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Dandy Highwayman (Edinburgh, Scotland)

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The Swimming-Pool Library
The Swimming-Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Edition: Paperback

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent exploration of recent gay history, 27 Dec. 2008
London, 1983. William Beckwith, young, gay, indolent and aristocratic, devotes his existence to the pursuit of pleasure, enjoying numerous casual affairs with a variety of men. By chance, he happens to meet and save the life of Charles Nantwich, an elderly peer who collapses in a public lavatory. Upon meeting soon after at the `Corinthian Club', the gym to which they both belong, they ease into a sort of friendship, and Charles, his life nearing its end, asks the ever-idle Will to write his biography.

So begins The Swimming Pool Library (1988), Alan Hollinghurst's literary debut and the first of his novels I've read. While the story is mostly told from Will's point of view, the diaries and letters lent to him by Charles as research allow a parallel story to emerge, each extract offering a glimpse into the youth of Charles Nantwich and revealing curious similarities with Will's own life.

From early homosexual experimentation at their respective boarding schools to their deep love of black men, both characters share more than their background and privilege. The rampant homophobia in Charles' time, in an age where homosexuality was not only hidden but illegal has not disappeared in the supposedly enlightened era of the 1980s (as indeed it hasn't to this day.) Nevertheless, from the material Will has for his research it is clear that Charles, in his youth at least, has managed to lead an extraordinarily active life.

While Charles' story as told in his diaries becomes ever more intriguing, Will's sexual appetite never seems to diminish, and the author seems to delight in throwing in ever-more detailed descriptions of his exploits to break up each chapter. Some readers might find the graphic description off-putting or even shocking, quite an impressive achievement for a book celebrating its twentieth birthday this year. The `Corry', as the Corinthian Club is known to its regulars has a distinctly gay atmosphere, the members making no pretence about checking each other out in the showers and hooking up afterwards.

The real-life but somewhat obscure author Ronald Firbank is quoted often and makes several appearances through mentions of his books and in the admiration and esteem that James, Will's best friend, confers upon him. Firbank wrote novels of rich dialogue and almost comically light plots, brimming with camp excess. While some have derided his work as unimportant, other writers such as Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden praised his writing highly. Hollinghurst too is clearly a fan, and he expertly weaves choice phrases and cameo appearances of the man into nearly every chapter.

One of the most striking themes that run through the book is that of desperate loneliness. Each major character is fundamentally alone; Will has many acquaintances and enjoys an active sex life, but he freely admits to himself that he has no true friends, with the exception of James, whom he rarely sees. James is a somewhat tragic character, clever, kind and always working, but unable to attract a man and form the meaningful relationship he so obviously craves. Meanwhile Charles, rich and exciting as his life may have been, is the living embodiment of the solitary man, destined to die without love and companionship.

As Will is forced to examine his own past while investigating that of his charmingly forgetful friend, it soon becomes apparent that he has a closer connection with Charles than he could ever have realised. Tantalisingly, the puzzle pieces never quite fall into place, and even by the last page much remains a mystery. The Swimming Pool Library isn't a happy-ever-after, but by the end, it does leave room for hope.

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