The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
Posted May 9, 2007on:
William Beckwith is a 25 year old university graduate who graduated with a major in art history, specifically architecture, but has done very little with it. He doesn’t have to because he is the heir to a wealthy, distinguished family, recently ennobled (since the grandfather). He has the touch of ennui and of arrogant, self-assured manner that only a small social strata of any national society can afford; it is his sincere and artless gestures and expressions of friendship and companionship that endears him to others. On another level it is the outside world’s hostile attitude to his sexual orientation and lifestyle that provokes the reader’s sympathy and adds a another dimension to his image as the lusty gadabout. Overall it is the unmissable fact that Hollinghurst is so enamoured with his main character that he makes it difficult for one to be too censorious.
The popular impression of British all-boys public schools is one that, besides dealing in the education of rich and privileged offspring, also includes homosexual experimentation. Under Hollinghurst’s hand, from Beckwith’s point-of-view, this is upheld to an extravagant degree, and it continues through university, and after graduation shifts to the Corinthian Club, a men’s club that boasts, among other things, a gym and a swimming-pool. What’s odd is that the structure of Beckwith’s scholastic and social life post-graduation, in most cases has not changed from the days of Lord Nantwich’s, his much older friend, who grew up in the early 20th century. The exuberant, youth-fuelled, and (what now seems reckless) sexual adventures carried out in school swimming-pools and among abandoned ruins now occur in hotel rooms and night clubs. The relationship between the older students and the younger set, called here the “valet” system in which the latter serve and idolise the former, is replicated in the possessive manner the middle-aged and older gay characters behave towards their younger companions. After meeting one of Nantwich’s friends at a lunch with the lord, Beckwith is pleased that at having been taken under Nantwich’s wing. “I felt quite fond of him, and was glad that I had belonged to him and not to the talkative, rather sinister Staines.” The reason that Beckwith is even there is because Nantwich has asked him to write his biography and Staines asked him if he would like to be a subject in one of his photographs. No relationship is ever started in a straight-forward manner.
The similarities contribute to the insularity of their world. It’s in the first person and most of the action revolves around Beckwith; when he reads other people’s diaries (with tacit permission) it is to read about what others think about him. He has ready access to Nantwich’s because of the biography and the reader is given prolonged excerpts of his life. But he is also of the aristocracy and although he spent a part of his life in Sudan, it was as legal arbiter. From what we learn of those days he never integrated with the populace; most of what we read about takes place in his house there. It is through Beckwith’s lovers, James his old school chum, now a doctor, and Bill Shillibeer , a Corinthian member and a boxing coach for a boy’s club that we move beyond his spotlight. It is his exchanges with them, particularly Jams, that help to make the novel enjoyable.
It’s worth considering why it is so enclosed. Part of it is due to Beckwith’s ego, but it’s also rooted in the boundaries created by his sexuality. When he attends a Britten opera performance with his grandfather and James, it is a social faux pas to address any possible homosexual subtext in the production.
The three of us in our hot little box were trapped with this intensely British problem: the opera that was, but wasn’t gay, the two young gay friends on good behaviour, the mandarin patriarch giving nothing of his feelings away.
You are an especially vulnerable target for robbery and assault if the perpetrators believe that you’re a “poof”. We never see any of the gay characters outside of their element, their usual haunts. The only straight friends Beckwith has are his family, particularly his six year old nephew Rupert who is fascinated by his uncle’s lifestyle. In spite of this Beckwith calls these very “liberal times”, and I suppose they are in comparison to previous periods when politicians embarked on vice purges targeting homosexuals.
There are more specific similarities between Nantwich and Beckwith, most notably their interest in blacks. From the first page William mentions his romantic attraction with West Indian names. One becomes even more unnerved when one meets his latest black lover, Arthur, who is 17, submissive and clearly not his mental, social or emotional equal. (It’s unnerving because one assumes that there will not be many black characters of substance, if many at all.) It is reassuring to read in James’ diary that this is Beckwith’s modus operandi, to choose lovers who are “vastly poorer & dimmer than himself — younger, too. I don’t think he’s ever made it with anyone with a degree. It’s forever these raids on the inarticulate.” This is supported by his Phil (white this time), his next lover, who fits the profile. Still, the discomfort one feels about the imbalance of power in the relationships, from a racial perspective does not end, especially when Beckwith has it in him to be a bit brutish in bed; although in two such encounters between him and Arthur I must admit that those concerns disappeared because it was clear that they were rooted in the messy quagmire of their relationship, independent of everything else.
What was more disturbing was Lord Nantwich’s perplexing reverence for Africans and people of African descent, and obsession which had its roots in an unconsummated childhood crush. Throughout his diary writings on his time in Sudan we see how he associates the indigenous populace with everything noble, natural, beautiful and mystical. (If one didn’t know better one would think he had stumbled on a long lost fairy tribe.) When his sexual attraction to any particular individual is added to the mix, it is only alleviated by the fact that he never acted on his feelings, which in some cases (in England) was sad and regretful, in others (in Sudan) a relief, namely the love he developed for Taha Al-Ashari, one of his servant who he brought with him back to England. His feelings did not eclipse the humanity of others, once he got to know them, and he never tried to interfere with Taha’s personal life; he expressed no dismay when Taha started a family of his own, marrying a wife and eventually having a daughter.
William too, shows true affection and loyalty, in spite of his very human descents into egoism and power games. His romantic love may not be clear and constant but this never deters him from offering aid, as when Arthur comes to after having a violent row in his family. He offers James support and encouragement whether it is about relationship woes or police charges. And even though he first looks at Nantwich as an amusing oddity he develops a real regard for him. Indeed, it is Nantwich at the end, sympathetic elderly figure that he is, who comes out as a calculating, manipulative character, whose harmless, eccentric manner hides something more callous and self-serving.