Alan Hollinghurst: “The Shepherd Star” – Culture

Alan Hollinghurst: "The Shepherd Star" - Culture

One can be surprised that there is a great novel by Alan Hollinghurst that is only now, almost 30 years later, to be read in German. “Der Hirtenstern” was published in England in 1994. Albino Verlag has now published it in a good translation by Joachim Bartholomae. “The Folding Star” was Hollinghurst’s second novel, after “Swimming Pool Library”, which was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 1992, four years after the English original. The later novels came out in German almost simultaneously with the originals (at Blessing), as did Hollinghurst’s most highly acclaimed book, the period novel “Schönheitslinie” from 2004/2005.

Apparently the big publisher was not interested in catching up on the early work. Now a small, fine publishing house with a predominantly gay program took the chance. The delay of almost a whole generation also opens up a chance of its own reception.

Hollinghurst seemed more materially exciting then, but that only obscured the fact that he’s always been an almost old-fashioned storyteller

The “Hirstenstern” is not a side work, but a rested, large book of unmistakable mastery, in many ways even livelier and fresher than the last, somewhat constructed novels by Hollingshurst, which tell English social history over several generations and therefore sometimes have something made up. Everything in the “Hirtenstern” is fresh and new, you can see the historical difference in the everyday details – for example in the telephone – but it doesn’t have a patina. The book is touching and funny, also enigmatic like everything by this author.

And yes, it’s all about gay sex again. Now a separate historical consideration is due. Around 1990, Hollinghurst’s verbalizations seemed taboo because a simple comparison was not made. This author tells about the sexual excitement of gay men, which is a constant part of everyday life, about as frankly and naturally as that John Updike, Phillip Roth, Nicholson Baker and many others have long since done, impartially for heterosexual men: openly practiced sex is just part of modern everyday life. There is a language for that. This is always exciting on an individual basis, but it has long since ceased to be a social scandal. It belongs to the poetry of the ordinary, which is the real domain of the bourgeois novel.

Alan Hollinghurst: "The Shepherd Star": Alan Hollinghurst: The Shepherd Star.  Novel.  Translated from the English by Joachim Bartholomae.  Albino Verlag, Berlin 2022. 620 pages, 28 euros.

Alan Hollinghurst: The Shepherd Star. Novel. Translated from the English by Joachim Bartholomae. Albino Verlag, Berlin 2022. 620 pages, 28 euros.

In terms of literary history, the early Alan Hollinghurst stands on the threshold where this exciting matter-of-factness and poetic casualness was also achieved for gay sex, as part of an ordinary everyday life that is moving for all readers precisely because of its normality. 30 years ago it was perhaps not yet possible to correctly assess the logic and scope of this step, because so many unusual details rushed towards the predominantly heterosexual readership – while the gays were delighted with long chains of recognition effects.

Back then, 30 years ago, Hollinghurst seemed more exciting than today, and that obscured the fact that he had always been an almost old-fashioned narrator in the best sense of the word: he shows a Western middle-class world unfolded in many emotional facets, including Updike or John Cheever very related. The inner adventures, the tender and rough erotic experiences start in the familiar social reality. The category of wickedness has had its day. On the other hand, Hollingshurst’s stylistic qualities, to which Nicholson Baker paid his almost reverential tribute long ago, shine even brighter today.

The bustling small-town gays are still the most normal here, the bizarre things are in the old bourgeois families

The first-person narrator of “Shepherd’s Star” is an unsuccessful English poet who takes a break as a tutor in a small old Belgian town – it can only be Bruges. The 30-year-old teaches two teenage boys there and thus comes into contact with their families. He explores the manageable, also almost family-like gay nightlife of the little town, in which things are not particularly secretive, the snapshot of everyday history is well taken.

In the middle of the novel, the narrator has to go back home for 100 pages, to a small English town south of London, where a school friend, his first love, is buried after a traffic accident – before the already impending AIDS death overtakes him. This brings the biography of the narrator Edward Manners, the son of a moderately successful concert singer, into view, along with all the sweet thrills of early love and first sex, at night in the woods under summer stars, including the eponymous evening star (the English poetry with the shepherds connects). These 100 pages alone, with their combination of remembered early childhood and farewell, are stunningly beautiful, a very touching coming-of-age novel as a picture in a picture.

But the real adventures await in the deep Belgium of the old city, where an increasingly curious ensemble of figures appears behind historical facades on stagnant canals. The bustling small-town gays are still the most normal, the real oddities are nurtured in old bourgeois families whose overwhelmed sons have to carry heavy burdens, some of which date back to the Burgundian Middle Ages, others to the time of the Nazi occupation and collaboration.

The descriptions of the fictional works of art are virtuosic

Retelling would be pedantic, but a few clues must be given: The father of one of the two tutors runs a museum of a fictitious Belgian painter of the first half of the 20th century, a symbolist with certain similarities Fernand Khnopff. Here again: insights into hidden pasts with slightly scandalous eroticism, this time heterosexual, and a tragic end in the Second World War. The descriptions of fictional works of art that Hollinghurst delivers here are among the most virtuosic of the whole thick book.

The main drama of the novel, however, is the infatuation that grips the narrator Edward for his other pupil, seventeen-year-old Luc from the old Altidore family. This turns into a love affair of the most longing and languishing kind, for the orchestration of which Hollinghurst reaches deep into the boxes of Thomas Mann and Vladimir Nabokov, yes Proust – Tadzio, Lolita, Albertine are literary stars in the tower-enclosed sky of the abysmally spun small town. In this way, the novel, which is so contemporary and so precise, achieves an emotional-historical depth, an archeology of desire in the bourgeois age. Edward, otherwise an uninhibited person, experiences Gustav von Aschenbach’s anxieties, along with the associated spying on in all sorts of ways. This love of love is at once ethereal and representational, so it has rich poetic potential.

The extensive character system of the book offers many varieties in the continuum between earthly and heavenly love, between rough sex and shy worship. Panerotism lives in whole rain showers of metaphors that constantly fall on the reader, to ever new amusement. Here everyone may laugh at other points, for example this one, on the occasion of a nighttime cruising experience in a dark park: “I felt very far from home and stopped for a moment to check my sex drive, how to check the oil level checked in the car, decided it was still good enough for the time being and jogged towards the music.”

Incidentally, Luc, who in the end turns out to be far less unattainable and untouchable than initially thought, runs away from the novel. In the last few lines he has become an image, staring from a search poster on a window pane at the wintry gray Belgian sea.

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