, seeking to captivate another, irrationally hates his or her suspected rivals. Thus, in Racine's Andromache, Orestes loves Hermione, who only has eyes for Pyrrhus, who is obsessed with Andromache, who is devoted to the memory of her dead husband, Hector. Each, in turn, hates a "rival" who, ironically, is either indifferent to his or her would-be lover, or has been rendered unavailable through death.

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