Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific novelist, with only five novels to his name, but he is an important one. His first, The Swimming-Pool Library, burst onto the scene – the gay one and the literary alike – in 1988 just as Thatcher’s third government was introducing the Section 28 laws. The infamous clause prohibited local authorities disseminating material deemed to be endorsing homosexuality, and attempted to silence teachers who dared instruct children that being gay was a normal lifestyle. At the same time, the AIDS crisis had devastated lives around the world, and the World Health Organization began its effort to promote awareness, founding World AIDS Day.
Neither of these two traumas, though, made it into Hollinghurst’s seminal depiction of gay lives, a novel which now makes up a great deal of my dissertation. The presence of these national and international crises is felt throughout the novel, however, which is principally set in London, 1983, but looks back and further afield to Britain’s colonial exploits in the Sudan and to the post-war ‘gay pogroms’ in the 1950s. Hollinghurst quite flippantly said that Section 28 boosted the sales of the novel, and threw a lot more publicity its way, an example of his particular dark, serious humour that runs throughout his work.
I first read this novel for ‘pleasure’ – whatever that means – before I came to Queen Mary, and now at the close of my undergraduate years, I’ve dedicated a year to studying and writing about it. Just as much fun as it was when I read it as a teenager, I decided to revisit it with academic lenses on, focusing on the politics of the 1980s, issues of representation, and invocations of the past. For me, thinking about all of this within a novel I never read in a classroom has been a great way of getting to know it better – and I will excommunicate anyone who says studying a book makes you hate it. What I’ve found is that so much of what I really enjoyed in ‘casually’ reading the novel comes up again and again in what I think provides the potential for ‘formal’, academic discussion.
In The Swimming-Pool Library, the narrator Will Beckwith recounts his leisured life as a 25 year old gay man in early 1980s London, a period he describes as his ‘belle époque’, a kind of prelapsarian golden age for gay men before it all went wrong. Still, he senses disaster amidst the summer of fun: ‘all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.’ A novel of nostalgia, however, this is not. And Hollinghurst is careful to put pressure on any notion of a sentimentalised gay past, since the wealthy Will from an aristocratic family is brought up against different working-class and black gay men who remind the reader that such hedonistic experiences were exceptions to the rule. More than this, after a comic encounter in a public toilet with an old Lord, Will agrees to undertake the task of writing this man’s biography. Through the diaries of Charles Nantwich, Will comes to know a complicated and unsettling history of homosexuality in Britain and its empire.
Indeed, the novel balances the main sections of first-person narration in the aesthetic and affected voice of Will with passages of Nantwich’s Oxford and Sudan journals from the 1920s. Hollinghurst’s intention was to explore ideas of ageing, and the tension brought about by the two styles of narration suggests what has changed and persisted across the twentieth century for gay men. With this compare and contrast of Will and Nantwich, two gay men from opposite ends of an age of extremes, what is seen to persist most clearly is their appetite for men.
Often labelled as ‘brave’ and ‘unapologetic’, The Swimming-Pool Library continues to be regarded as an important text in depicting gay sexuality and desire for men, and is almost treated as a ‘coming-out’ case in itself. But for all the reviews which praise his defiance as a ‘gay writer’ showing ‘gay sex’, what is most exciting about Hollinghurst’s novel is its refusal to sentimentalise his characters, or feel pressured into depicting all gay men either as allies, heroes or victims of a common enemy, that is, the heterosexual world. In fact, there are remarkably few heterosexual characters in it, and nearly no women. What Hollinghurst achieves in shaking-off is what James Baldwin called the burden of representation. This is unapologetically a novel about a white, rich gay man who lives in west London, and who develops ‘a taste for black names’ and working-class boys, rather than a story which attempts to tell all gay men’s stories.
The first lines of the novel neatly offer the measure of Will, a bright young thing detached from the reality of most people’s lives in Thatcher’s Britain, yet he is physically caught up in the cosmopolitan mix. Hollinghurst makes great use of trains to show off this kind of close detachment, and the Underground often becomes a way for Will to eye-up men or even find a fling:
I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the state heart of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives
Will’s curiosities as to how the other 90% live, since he ‘belonged to that tiny proportion of the populace that indeed owns almost everything’, function as an ironic gap through which we read his peculiar and often uncomfortable perception of black and working-class figures. As his thoughts wander along with his journey, he comes to feel ‘a kind of tenderness’ for the black worker who he imagines going home after a hard night’s graft.
Will in many ways is a pretty unpleasant character, but Hollinghurst maintains that these are the really interesting ones, and makes the point that it ‘doesn’t mean that you can’t find them sympathetic’. Will is, though, a terrific snob. On more than one occasion he travels to the East End to conduct research for Nantwich’s biography or to visit ex-lovers. Going to see Arthur, a seventeen-year-old from Stratford East, Will feels a striking ‘culture shock’ that leaves him disbelieving he is in the same city. As he walks about the tower blocks, he feels an alien: ‘Away to the left a group of kids were skateboarding up the side of a concrete bunker. I somehow expected them to shout obscenities, and was glad I had come ordinarily dressed, in a sports shirt, an old linen jacket, jeans and daps.’
The buildings he sees around him seem to disregard ‘anything the eye or heart might fix on as homely or decent’, and he finds the estate defaced with National Front graffiti: ‘“Kill All Niggers” or “Wogs Out”.’ It is at these moments, in which Will’s ignorance and distaste for the working-class areas comes through, that he is at his most political in revealing the massive divisions that remain in British society. Travelling around on the tube, Will does not so much mind as confront the gaps that exist between races, classes, and subcultures in 1980s London.
For a story belonging to Will, a man who alights at Tottenham Court Road to go home to the flat his grandfather bought for him, the novel has a surprising reach to it. Will is equally fascinated and appalled by the places he visits. As one of many larger instances of Hollinghurst furnishing the novel with references to earlier writers, Will, an Oxford graduate, looks on at east London with a kind of literary sensibility of its divergence, seeing it through ‘Dickensian or Arnold Bennettish’ lenses. Yet, the novel makes no claims to the kind of panoramic perspective that we might expect from an older realist novel.
The Swimming-Pool Library is, I think, one of the great contemporary representations of London, and surely right up at the top in gay men’s writing. Hollinghurst’s fiction is stuffed with vile characters, as anyone who has read his most famous novel will know – the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty of 2006, which was also made into a not-unsuccessful BBC series. They are hilarious novels, too. His fiction has been criticised for being parochial and short-sighted, but what really succeeds in Hollinghurst’s depiction of London is his ability to confidently show the city in all its divisions and inconsistencies, partially rather than omnisciently, and as multiple spaces. London can seem like cities within cities, and I’ve often been struck by that strange feeling of dislocation, popping up in Victoria or Bloomsbury, when travelling by tube. It’s a view of London Hollinghurst wants to offer up in his first novel, a feeling illustrated nicely by a cameo made by something not so unheimlich for us, Mile End:
The City had already evacuated, and though the train was crowded to Liverpool Street there was only a scattering of us left for Bethnal Green, Mile End and beyond. All the other people in my car – Indian women with carrier-bags, some beary labourers, a beautiful black boy in a track-suit – looked tired and habituated. When I got out at Mile End, though, other passengers got on, residents of an unknown area who used the Underground, just as I did, as a local service, commuting and shopping within the suburbs and rarely if ever going to the West End , which I visited daily. I felt more competent for my mobility, but also vaguely abashed as I came out into the unimpressionable streets of this strange neighbourhood.