Alan Hollinghurst (1954) debuteerde in 1988 als prozaschrijver met de internationaal succesvolle roman The Swimming-Pool Library (De zwembadbibliotheek, 1991), een levendig fresco van de Londense gay scene aan het begin van de jaren tachtig. Zijn tweede roman The Folding Star (De herdersster, 1995) was in Vlaanderen gesitueerd. België poseert er dankbaar als ‘a kingdom of ruins and vanished pleasures'. Met The Line of Beauty (De schoonheidslijn, 2004) won hij de Man Booker Prize. Tijdens zijn verblijf in Brussel begon hij aan zijn nieuwe roman, The Stranger's Child, verschenen in 2011.Top
The discrete charms of BXL
Three days before leaving London to spend a month in Brussels I underwent a rather different upheaval: I emptied the apartment where I have lived for the past 17 years, so that structural work can be done on it. It took 90 boxes just to contain the books, and when at last the removal lorry was full I was presented with an unexpected statistic: I own 9.5 tons of portable possessions, approximately the weight of two Indian elephants. It was with a heightened sense of lightness that I set off on Eurostar with just a suitcase and a laptop.
Does it matter where one writes? In London I look out from my small top-floor room over the grassy slopes, the oaks, poplars and horse-chestnuts of Hampstead Heath. A slight movement of my head at my desk re-aligns the branches of the trees outside with the panes of the window. I have written 3 novels in that room, and countless sentences have been formulated against the abstract framework of those branches. I have walked so often along the paths on the Heath, daydreaming, sorting out ideas, stopping to scribble phrases on scraps of paper, that they seem now a kind of pattern for thought, each hill or wood or pond encoding the memory of earlier walks and earlier books. For me it is a place saturated in habit, and I cannot imagine being away for long from its benign and sustaining influence.
I have worked in artists' colonies: once at the remote ranch in northern California where Carl Djerassi, inventor of the contraceptive pill, set up an artists' retreat with views of the Pacific, long-horn cattle looming out of the fog, and on every hilltop works of sculpture installed there by earlier residents. I've been twice to Yaddo, a much older establishment, a Gothic mansion surrounded by forest, in upstate New York; here there are deer and raccoons instead of cows. Yaddo especially seems to work for me - I think it triggers some subliminal memory of going back to boarding-school, which in my case was also in a converted Gothic mansion: it is spartan, old-fashioned and somewhat competitive. And completely isolated from normal concerns (no TV, no distractions of the internet), you get things sorted out. It was there I realised that if I followed the plan I had set myself for my last book, The Line of Beauty, it would be 1,600 pages long and I would finish it in about 2010. With nothing to do but watch the snow fall on the pine-forest I forced myself to rationalise and resolve my material: and when I'd done so, there I was, with nothing else to do but write it. It came out in 2004, a mere 501 pages.
In Brussels it is rather different: in the heart of a great city, with no livestock in sight at all. Here you create your own discipline. The Passa Porta Residence is extremely spacious, twice the size of my London flat, though with a much smaller tonnage of stuff in it. I have paced it out, between paragraphs, and it is 45 metres from back to front; so one gets quite a lot of exercise just going to the bathroom. The rooms are high and bright and white, the furnishings simple and comfortable. It feels a perfect vessel for thought and for steady, concentrated work. It is vaguely haunted for me by my friend the novelist Patrick Gale, who confessed to writing ten pages a day when he stayed here last year; one day last week I produced 900 words, which is pretty much a record for me. One appreciates the decision of its enlightened owners not to give the place any decorative quirks; I can imagine writers of many different kinds waking up here and going to the desk with an unselfconscious sense of possessing it.
For me too, Brussels is a special case. There is a society, small in number though not exclusive in ethos, of British writers who have set novels in Belgium. The president in perpetuity is of course Charlotte Brontë; Pamela Hansford Johnson, author of The Unspeakable Skipton, has been a member for nearly 50 years; much lower and later in the list I appear, having placed the action of my second novel The Folding Star in an imaginary Flemish city not unlike Bruges. Our president, as is well known, based The Professor and Villette on her own intense and protracted experience of living in Brussels. I was lazy and presumptuous enough to write about my nameless city on the strength of a freezing weekend in Bruges and a flying visit to Het Andere Boek in Antwerp.
But it's true that I had already travelled in Flanders, or a highly aestheticised version of it, in other ways: in Verhaeren's and Rodenbach's poems, in Bruges-la-Morte, in Fernand Khnopff's mesmerising paintings and drawings. I know the history of the region is long and complex, but for me, incurably aesthetic by temperament, it attained an intensity of imaginative interest in that period between about 1880 and 1920, which I have always found the most compelling in all the arts. Always moved by buildings as much as by books, I felt a nostalgia for that period when Belgium was in the forefront of architecture and design, and when cultural commerce between Belgium and Britain was so much more vital than it is now. And whenever I was in Belgium, even if only for a weekend, I felt a frisson of excited recognition.
To an actual Belgian things will seem infinitely more complex; but it is the privilege of the visitor to live in the aesthetic dimension. In Brussels the beggars and the insane in the streets upset me less than at home, the buildings excite me more. I find my hosts' political problems very interesting, and in many ways depressing, but they do not really penetrate the bubble in which I am temporarily insulated. At the end of a day's work, still a little high on caffeine and a fragile sense of achievement, what better than to take to the streets and let the the imagination play over the façades of the houses? The essence of the pleasure is that one is an outsider.
In such a light I wonder if there can be streets anywhere both as beautiful and as individual as those that cover the long flank of the hill south-west of the Grand Sablon. What a world of contrast and invention, even in the long hard line of the rue des Laines, where every house plays its own variation on a severely simple theme. Everywhere, within a unity of effect, each building asserts its interest. What lives must be led in them! They emanate a sense of bourgeois discretion combined with extreme refinement of taste - not stuffy, homogenising taste but taste as a kind of perfectly judged daring. And what an unforgettable effect of scale is achieved, as one descends the rue des Minimes, by the Babylonian mass of the Palais de Justice rearing up above, with the new moon low in the sky above it. The danger of Brussels, at least for this visiting writer, is that there is almost too much interest.
(c) Alan Hollinghurst, Brussels, September 2007
3.09.07 > 1.10.07