Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming Pool Library

A holiday away from home requires at there to be at least some attempt to find literature that is appropriate to the location, it is a tried and tested approach to reading. Admittedly, it is a plan that I have only successfully executed in one previous location – partially reading Hans Fallada’s excellent ‘Alone in Berlin’ (recently a somewhat less good film) whilst staying near Checkpoint Charlie.

imageAn ‘all-tinclusive’ hotel holiday in Menorca proved somewhat challenging subject matter, but thinking slightly laterally Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ seemed appropriate – a book picked up at the Greenwich and Blackheath Amnesty International second hand book sale last autumn.

The novel is set in the summer of 1983 for William Beckwith a 25 year-old feckless and work shy narcissist ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ He is living on the early inheritance from his grandfather when cruising for sex in a public lavatory, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer.

Nantwich asks Will to look at his diaries with a view to writing a biography, this juxtaposes the past criminalisation of homosexuality with Will’s considerably different experiences of early 1980s London.

imageCleverly and wittily told, the narrative sometimes drifts off into almost Sebaldian diversions with a flawed but always engrossing narrator. It was certainly better than the only other novel of Hollinghurst’s that I had read before – ‘The Stranger’s Child’, which had rather put me off his work. It seemed a novel of its time, set before HIV/AIDS had become widespread and at a time when attitudes to gays much more hostile and coming out still hard for many.

Was it the best of my holiday reading? Sadly, not; that accolade goes to the subtly told tale of bereavement and developing a new life beyond just coping
Colm Tóibín’s delightful ‘Nora Webster.’

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