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[11] The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst

The Swimming-Pool Library is a literary fiction with a shimmering elegance about a young aristocrat who lives off his inherited estate and leads a life of promiscuity. A chance meeting with Lord Nantwich, an old Africa hand and founder of the prestigious London Wick’s Club, lands William Beckwith into a research project that evolves to become the old man’s biography. Wovens with his assiduous riffling of Lord Nantwich’s materials are nuanced episodes of sexual rapport William engages with men at whom he flirtatiously smiles at the gym. The prose is ebulliently literary and suggestive, but not prurient. Page after page of the novel is riddled with the elaboration of bare intimacy, the explosive liberation of libido, the palpitating anatomy that preludes to carnal pleasure, and the audacious verbalization of physical gestures. Something masculine momentarily bridles as our protagonist ventures into casual number with strangers.

The writing of Lord Nantwich’s biography is as much a matter of probing his memory for links and identifications and of reading his personalia as examining his own life for William. The old man’s eventful and seemingly eccentric life so often evokes and echoes William’s own feelings, and at times brings him to the edge of difficult emotional terrain. The arrival of his anti-gay grandfather, who has spent all his life in circles where good manners, conservative family values, and plain callousness conspire to avoid any recognition or vestige that homosexuality even exists, intensifies the poignancy of such feelings.

Leading his life the way he does, it is strangers who by their very strangeness quickens William’s pulse and makes him feel alive. Regardless of the irrational sense of absolute security that springs from the conspiracy of carnal pleasure with men, shares something more genuine and cultivated with his close friend James with whom the friendship is sealed with a playfulness, privacy, tenderness, secrecy and a tacit understanding. William and James somehow enact some charade, whose very subject is secrecy, one that even permits his reading of James’ diary from which he is obliged to see himself from his friend’s perspective. The friendship, though has remained sexless for a long time, nourishes a nervous pleasure at the certainty of companionship when needed. The friendship preponderates the kind of seize-the-moment relationship William shares with Phil, who might have lived a double life as William begins to suspect at the faintly sickening possibility of his being unfaithful.

The Swimming-Pool Library exposes the day-to-day episodes of gay life. Nipping into a library of uncatalogued pleasure is a realm of halt, darkness, and unknown possibility. It is in this uncharted territory where the difference between sex and companionship becomes blurry. William’s affair with the underage bellboy Phil is one of ephemeral pleasure, glutting eroticism, and raw voluptuousness. Lies beneath all the vivid illustration of desires is the concern of an emptiness that has, for example, manifested in James: when one is beyond love, where does pleasure lie? Is there ever an end to the irresistible, normal craving for sex? Or does this go tauntingly on? The root of his loneliness and eccentricities, his uninvestigated and inhibited private life, is not uncommon to everyone: the humiliation of stark rejection and the terrible feeling that no one ever notices him or remembers him.

The Swimming-Pool Library, a 1984 debut, is an enthralling, darkly erotic novel of homosexuality before the scourge of AIDS. It welds the standard elements of fiction to a tale of transgressions with the emphasis being on sensitive and censurable materials. It tells of impurities with shimmering elegance, of complications with a quick wit, and of truths with a fiction’s solidity. It embodies a gloomy, sober, and functional underworld-full of life, purpose, and sexuality.

3 Responses

  1. What about the racial elements of this novel? Will dominates his black lovers, enjoying his financial, intellectual and racial advantages over them. Charles’s diaries depict Britain’s imperial past and his own fascination with black men. Hollinghurst shows late 20th Century homosexuality in Britain perpetuating the ideology of Britain’s colonial past. This is one of the central, though often troubling and problematic, themes of the novel.

  2. L Kim:
    Thanks for breathing new insights about the novel, which I have planned to re-read. I found the book a bit difficult to read, with so many political and racial innuendos. I certainly have overlooked the racial elements–the assumption made on the financial status of the minority, the domination of white over colored, etc. Another visit of this book is overdue.

  3. […] gay writers. Alan Hollinghurst writes beautifully about politics and day-to-day gay life. His debut The Swimming-Pool Library and Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty both embody a gloomy, sober, and functional […]

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