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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst 
7th-Mar-2006 08:48 pm
Nothing like forcing myself through a big, "important" novel. :P Sometimes I wonder why I bother...

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Swimming-Pool Library. 1988. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Summary: Rich and idle William Beckwith, who spends most of his time swimming and picking up guys, saves the life of an old man who turns out to be the Lord Charles Nantwich, an elderly homosexual, who then asks Will to write his biography. While reading Charles's diaries, Will discovers that his own grandfather's success was at Charles' expense; he was convicted of sodomy and sent to prison. That, combined with is own best friend James's arrest for immoral behavior or some such, teaches Will that there's more to life than tricking with boys at the swimming pool or mooning over his latest infatuation.
Comments: Just in case you were wondering, the title of Hollinghurst's debut novel is a euphemism of sorts for the locker room...and the fact that "the swimming-pool library" is protagonist Will's favorite place in the whole wide world tells you a lot about his (lack of) appeal. Though the prose is undeniably literary and erudite, I just couldn't bring myself to care two cents about Will. He's rich, hedonistic, and he's a dinge queen (I believe that's the correct term >_< ) who seems to get a kick out of being in control. The usual post-Stonewall pre-AIDS gay lit themes are in play here: We've got the revisionist history; Charles, by passing his story onto Will, helps to demonstrate a continuity of gay life and culture going back to the beginning of the 20th century and even further. Also, he reinforces the notion of community and mutual support, to other gay men as well as other racial/ethnic minorities in England. He's not just a dirty old man; we find out, for example, that the he and his friends take care of their own, and he helps to wake Will's social conscience. Though they say nothing of it directly, by the end we know that they will protect James from persecution as well. In any case, the major themes are tossed around with far more delicacy than is usual in the genre, though at times I felt that there was an unnecessarily slow build to them, and I probably would've been more impressed if the language had been more spare and less Victorian. (The explanation of the title fell SMACK in the middle of the novel. Unsubtle.) Still, this one of the best examples I've ever seen of "highbrow" gay fiction, and its plot premise has been repeated by other authors, such as Joseph Olshan in Vanitas. Good for the academic or the completist.
Notes: trade paperback, 3rd printing
Rating: 5.5/10 - Undeniably well-written...and undeniably boring for long stretches at a time, as well. Be sure you know exactly what you're getting into first.
8th-Mar-2006 11:11 am (UTC)
Of all his novels I've read this is the one I enjoyed most because it didn't leave me as detached from the main character...I need an emotional connection.
8th-Mar-2006 01:07 pm (UTC)
"As detached"? I take it there was a level of detachment for you even in this novel, then? Character development didn't seem to be Hollinghurst's strong point as a writer, but I'm not sure where that ended and my lack of sympathy as a foreigner began...
8th-Mar-2006 01:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, I don't think I really felt connected on a deep level; but much more so than Line of Beauty for e.g. which I found a struggle. I think Hollingworth is very English, which makes his work difficult from an outside perspective. I was so keen to read LoB because of its Thatcher era setting, but it disappointed me greatly. At least I liked William Beckwith!
8th-Mar-2006 01:24 pm (UTC)
I think Hollingworth is very English, which makes his work difficult from an outside perspective.

*curious* In what sense?

I wasn't familiar with all of the literary/cultural references, and I'm still a bit shaky on the British school system...and the way his characters never seemed to emote was almost too stereotypical.
8th-Mar-2006 01:39 pm (UTC)
Well, that distance I couldn't shake and inability to make characers emote you mention, middle class uptightedness and heightened class consciousness, all of that...the relationship between Wiliam and Arthur for e.g, the bit of rough. The English school system is alien to me and I'm in Scotland! I admire his writing from a literary POV but the books just don't grab me like others I've read. Always like I'm on the outside looking in, as at creatures in some kind of exotic zoo cavorting for attention.
8th-Mar-2006 01:49 pm (UTC)
the relationship between Wiliam and Arthur for e.g, the bit of rough.

Yeah, I wasn't sure what to make of that particular aspect of Will. The novel was very race-conscious, but no specific conclusions really come to mind--other than the portrayal of non-whites in general was not very positive. There may have been some underlying racism there. Yet, at the same time, I don't think Hollinghurst was deliberately trying to be racist, given the portrayal of Charles.

I admire his writing from a literary POV but the books just don't grab me like others I've read.

Long on literary technique, short on soul. That's how it struck me, at least.
1st-Apr-2006 01:21 pm (UTC)
Review archived.
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