Review: The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst

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The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst book cover
The Swimming Pool Library (1988) depicts a homosexual sub-section of London. Set in 1983, the novel describes the bohemian lifestyle of the promiscuous Will Beckwith, a young man of aristocratic descent, who spends his days gorging on culture and young men, frequently picking up boys at the Corinthian club; the gym where he swims regularly, and a hot bed of homosexual peacocking. When, by chance, he saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an elderly peer, Will develops a friendship with the older man, and Lord Nantwich soon asks Will to write his biography. This is a decision that the chronically-idle Will takes the course of the narrative to deliberate over, and it’s not until uncomfortable secrets are made clear to him at the end of the novel that Will rejects the proposal.

Through Will’s research into Lord Nantwich’s life there appear many parallels between the lives of the two men, despite a gap of around 60 years between them. Beyond their privileged backgrounds, self-centred existences, and indulgent pursuit of young, vacuous boys (both showing a preference for black men), both Will and Nantwich exist in cultures of intolerance and homophobia. Whilst Nantwich was forced to conceal his sexual preferences from society, it is now (the majority of) society that conceals the prejudices it retains. The similarity of both characters’ youth might also be read as a comment on the entrenched and inflexible routines of the upper classes; change slow to hit the ruling classes.

To an extent both Will and Lord Nantwich represent a colonial spirit of entitlement, which leads them to disabuse, although in some ways unknowingly, the lower classes and ethnic minorities, over whom they hold a certain power. Despite this sexual authority, a sense of loneliness pervades the book, with many of the characters living solitary existences, interspersed by wild, but ultimately meaningless, sexual escapades. There is an air of foreboding that encompasses the novel too; the naïve promiscuity viewed from a distinctly different perspective with hindsight, and with the knowledge of the devastating AIDS epidemic that followed in the subsequent years.

The plot is peppered liberally with graphic sex scenes, and yet the novel is lavishly written; acts of baseness never before given such a distinguished home. Vignettes from Lord Nantwich’s diary break up the main narrative, and these prove both pleasing descriptions of life as a repressed homosexual in the early-twentieth century, but also a further device which facilitates the flowing forth of sexual fantasy. Despite taking on an erotic style, The Swimming Pool Library is a very literary novel, with many Intertextual references. The work of Ronald Firbank, of whom Hollinghurst was a fan, is alluded to often, but perhaps the greatest influence upon Hollinghurst’s aesthetic is Henry James, who wrote with a subtlety clearly present in The Swimming Pool Library. Indeed, that Will’s closest companion, a cultured yet sexless friend from university, is named James clearly references this influence. If one were to have a complaint about the characters it would be that Will remains remarkably unchanged by his experiences during the book, never faltering in his pursuit of pleasure, or stopping to examine his lifestyle.

Despite the plot’s intended subtlety, there is a feeling of sparsity, with huge chunks of the book given over to libidinous writing. In truth, the novel is over-sexed to the point of tedium. The majority of sexual interludes and musings seem superfluous to the plot and grow in gratuity as the novel progresses – their inclusion a testament to the increased liberality of the establishment and the reading public, and a celebration of a gay sub-culture, but little more. Added to this the novel is populated almost exclusively by promiscuous, homosexual men. This creates an incredibly insular atmosphere, which, whilst realistic, is somewhat limited. Ultimately, the novel is too preoccupied with drawing a hedonistic gay lifestyle, and forsakes a more rounded and interesting novel for this.

I found the gratuitous number of graphic sex scenes in this really detracted from what could have been an interesting story. Although beautifully written, it just doesn't find the balance between depicting a wild sex life and delivering a satisfying and poignant plot that Hollinghurst's later novels do.


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