Pastoral in passing

June 26, 1998

THE SPELL. By Alan Hollinghurst. 257pp. Chatto and Windus. Pounds 15.99. - 0 7011 6519 7.

The subject of Alan Hollinghurst's third novel is nothing less than the gamut of contemporary gay life, from the old repressed scholar who would "rather not", to the young clubber, out of his brains on E, who can't stop himself. It is described by the publisher as a comedy of sexual manners. That is not a bad start, although the epigraph, taken from an anonymous Elizabethan song, reads "Happy the heart that thinks of no removes!", and "removes" - that is, changes or departures - quickly establish themselves as the governing spirits of The Spell.

Robin, a professional man in his late forties, has moved to a village in Dorset to try and create a realm of unspoiled domestic tranquillity, a place where he can dig himself in against the vicissitudes of life. With him is his lover, Justin, an idle and extravagant beauty in his mid-thirties, whom Robin picked up in a toilet on Clapham Common. Justin, incorrigably flirtatious, is keen to remove himself from his uneventful pastoral set-up. Danny, a London boy in his early twenties, who happens to be Robin's son from his once-conventional life, is a reckless Adonis, fancied by everybody, who spends his time clubbing and getting intoxicated. His lifeis characterized by restlessness. Alex, a tall, morose thirty-something, who works in a minor capacity at the Foreign Office, used to go out with Justin, and begins an affair with Danny, through whom he is introduced to an enchanting world of drugs and dancing. Around thesecentral characters various other gay figures rotate, all briefly dropping in and out of their lives, all contributing to the atmosphere of instability and fleetingness that pervades the novel.

For a while, and in different ways, Robin, Justin, Danny and Alex come under the spell of new experiences. There are the short spells of delirium, moments of ecstasy, of sublime forgetfulness, brought about by drugs, hard clubbing, casual sex, and moments of deeply felt love. Then there are the longer spells, some with the pretence of permanence, like life in the countryside, or long-term relationships. Hollinghurst's fascination with every kind of escapist fantasy indicates that he is as bewitched by these distractions as are his protagonists, but above all, there is an awareness that all spells, for better or worse, come to an end. Like the life-changing trans-formations that take place in Shakespearean forests, the magic is all-engulfing but short-lived. Hollinghurst's previous novels, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) and The Folding Star (1994), allowed bursts of ecstatic prose to arise within the context of a knowing and forgiving commentary; the same is true of The Spell, except that the wise observer seems to have become more detached from his subject; the sexual encounters now have more sheen than depth, and ridicule is more evident than indulgence. This certainly helps to sharpen the humour, which is more merciless than ever, but it means we are never fully enchanted by these lives (as we were, say, by the world of Edward Manners in The Folding Star). The Spell is primarily dis-illusioning.

The events take place in the 1990s, from May of one year to October of the next (the seasons and the weather are carefully used to colour both small incidents and general emotional trends, without resorting to Gothic excess). All sorts of gay men populate the novel, in all sorts of gay situations: rent boys, handymen, wealthy patrons, dodgy foreigners; at all-night parties in the country, clubs and bars around Soho, art galleries, hotels and stately piles. Much of what Hollinghurst delivers we have come to expect and relish from his earlier novels: the bitchy, camp dialogue ("Danny's extremely bright and adaptable but he doesn't really know anything.

I mean, he's seen one opera, by Handel, and he can't remember which one. He seemed persuaded by each of the titles I suggested. He's got a degree in something called cultural studies, which apparently doesn't quite involve reading a book"); the delicacy and intelligence with which every action is described, so that no gesture - even the casual kneeing shut of a drawer, or someone knocking loaves from a tin - is without implication; the devastating apercu (at the Royal Academy): "A couple of men drifted past, one of them in sunglasses as if the art might hurt his eyes"), and an unmistakable, highly wrought yet fagged-out turn of phrase ("'This is delicious, too', Alex said, though even the fugitive demands of a souffle were a little much for his amorously shrunken appetite.") The thrill which is expressed in, and generated by, Hollinghurst's writing is that of concentration. Its pleasures are voyeuristic. The accuracy and wit with which he delineates and defines his characters and their actions is of greater interest than the characters and actions themselves. As the prose draws its gaze across bodies and clothes, it makes palpable the stimulation provided by intense but distanced scrutiny. Externals - curved buttocks, a kicked-off sheet, a smear of gel, a pair of trunks, the fall of someone's hair - are lapped up and charged with eroticism. Nothing, given such attention, is unerotic. In other words, the writing, though not obscene, is pornographic. It feeds the eye. But Hollinghurst is, as it were, equally pornographic when it comes to feelings and thoughts. Indeed, his approach throughout is promiscuous, in that his descriptive powers go to work indiscriminately. It is not just that a random snog outside the Gents is accorded the same consideration as the opening bars of the Rhenish Symphony - to object to that would be merely prudish - but that no action and no thought is allowed to pass without comment, usually of a definitive nature. Consequently, there is little dynamic differentiation in the novel. Nothing appears to demand more or less of our attention, subsumed as everything is by the voracity and excellence of the author's observations.

The observations are at their greatest when they compress a range of feelings into one striking image: a car in the desert struggling to get out of a pit; an epiphany which takes place under the heroic statue of William of Orange in St James's Square; in a mucky field, having just confirmed the end of a relationship: "He stopped to brush and slap at the mess on his trousers." These frieze-like images combine with the indiscriminate and detailed description to produce literary stasis, an effect that is emphasized by the lack of a vigorous plot-line. The sequence of events has no inner propulsion; people just fall in and out of bed and in and out of love. The extensive use of dialogue, too, though in itself lively, is also a means by which action and process is avoided. This prompts the thought that women, as representatives of process, hardly feature in The Spell at all. There is an old housemaid, a frigid and stoical villager, and - but only momentarily, and at the end of a telephone line - Danny's mother, nothing that might threaten to disturb the stillness and control of the author's concentration. Nature is decidedly beautiful and calm in this novel, rather than bursting with generative power.

The still and concentrated style of The Spell does not cause aesthetic difficulties, for Hollinghurst is incapable of writing an ugly line, but the unyielding force of thought can flatten its subjects. Not that they appear simply two-dimensional; rather they seem like compressed versions of things that were once fully three-dimensional; like flowers pressed into a book. Such a book is valuable, for it preserves, even if it does not keep alive, things which would otherwise perish completely. It memorializes fleeting things, hardens transient moments, records brief spells. But what is being preserved here is really the watchfulness of the writer and not his very slight subject-matter. Maybe there is not meant to be anything more to the novel than meets the eye, but what meets the eye is not a comedy of sexual manners, but the unblinking gaze of the voyeuristic author, staring right back at us.

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