Recommended Reads: The Swimming-Pool Library

Alan Hollinghurst is best-known for his Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (superbly adapted for television by BBC Drama), a forceful yet sensitive novel about the private life of Nick Guest, a gay man living with a friend whose father is a Conservative MP, and the public and political world that he lives in. You can see already that there are likely to be a few tensions there. The novel is narrated in the third person but everything is filtered through a single consciousness, that of Nick Guest. We see, feel and hear things as he does, meaning that there is no real reason why it is not written in the first person aside from the very fact that it shows the two the public and the private roles of Nick in their full and differing lights, and of course, as a Jamesian stylistic device – Nick is about to start a PhD on Henry James’ style at UCL – it all fits.

The first of Hollinghurst’s novels, The Swimming-Pool Library is a courageous and powerful expose of gay life in Britain during the 1980s. William Beckwith, the young aristocrat of leisure, flits from swims at the ‘Corry’ (the Corinthium Club, a gay gym on Great Russell Street), expensive bars and restaurants, to public lavatories in Hyde Park to pick up men. It is on one on the latter expeditions that he finds himself literally picking-up Charles, Lord Nantwich, an elderly man who also swims at the Corry. The novel focuses on the friendship between these two gay men and how they are separated in their experiences as homosexuals: legislation of homosexuality in 1967 meant that Charles’s life as a gay man was criminal, whereas Will’s is hedonistic and unshackled (up to a point). It transpires that Charles is after someone to write his biography, so he approaches Will to ask if he would consider writing up his diaries about his outlawed gay lifestyle. Will is less than enthusiastic about this request and at first is unwilling to commit to such a task, for reasons that the pages of the novel gradually and hesitatingly unfold.

It seemed at first a monstrous request, although I could see it was quite reasonable in a way. If he had had an interesting life, which it appeared he had, he could not possibly hope to write up himself now. If I didn’t do it, nothing might come of it. It was partly because I idly disliked any intrusion into my constant leisure – my leisure itself having taken on an urgent, all-consuming quality – that I instinctively repelled the idea. But it was not, after all, impossible.

However, as he begins to read the diaries, he becomes immersed in a world of nostalgia, finding the trembling of illegality and old-fashioned camaraderie appealing but also becomes increasingly aware of the idealisation of memory, realising that his own context is far from idyllic: Will gets attacked by a gang of youths for being “a fuckin’ poof” and a friend of his is arrested for soliciting a (secretly gay) policeman. Things are perhaps not all that different from 1967.

Set in 1983, the year before the knowledge of Aids was upon us, there is a sense of hope for the future and a reckless devil-may-care approach for the present. Yet the knowledge that we (and Hollinghurst) possess about Aids, imbues the novel with tragic irony: the circle of this promiscuous lifestyle is undoubtedly going to be broken, as it is more than likely that Will is HIV positive through leading the life he does. The last words of the novel capture this entirely:

It was very quiet at the Corry, when I arrived mid-afternoon. The few people there looked at each other with considerate curiosity rather than rivalry. There was a sense of various different routines equably over-lapping. There were several old boys, one or two perhaps even of Charles’ age, and doubtless all with their own story, strange and yet oddly comparable, to tell. And going into the showers I saw a suntanned young lad in pale blue trunks that I rather liked the look of.

The novel teeters along the edge of idyllic romanticism and gritty confession through credible writing that is beautiful, humorous and candid. The success of The Swimming-Pool Library works not only in its parallels between the life of the restrained homosexual and the liberated one, along with the ideals that each has about the other, but also through the rendering of incredible physicality: concentration on bodily vanity, sex, exercise, violence and beauty, making the human form displaced from the idea of the personal. Physical acts are rendered either superficial or detrimental. Sex is something that can be demanded and withheld, whereas love and affection are things that seem impossible to retain, or even get a grasp of. Ideas of hedonism and hope are juxtaposed with those of nostalgia and constraint. At points in the novel Will feels utterly helpless, with both James (his lover/best friend) and Charles being victims of male promiscuity laws but importantly, Will gives life back to Charles literally in the first part of the novel and, in the writing of his memoirs, gives Charles back a part of his life that had long been kept in the shadows.

Posted by Jen Tomkins