The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst
What a book! I had no expectation of this one at all. I'm completely blown away.
The story is set in 1893, although it moved backwards and forwards through the last century as Will, the hero, starts reading diaries of a dissolute peer (Lord Nantwich) in order to prepare to write his biography. However, you'd be hard-pressed to recognise this as 1983 because Will, the narrator, is more a product of Nantwich's time than his own. Only 25, he is the product of an aristocratic upbringing of wealth and privilege and a school system that has made him seem older than his years.
Stunningly beautiful, wealthy, amusing, Will is also gay and totally, utterly promiscuous. As you read the book, it's like looking at a flawless picture - England, the aristocracy, brittle manners, order, wealth and consequence - but as you look harder, you see the wriggling mass of corruption beneath that apparently flawless exterior.
It's an exceptionally well-written book and very amusing at times (Will is his own harshest critic and number one fan at the same time). It has moments of startlingly graphic sex and the whole book is about a gay way of life that you don't see in books in these AIDS obsessed days. We've PC'd gayness-tried to turn it into heterosexual life but between men. I don't want to get into a political debate about it, but a book like this, which portrays the truly shockingly promiscuousness of the lifestyle, will really make you think. In this book, every moment of every day seems to be spent by these men thinking about sex and seeking it out with strangers- whether that be a grope on the underground, endlessly standing in showers to glimpse a cock, or a full-blown fuck in the kitchen of a restaurant. Will even admits that it is the very anonymity of the men he takes that makes the sex so attractive.
On top of all this, the book tackles the race issue in Britain in a way that would be unthinkable in our post-PC climate. Will, his family, and their aristocratic connections, once ruled the world, and what would more naturally be for them a paternalistic interest in Africa, becomes in this maw of gay promiscuity an erotic obsession with black men that dominates the novel.
The book is a detective novel: who is the mysterious Lord Nantwich, and why does he want Will to write his book? It's a graphic gay novel that challenges the post-PC view of homosexuality, and it's a beautifully crafted novel about a world that few of us will ever know.
My only hesitation in recommending this book is that I wonder how much anyone who is not English (I'll extend that to British) would understand it. Without our natural understanding of class and the post-colonial, post-Victorian issues of race, this might be a very confusing read. I still recommend it though. It's very memorable.
Disappointing is my overall verdict on this book, which is rather a shame as it starts with such promise. Unfortunately it never really gets going, until near the end when rather out of the blue it briefly rises to become more than the sum of its parts. I wanted so hard to like it because the main character is a charming and engaging fellow, but it just didn't involve me at anything other than superficial level so I felt cheated. It seemed just to stop when I wanted more to wrap up the strands. Perhaps that was deliberate. I found it annoying.
William Beckwith is a 25-year-old gay aristocrat, lazily drifting through a life of leisurely privilege, going to his club and picking up young men for sex. When he saves the life of elderly Lord Nantwich in a public toilet, he's drawn into the old man's life through being asked to write his biography. The story widens into a 20th century history of homosexuality in England. It focuses on a very particular section of society (upper class English gentlemen and professionals) inhabiting a narrow milieu (London clubs & toilets and Soho bars mostly) but it does that very well.
The writing is stylish and easy enough to read. It's full of fascinating details that transport you into its world. However, I was never sufficiently emotionally connected to the characters to feel anything other than a voyeur. In fact the abiding impression I have is rather like visiting a zoo to gaze upon some exotic and hitherto unknown species of animal or bird, the sort of beast or fowl that draws the eye because it looks so amazing. There's plenty to keep your attention, though the lengthy extracts from Nantwich's journals can get tedious- I skipped through some sections. I found the strand exploring relations between upper class white aristocrats and the disadvantaged black youths and menials who service them rather hard to swallow, but that has more to do with presentation than subject. Sex as a metaphor for colonial exploitation actually works rather well.
I liked the friendship between William and James. Beckwith shows another side when he's with James, revealing that there's more to him than he'd like us to believe. Lord Nantwich obviously sees something redeemable in the dissolute young man. William's relationship with Arthur is almost laughable, like something from a British gangster movie. Phil the hotel worker flits in and out of the story. William seems to want something more than a casual relationship with him but doesn't know how to go about it. He doesn't seem to learn anything from his experiences, so you're left wondering what is the point?
It's supposed to be darkly erotic. Certainly there are graphic descriptions of gay sex, which, though occasionally awkward or pedestrian, are enjoyable and certainly shine a light on a way of life both decadent and alluring. It seduces you with its likeable narrator and his hedonistic lifestyle, the glamorous depiction of gay sex free from the spectre of AIDS, but it's a case of "coitus interruptus" for me.
If it wasn't such a well-written book it'd be easier to dismiss. With hindsight you have to wonder what happened to these men once the reckless party was over. There's a sequel, and I enjoyed this one enough to want to read it, so I suppose that's a recommendation.
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