MiniReview: "The Swimming-Pool Library" by Alan Hollinghurst



For some reason, publishers have had a hard time coming up with a cover for this novel that captures its spirit. Of the ones I've seen, this German cover is the best. 

What is it?

It’s one of the seminal works of gay literature, which (he says, red-faced) I’m only just getting around to reading, thirty years after its publication.


But what is it?

A novel by English writer Alan Hollinghurst, first published in 1988. It was his first novel.


Thank you for sticking to the established form for these reviews, John. Now, could you tell us something about it?

It’s a first-person narrative—  


Oh my God, this sounds like the beginning of a Literature 101 close reading.

No, but it’s important. I’ll start again: It’s told from the point of view of William Beckwith, a 25-year-old Londoner who doesn’t need to work because his family is wealthy and semi-aristocratic. He’s also gay, so he spends his days at the Corry (the Corinthian Club), where he works out a bit, swims more, and picks up guys.


Sounds like my kind of life!

For sure. And he’s gorgeous, so he has no trouble attracting partners.


Lovely. But, life being what it is, I imagine things gets complicated.

Yes, there is a plot. Whilst looking for sex in a public washroom, he meets an elderly gentleman who ends up by asking him to write his memoirs. Turns out this guy is gay and has had an interesting homosexual life going back to the First World War. So, parallelling the story of young Will’s carefree modern gay life (pre-AIDS)—which includes a lot of sexual encounters with a lot of guys—are extracts from the diary of this queer man from another generation, and in particular his falling in love with a young black man (boy) in Africa when he is living there as a colonial administrator in the 1920s, and his experiences of incarceration for indecent sexual acts in the 1950s.


So, how was it for you?

Absolutely fabulous! I can’t say enough positive things about this book. Hollinghurst is a gorgeous writer, really the best. He writes sublimely about love and about sex. The latter scenes are wonderfully erotic, perhaps the best gay sex scenes I’ve ever read. But he also writes of the romance and idealism of gay life, and it is perhaps for this quality that I am totally in love with his writing, and in particular with this novel.

But the novel is also laugh-out-loud funny at times (something I haven’t particularly found in the two other Hollinghurst novels I’ve read, witty as they sometimes were). And it has to be said, he covers pretty much all the bases of gay life: love, longing, loving sex, mindless sex, kinkiness, queens and twinks and bears, gay bars, public toilets, romantic love, the obsession with the body, homophobia, hate crimes, issues with the criminal justice system. It’s all here. And it’s all tied up in an immensely readable, intelligent, complex and involving tale.


Stars (using the Michelin system)?



Sorry, John, did I hear you right? This has almost never happened. Did you say three stars?


Yes, three! The best novel I’ve read on modern gay life. There, I’ve said it.

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