The Swimming-Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First published 1988.
(Penguin/Putnam edition, July 6, 1989)
Fiction • 304 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Review by Stephen O. Murray
October 5, 1991.
I have already reposted what was intended, in 1995, to be a review of Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library. What I wrote about it when I first read it, in 1991, was comparing it with other novels I’d recent read back then (the more enduring one is George Orwell’s 1934 Burmese Days). I here extract my initial take.
–January 24, 2018
Though deprecating his vanity a bit, Will (born in 1958), the narrator of The Swimming-Pool Library, is far from self-lacerating. Rather, he is very self-indulgent.
The elders don’t name-drop. They can barely be cajoled into talking about E. M. Forster and Ronald Firbank, in fact. There is abundant, fairly explicit and believable sex.
Despite the recurrent concern with Ronald Firbank’s 1919 novel Valmouth with its scandalous interracial affair (Hollinghurst wrote a dissertation on the writings of Firbank, Foster, and L.P. Hartley,[/ref]author of The Go-Between with its famous remark that “the past is a different country”; Will studied history at Oxford[/ref], the prose is not artificial. Artful, yes. I don’t know if some of the vocabulary is archaic, precious, or normal Brit-speak. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and believe that the words that puzzle me are ones that have not crossed the Atlantic.
There’s some bildung (Will’s) within the text, and lots and lots of loose end without even attempting to land an ending. Reading it, I didn’t want it to end, and, arguably, it didn’t, just stopping.
Will comes to see that his leisure is based in part on his grandfather’s leading persecution of fags who couldn’t be as insouciant in the 1920s or ’50s as he could be in 1983. Before Will becomes earnest and political, the book stops.
If the book is an elegy, which it often seems to be, I think its an elegy for Lord Charles Nantwich’s combination of service (as an administrator in the Sudan between the world wars) and homoeroticism when sodomy was a criminal offense, not for the era of sexual freedom in which Will came out and partied.
Swimming-Pool Library shows the corrosive effects of the tropics on Northern Europeans is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the harm they do themselves and others. Will’s grandfather is quite cynical. Lord Nantwich, unlike Flory, serves the common good and uses his position to meliorate the law’s racist and heterosexist misrule embodies by Viscount Denis Beckwith and the (sort-of) repatriated Raj.
The narrative shows that sexual slumming can be dangerous to those accustomed to privilege—whether they are gay or straight. Keeping mental and moral balance while enjoying privileged access to lower castes’ bodies is difficult, especially in societies with the hypocrisy and racism of not-so-Great Britain, whether colonial (in Lord Nantwich’s youth) or neocolonial (Will’s time).
I have not mentioned Will’s sister’s six-year-old proto-gay son, Rupert, who adores Will. I found him very charming, though Hollinghurst does not know quite what to do with him in any of the novel’s plot lines, so Will calls his mother to come and take him back.
© 5 October 1991, 2018, Stephen O. Murray