—And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
—Well, said Gabriel, it's partly to keep in touch with the language and partly for the change.
‘Do you speak Serbo-Croat, Archie?’
‘Then I'll translate.’
Some texts—one thinks, almost at random, of Ulysses, Shame, Rites of Passage—insist on a reading through translation more than others. They may be thematically oriented toward issues of translation; they may be more cryptographic in texture. It is my contention in this essay that Allan Hollinghurst's second and, so far, best novel, The Folding Star (1992), is a tragicomic gay romance which is concerned in many ways with translation itself as well as with various kinds of ‘shadowy transposition’. Translating intriguingly across sexual orientations (straight, gay), cultures (English, Belgian) and periods (principally, two fins de siècle, the 1890s and the 1990s), Hollinghurst projects Edward Manners, his gay narrator-protagonist, as translator in both material and metaphorical senses: as a teacher of English to foreigners, as an articulate reader of works of art, and preeminently as a passion-driven subject caught up in the project of transfiguring himself and others.
The Folding Star is a serious parody of a Symbolist fiction. Presided over in Symbolist fashion by the complementary myths of Narcissus and Hermes, it is narcissistic, since its focus is intensely subjective and self-conscious; hermetic, since it is steeped in secrecy and the temptation to withdrawal. Both figures may represent translators: Narcissus, because the modern literary translator, highly subjective, strives after self-expression, contemplating his own likeness in the pool of art; Hermes, because, as messenger or interpreter between worlds, especially between the living and the dead, he is a god of communication, associated with commerce and secrets. More specifically, the book is in part a ‘transposition’ of Bruges-la-Morte (1892), a once famous novella by the Flemish Symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach, whose life it now extends through discreet imitation, and a transformation of aspects of the life and art of Fernand Khnopff, the Flemish Symbolist who furnished the frontispiece to the first edition of his friend Rodenbach's text. It draws on other Symbolist writers and painters: principally, Huysmans, Maeterlinck, Redon, and Régnier (who supplies the foreboding epigraph).