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A Tangled Web

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

The Spell, by Allan Hollinghurst, Chatto & Windus, 1998

What is remarkable about Hollinghurst's fiction is what is usually not remarkable at all. Scenes play out spanning months, years, sometimes several decades and chapters or sections often pan in and out of different characters' lives with only a vague passing glimpse of how they may somehow be connected to who comes before of after. The allure for me has always been to allow myself the luxury of becoming completely swept up in the seeming aimlessness which unfurls over the these very languid trajectories, especially evident in his two latest (and possibly best novels), The Stranger's Child and The Sparsholt Affair. Here what is most arresting is what is most elusive, most ineffable. Somehow Hollinghurst makes you press a finger gently to an inner pulse which is barely detectable and yet you somehow know is ever present, driving and motivating all. A narrative risk, certainly, but the sheer glory of the prose, the entire rapture of it, keeps an ardent reader purring along, almost sedated by its lyricism, its Halcyon nostalgia.

The Spell is possibly this style at its most loosely affecting. In short, four gay men spend a weekend together at a quaint cottage in Dorset and from there a set of variations spans out from this theme: relationships are tested, the dynamics of partnerships shifts and changes, illicit encounters proliferate, they come and go in and around one another's lives for the next few months. Firstly, four gay men spending any time together in a cottage in Dorset is probably a bad idea. Secondly, what transpires at this weekend, unlike the underlying fuse which crackles along in all of Hollinghurst's other novels, is not nearly as remarkable and, in fact, seems almost to be indicatively stereotypical of what is perhaps most negatively perceived in the public domain about homosexual attitudes: a fusion of promiscuous sexual encounters, each one more random, risky and quixotic, fuelled by an ever-present snort-fest of class A narcotics. And all of this, this whirling train-wreck of irrepressible desire, pursued with heady, irresponsible abandon and little after-regard. Perhaps there is something raw and brutally truthful in that, but it never really amounts to anything cogent or revealing. As such there is nothing, other than the drawn, exquisite rendering of each character's particular arc of approach to this vain hedonism, which provides that vague and implacable tension so compelling in his other work. Without this, things become muddled, overly-complicated and all a bit of a tangle - the kind of knot one really can't be bothered to unravel.

Like the men it depicts, The Spell is beautiful but conflicted.


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