The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

TFS2This book, his second novel, appeared six years after Hollinghurt’s first book “The Swimming Pool Library”. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize (he later won it with “The Line of Beauty”) and is often on the list of the Greatest Ever Gay novels.

In its Flemish central location (an amalgam of Bruges and Gent?), Edward follows Luc, the teenager with whom he is obsessed, and later, a couple of friends on their weekend in France.

Edward Manners took up the position as private tutor in English to a couple of boys. Marcel is the son of an expert in the fictitious painter Orst. Manners, who is in his early thirties, tells of his own background and friends, including his early sexual exploits with boys at school and on the common.

Like his forerunner von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (who obsesses over the beautiful Tadzio), and the artist Orst, Edward is a lover of beauty, not a lover of people, and people’s beauty is fleeting. Thus the disappearance of Jane Byron, Orst’s beautiful model, and later of Luc, Edward’s version of Tadzio, represents how cruel life can be to those who worship at Beauty’s altar.

Although he is narcissistic and self-absorbed, he is conscious of it in a way that seems truthful and can be comically endearing. His voice mixes slangy colloquialisms with high-flown, precise notation, perfectly echoing his own, shifting milieu, from bourgeois dinner parties and conversations about high art to bottom-rung porn, telephone sex and rough trade – and his experience of the exquisite, almost metaphysical glow of love, to the carnality of raw lust. In one pathetically poignant scene, he spies on Luc sunbathing, ravishing every tiny detail of his body, while being masturbated himself by one of his lovers.

Marcel’s father takes a close interest in Edward, and enlists him in his compilation of the catalogue of Orst’s work, and much of the novel dwells on the artist, his life and his work. But we also follow Edward as he makes new friends, including Chrerif who becomes his lover, and the enigmatic and insular Matt with his interesting and inventive ways of making money.

The Maeterlinck Museum is probably the model for the Orst Museum.

Half-way through, Manners must suddenly return home briefly to England, and thereupon his history prior to taking up his teaching post in Belgium is related. The glimpses we are then given into Manners’s very Home Counties middle-class and typically-English domestic and public-school life provide a kind of psychological “justification” for narrator’s irrational fixation.

Symbolism forms the sub-text: the narrator’s first love was named Dawn and the object of his Flemish obsession is called Luc(ifer), the Morning, Evening, Falling, Folding Star – otherwise known as the planet Venus.

Echoing a stereotype, one reviewer asks: Is Hollinghurst embracing the plight of the modern lonely Homosexual? Is this the essence of the lonely Gay? Is some dejected creature trying to elevate his sense of self-worth by gaining acceptance from other more worthy men? Is he reaching for self-acceptance by seeing himself united with the manifestations of his young self? Perhaps it is this conflict that many men face and try to conquer?

Why is Hollinghurst obsessed by posh people?

TFSQuotations:

‘I couldn’t help thinking back . . . to the naked prefect he had been . . . the blue veins that ran over his upper arms, the idle beauty of his big cock and balls. Not for the first time I thought what an excellent homosexual he would have made . . . There was always something lacking in those men who had never had a queer phase as boys.’

the darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, and looking back at those who were truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret.”

“not knowing if further waiting was merely adding to the tally of lost time or if it was the essential prelude to a pleasure that would be all the greater for the falterings of hope that came before it.”

“Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn’t do it in glasses;”

he darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, and looking back at those who were truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret.

like rivalrous old men friends who fought you for the conversational advantage.

I knew there had been a good deal of boredom and pretence, he hadn’t perhaps been interesting to me in himself, and yet I also knew he was the motor of my grandest feelings and most darting thoughts, the ground bass to those first intense improvisations. At moments I felt lonely with him; at others, never so excitedly at peace. And what had there been since then? Nothing quite the same. Everything in some way melancholy, frantic or foredoomed.

after a term with our A-level texts we were recycling alexandrines and spoke with a marked sense of the caesura.

not knowing if further waiting was merely adding to the tally of lost time or if it was the essential prelude to a pleasure that would be all the greater for the falterings of hope that came before it.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] There’s a better study of obsession in Alan Holinghurst’s The Folding Star. https://gaymensbookclubbristol.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/the-folding-star-by-alan-hollinghurst/ […]

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