The road of British author Alan Hollinghurst from budding young novelist to winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize has been marked by his groundbreaking approach towards writing about homosexuality.
Hollinghurst, at the University this fall as an Old Dominion Fellow, won this year's prize Oct. 19 for his fourth novel, "The Line of Beauty."
"I am still sort of discovering what it means," he said of winning the prize, which is widely acknowledged as the most prestigious annual English literary award.
Hollinghurst's novel breaks new ground, however, because it is the first gay novel — one written directly from the perspective of a homosexual character — to win the Booker in the prize's 35-year history.
Hollinghurst, who took six years to complete "The Line of Beauty," is generally considered to be a slow writer.
This year's honor is not his first encounter with the Booker, as he was shortlisted for the prize 10 years ago for his second novel, "The Folding Star."
"I remember having a distinct relief at not having won it [then], because it would have been rather soon — it would have been crushing for someone who . . . published only two books," he said. "I feel now that I'm more established and more confident, it sort of makes it easier [to win.]"
"The Line of Beauty" is a historical novel set in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as British Prime Minister. The story follows the life of Nick Guest, a gay University of Oxford graduate residing in the Notting Hill home of his college friend, Toby Fedden.
Through the affluent world of Toby's family, led by a politically ambitious father, Nick is exposed to cosmopolitan London and explores his own homosexuality, entwining himself in romances while renouncing his middle-class background.
Edmund White, director of creative writing, said Nick Guest is someone with whom many people at Princeton can identify — students from "humble families who come to Princeton and meet all these glamorous people and then start living their lives. It is very seductive," he said.
As is the case with many authors, Hollinghurst's protagonist reflects some elements of his life.
"It's a natural thing for a writer to find a way of expressing himself through his creations," he said.
Nick shares Hollinghurst's preoccupation with 19th-century novelist Henry James, about whom Nick is writing his graduate dissertation during the course of the novel.
The story also reflects stages in Hollinghurst's life, such as moving from Oxford to London.
"A feeling of a whole new phase of life was about to unfold in front of me and all the feelings of excitement about London were very much my own," Hollinghurst said.
But the parallels shouldn't be traced too far.
"The story of Nick Guest in the book is very different from my own," he said. "His life was very different from my own."
Twenty years ago, when Hollinghurst set out to write his first novel, "The Swimming-Pool Library," he tried something which seemed "rather novel at the time — that is to write in a very direct way about gay sexuality and the life of gay men."
Since then, Hollinghurst said he feels there have been positive changes in societal attitudes towards homosexuality.
"I feel like I'm writing in a completely different climate than what it was 20 years ago," Hollinghurst said. "It is a generational thing and you see it in attitudes; they're changing amongst younger people. Not that everything's yet in perfect harmony and tolerance, but it is yet a very different place."
Hollinghurst said he is pleased his novel is the first book focused on homosexuality to win the prize, but modestly pointed out that there have not been many similar books which might have been eligible for the Booker in the past.
"It is said that when I didn't win it 10 years ago, that perhaps the reason for that was that some of the judges were unsettled by the gay sexuality of the book. It is impossible to know if that's the case or not," he said.
Hollinghurst expressed surprise at the rumors of his sexuality spread by the British press after he won the Booker prize.
"The British press had headlines suggesting some element of shock or scandal, which I thought everyone was over," he said, because his books are written for a mainstream audience.
Something Hollinghurst said he did not expect when he began writing fiction was the way in which AIDS, a major concern of his novel, would reach epidemic proportions all around the world.
"The Line of Beauty" begins in the summer of 1983 — about the time that AIDS became more visible and was acknowledged as a serious issue.
"It was the end of the period of uninhibited gay life, which AIDS would change very significantly. As terrible it was, it did have some benign effects in educating people in the facts of gay life. It was no longer ignorable," he said.
Coming to Princeton
Born in Stroud in Western England, Hollinghurst attended Oxford for his Bachelors and Masters degrees. His graduate thesis focused on early 20th century authors such as E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank, who were unable to write openly about homosexuality and resorted to forms of cryptic self-expression.
From 1982 to 1995 he served as deputy editor of the "Times Literary Supplement."
The position gave Hollinghurst the opportunity to become familiar with a number of writers in the literary landscape of London.
White met Hollinghurst after he reviewed Hollinghurst's first novel for the Times of London. He invited Hollinghurst to apply for the Old Dominion Fellowship this semester.
"It turned out to be a great blessing for us that we could get somebody who would teach two courses and direct one senior thesis," he said. "And it wasn't just anybody, but one of the greatest writers in English."
Hollinghurst has traveled regularly to the United States since the early 1980s. He held a similar fellowship at the University of Houston in 1998.
"I am absolutely loving being here," he said. "This is a most extraordinary place. I am very struck by what I remember of my own student days, by how motivated and focused the students are and how unembarrassed they are about working hard," he said.
"The very nice thing about creative writing is that it is very unacademic and personal," he added.
Erin Blake '06 is one of Hollinghurst's students in CWR 203: Creative Writing Fiction. She said he is helpful but at the same time realistic about his students' writing.
"[He] always gives us tips to make [the stories] better. We knew he was an excellent writer before, but we're a bit more awe-inspired [after the prize]," Blake said.
"It makes him uncomfortable when we ask questions about the prize ceremony and his winning," she added.
Alex Adam '07 has Hollinghurst for CWR 303: Advanced Creative Writing Fiction.
"Compared to other creative writing courses, I think he holds up very well," Adam said. "He makes an effort to meet students outside the class. He is really very humble and funny."
Humility aside, the Booker prize propels Hollinghurst into elite company. Past winners include recent Nobel laureates J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.
The annual winner receives 50,000 pounds, and the prize virtually guarantees worldwide readership and increased sales, according to the Man Booker Foundation's website.
Hollinghurst said he is looking forward to the time he will have to contemplate his next novel now that he has won the prize.
"The rhythm of writing books is a very slow one in my case. At the end, when it's over, I feel drained in a sense," Hollinghurst said.
"It takes me a long time to recover," he added. "[There are] really very complicated emotions to do with finishing books — a sense of relief and, if people like it, of triumph."
Hollinghurst said he has enjoyed teaching at the University after finishing "The Line of Beauty."
"It is a rather nice antidote to the emptied out feeling of finishing a book to be able to go somewhere," he said. "And instead of the rather formless private life of the writer, to go and do something with institutional contact."
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