The Swimming-Pool Library is somehow both more and less than it would first appear. Its main character, William Beckwith, is a wealthy, privileged young man – an inheritor of much fortune and likely future possessor of his grandfather’s aristocratic title (his grandfather being a Viscount). The theme of the Swimming Pool Library, a title which at first glance would seem somewhat romantic and erudite, comes up throughout the book, but rather than referring to a man’s scholarly journal , it actually relates to sexual exploits. And sex generally dominates the book, from the moment it opens and up to its very end. Will, being young, attractive, and gay, seems obsessed with the physical. Almost any situation can be turned into an opportunity to flirt or more. One of these opportunities – a visit to a local men’s room, notorious for “cottaging” (meeting for anonymous sex) sets Will’s life on a new course. An old man, who turns out to be a mysterious and powerful Lord, has a heart attack in the men’s room and Will saves his life. Thus the real journey begins.
Throughout the book, Will is struggling to find purpose in his life. He does not have to work, because he has inherited wealth and property, but he and his friends think that he should be doing something with his life. The chance meeting with Lord Nantwich provides an opportunity for Will to potentially pursue his calling: writing. Will is clearly interested in writing, and others seem to think he should be writing professionally. Nantwich asks Will, after getting to know him a bit, to write his biography , providing Will with various journals, diaries, and stories about his life. During the course of his “research,” Will discovers much about Nantwich’s past, but also about his own history and the history of London. The violence, shame, and sexual explorations of these historical figures mimics what Will is experiencing in his own life, and leads him to discover a deeply troubling truth about his own family.
Overall, I quite enjoyed The Swimming-Pool Library. Hollinghurst creates an interesting story about the life and history of a gay man (and a gay culture), one which is interesting and eccentric, but still honest. The feel of London, in particular, comes across quite well, making one feel as if they are there, even though the reader is, now, thirty years distant from the action of the plot (and even further from those moments of journal reading, which date back decades earlier). The exclusion of HIV/AIDS issues was somewhat refreshing, but also conspicuously absent – that such a promiscuous gay man, living in such a promiscuous world (sexual “hook-ups” seemed to be the norm, and the “public bath” as well as the private member’s only club where much of the story takes place are littered with men having sex with men) would have had no contact with illness. It is even more glaring when one considers the fact that Will’s best friend is a doctor. The story does take place only two years after what most would consider to be the starting point of the epidemic, and in 1983, when this book takes place, the tests for the virus were just being developed, so the lack of concrete illness is understandable, but perhaps a meaningful allusion could have been made (although, perhaps that is what the presence of the doctor and the decline of the “decadent generation” were all about?). The honesty of the story, the beauty of the prose, and the historical/cross-generational look into gay culture are great strengths for this book – I will definitely be reading more Hollinghurst.
“There are times when I can’t think of my country without a kind of despairing shame. Something literally inexpressible, so I won’t bother to try and speechify about it.”
“There is nothing worse than making a bid for someone’s body & getting their soul instead.”