on 12 November 2008
A compelling and sexy novel about a decadent, gay young aristocrat in 80s London whose life is changed irrevocably when he saves the life of the elderly Lord Nantwich. Will has time on his hands and little in his life but sex and self-indulgence, so when his new friend asks him to write his memoirs he cannot find a good enough excuse to say no.
From the moment Will starts reading the journals of Charles Nantwich, new truths and new perspectives are opened up to him. The people he thought he knew are thrown into new light, new histories are revealed, and all the while his life goes on, clawing its way towards a new maturity.
The intertwining of Will's London and Charles's experiences as a young man, at university, as a soldier abroad, and into middle age, works beautifully and doesn't confuse the reader or become offputting. At the same time the novel raises many complex issues around class, sexuality and race over the decades, and the treatment of minority groups in England. The end was frustratingly brief and inconclusive, but the rest of the novel was absorbing enough to excuse it. I'm glad I got it out the library as I don't think I'd read it again, but I would definitely recommend it to people with open minds who don't mind putting a bit of thought into their reading experience.
on 29 June 2015
First thing to say, I loved this book. I read The Line of Beauty some years ago, but this first novel has a freshness and joie de vivre I don't recall in that. Stretching my memory at a distance, I prefer this one. In relating Will's attempt to write the life of the elderly Lord Charles Nantwich, the story switches between descriptions of promiscuous gay sex in early 1980's London and cultured discussion of Regency architecture, Wagner and Britten. And hops from Soho to pre-war Sudan. The Swimming Pool Library is not just entertaining but also touches on truths of relationships I could really relate to, and left me touched and moved. I do wonder how wide the readership of this novel is, given what I've said above about its skipping lightly from tight swimming trunks on young men to Coade stone vases and Adam architecture, but I can see why it achieved the critical success it did. And it left me humming the Siegfried Idyll all day long.
on 27 December 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.
on 16 May 2011
There is a decent story in this book but unfortunately the author's constant reversion to gratuitous and extraneous descriptions of sex rather detract from it. Having created the most dreadful and unlikeable main character, the selfish, vain and utterly loathesome Will, the writing, whilst good at times, degenerates regularly into juvenile descriptions of sex, featuring the dreadful Will and his constant flow of liasons and 'partners' none of whom I'd imagine would find such a ruthlessly self centred vaccuous person attractive.
The ostensible main story is thoroughly spoiled by these incessant diversions and I'd have to say that when the whole book is taken into account, it is disappointing. I'm rather curious as to the writer's motivation for the inclusion of some of these rather jolting distractions, but as the book progressed, they became so dull and dreary, that one found oneself skimming through until yet another of these episodes was over with.
It's rather a pity as some of the writing is good and the main story, had it been concentrated on rather more and a less odious dramatis personae created, could have been much better.
on 2 September 2011
There is no denying that Alan Hollinghurst is a great writer, and this is a potentially fascinating book with engaging characters and a clever and interesting main plot thread. William Beckwith, the main character, lives a happy, open and promiscuous gay life. Early in the story he has a chance encounter with an elderly peer who ends up asking William to write his biography. Reluctantly, William begins to explore Lord Nantwich's life and is drawn back to a world decades earlier when life for gay men was very different. Secrets are revealed about Nantwich and some of the other men who move in his circle.
So far, so interesting. The problem is that this plot is, much like a soft-core porn film, constantly interupted for sex. Acknowledging that the characters are gay and have casual sex with strangers is, so far as it goes, absolutely fine. However, the book begins to become ludicrous as every single situation seems to move inexplicably towards yet another sex scene described in explicit detail. William appears to socialise almost exclusively with gay men, which is perhaps not unrealistic, but the author gives him a helping hand by placing him in a world where almost everyone is gay. Perhaps even more irritating, especially for the gay reader, is that in Hollinghurst's world it seems not to be possible to be gay without being obsessed by people's penises and having a preference for random sexual encounters based on chance meetings in public toilets, swimming pool showers, and in the street.
The flash-backs to Nantwich's youth, based on his diaries, are possibly even worse. The description of pre-teen and teen boys at boarding school all being engaged in apparantly endless homosexual sex would be disturbing if it wasn't so laughable, and the reader is left trying to judge the line between what is important for the plot and what is merely Hollinghurst's fantasies.
In the end, I found the book difficult to enjoy. The obsession with sex became comedic, and distracted from a plot that was not nearly as well fleshed out as it might have been if Hollinghurst has focused more on the true experience of young gay men in the periods he covers, and less on his weird fantasy version.
on 3 June 2014
I really tried to get into this book, but It just turned me off. A book about a group of gay bitches sitting around a dusty old club bitching about life in general. Thank God the gay scene is better than this.
on 9 June 2013
I think that Alan Hollinghurst is one of the finest styists writing in English today. "The Swimming-pool library" is less mature and brilliant than "Stranger's child" but it is nevertheless a superb piece of literature. The characterisation has improved, from the somewhat awkward types populating his early work to the more subtle and varied psychology of the later stuff. If you love good English, you'll surely love Alan Hollinghurst.
What troubles me about all his books is the sex. Apart from one memorable pairing in The Line of Beauty, hardly any of it ever seems to involve love, which is really bizarre. The ghastly central character of "The Folding Star" speaks about his lust for the under-age boy of his obsession as love and he is the extreme end of a principle which seems to run through Hollinghurst's work like a theme.
It's as if just about none of his characters ever grow up into people who can genuinely and freely give themselves to the other; sexual encounters 90% of the time are onanistic lust-couplings - and it seems that they are the norm for him.
Sexual relationships are not always the fleeting, desperate and loveless experiences which he describes: my thinking is that this is probably the main shortcoming which stands in the way of Hollinghurst being accepted as our foremost novelist.
on 31 May 2015
I bought this because I really enjoyed 'The Line of Beauty'. There is no doubt that it's well written but the constant 'gay interest' theme comes over as gratuitous rather than adding to the story. The key protagonist is a dislikeable opportunist who seems to assume that every male is homosexual and often, the writer colludes in this.
on 27 September 2015
Sometimes you feel it's over-wordy but relax, you're in the hands of a literary master so all will be well.
on 6 April 2010
The story slightly dwindles away towards the end, and I got a little impatient with the sheer privileged decadence of the main character (perhaps the author's intention?). But these are minor quibbles. This is a really well written novel. If you like literary fiction that's readable, I would recommend this book.
If you trying to decide between this and the Line of Beauty, the Line of Beauty is on balance an even better read than The Swimming Pool Library. If you've read the Line of Beauty and are looking at reading more by the author, go for it.