Sunday, January 11, 2015
DIVING INTO 'THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY'
Oh ... oh ... oh my God ... One of my best friends recommended THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY by Alan Hollinghurst to me the year it was published. That was 1988. I was 21 years old. It's a British literary gay novel. Although I've always loved reading gay fiction, something about THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY put me off at the time. Perhaps it was the title, which I couldn't fathom. But no, it was mainly the writing style, which was obviously too sophisticated for me when I was 21. But now I'm 47, and have spent several years in London, and have gained generally more life experiences than I had at 21. This was obviously the right time. I went back, picked it up, and was completely gobsmacked. What a novel! It's set in 1983, "the last summer of its kind there was ever to be" as Hollinghurst puts it. This is the single, only, veiled reference to AIDS in the entire book. The action of the novel, indeed, takes place during the summer of 1983 but in its incorrigible way manages to cast its net back over 60 years of hidden gay history. Most of gay history remains hidden, even in the modern age, except for those few who wish to dig it up. The hero of THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY is a 25-year-old upper-class layabout whose quality time is spent swimming at his posh gentlemen's club, cruising for black young men and white young men, and fucking. A chance encounter with an elderly 83-year-old Lord leads to an intense friendship, and the Lord asks him to read his diaries and write a book about his life. Throughout the story, the hero swings back and forth between courting his young black love Arthur and his young white love Phil, while seeking anonymous encounters, improving himself in the pool, and getting to know the old Lord and trying to decide whether or not to write His Lordship's story. All of this doesn't really tell you anything about what goes on in the book. But that's the whole point. People have told me for years they thought THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY was incredibly erotic, and they are absolutely right. But don't expect porn. Somehow, Hollinghurst was able to write a totally erotic, sexually charged narrative without ever offering much of a standard blow-by-blow. If you like well written, compelling, illuminating fiction and you enjoy sexy stories about gay men -- and if you're mature enough to appreciate it! -- then I recommend THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY.