THE TELLING details of Alan Hollinghurst's second novel come in threes. At the beginning, his narrator, the stuffily named Edward Manners, arrives in an unnamed Belgian city and takes the number three tram in pursuit of a pretty boy who is then claimed by a third party, his female lover. A general sense of disaffection has brought Manners here, to earn his living teaching English to two teenage boys; Marcel, fat and asthmatic, and Luc, a blond, louche beauty with whom he becomes obsessed. Luc has two friends (the Trio), one a woman who may or may not be his girlfriend, the other a well-hung boy at the school from which Luc has been mysteriously expelled. Marcel's father, Paul, is the curator of the work of a minor Symbolist artist named Orst, whose obsession with a married actress became the subject of many of his paintings, notably a triptych. And the novel itself falls into three parts. Clever stuff.
The first part focuses on Manners' navigation of the town, where time seems to have stopped towards the end of the 19th century, and on the gay bars, where he drinks too much. His pursuit of Luc, whom he adores with the insane idealism of a courtly lover, forms the central mystery of a book erotically charged with images of blindness, secrets and spying. Along the way, however, Manners manages numerous one-off sexual encounters. One of these, in a park at night, conveys the thrill of anonymous sex in a few sure strokes: 'You hadn't the advantage of being at college together, or persuading yourself you fancied him over drinks or supper . . . The absolute black ignorance was the beauty of it, and the bore . . .'
Some of the best scenes - and Hollinghurst can write scenes that most writers would kill to emulate - come out of the most humdrum experiences, one of them being sex. This is a rare achievement, both because it is so overdetermined a subject and because gay sex in particular has become the defining, exotic characteristic of 'gay' fiction, for straight audiences at least.
Our relationship to Manners is ambivalent, which is one reason why the set-pieces work so well. 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.
But the best part of the novel is a lengthy digression on childhood that is both moving and beautifully structured. Manners returns to his native Kent for the funeral of his first lover. Here, ordinary events (the delirious shock of the first sexual encounter, the embarrassment of an ambitious, second-rate father; family scenes around the television) are delivered fresh, as if no one had ever witnessed them before. And Hollinghurst gives us a wicked glimpse of his attitude to heterosexuality when he visits a family friend. '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.'
Yet for all its flashes of brilliance, and its atmosphere of brooding melancholy lit by raging passions, The Folding Star trips over its own cleverness. Hollinghurst seems too self-conscious in his highbrow ambition; his (perfectly understandable) desire to break the straitjacket of 'gay fiction' leads him into overwrought themes and settings.
This is especially seen in a tiresome, superfluous subplot involving the painter, Orst, and his death at the hands of the Nazis, which reprises the patterns of betrayal and obsession that animate the central narrative. And there's a hastily assembled, melodramatic final section, which sees Manners zooming off to find Luc, who, true to the convention of the muse, vanishes as soon as he becomes in some way real to his creator. The disadvantage of having a myopic narrator is that the reader is often one step ahead, and so many of the novel's 'surprises' seem grindingly predictable.
This is a shame, because Hollinghurst has talent to burn, a distinctive style and an intellect that needs no such embellishments. He really shouldn't worry so much; his claim to a place on the literary top shelf will one day be truly deserved.
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