Catch 28

John Lanchester

  • The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
    Chatto, 288 pp, £11.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3282 5
  • The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White
    Picador, 184 pp, £9.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 330 30394 5

Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in particular, tend to cause feelings of unease (Lawrence, Mailer). The other, subtler way is through the failure to show sex as a function of character: to depict sex in fiction as a holiday from personality is to make sex, in fictional terms, merely digressive. One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library – a startlingly accomplished first novel – is the tonal control it achieves in writing graphically and explicitly about homosexual sex while never seeming flustered or prurient, and never wavering in the amused, ironic control of the narrating voice. ‘There were more reckless propositioners,’ the narrator says of the showers at his favourite swimming-pool, ‘like the laid-back Ecuadorian Carlos with his foot-long Negroni sausage of a dick; his (successful) opener to me had been: “Boy, you got the nicest dick I ever see” – a gambit only really useful to those who are pretty well set up themselves.’ The measured, formal movement of the prose, its hints of scholarly fastidiousness, give a flavour of comedy of manners to ‘acts in which’, the architecture-loving narrator remarks, ‘the influence of the orders, the dome, the portico, could scarcely be discerned’. However Dionysian the events depicted – fellatio, sodomy, an erection passing along a line of men in the shower ‘with the domino effect of a Busby Berkeley routine’ – the narrator’s tone remains, in keeping with his personality, resolutely Apollonian.

The novel is William Beckwith’s account of summer 1983, during which he was ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ Will is 25, from a recently aristocratic family (his grandfather was ennobled for his services as Director of Public Prosecutions during the Fifties): he is handsome, rich, homosexual, talented, narcissistic, promiscuous and lazy – as lazy and as cultured as the ‘superfluous man’ of the 19th-century Russian novel. Cruising in a public lavatory in Kensington Park, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer of the realm, ‘the sort of chap who turns up in the lives of other people’. Nantwich is physically frail and prone to ‘blanking’ – sudden mental absences – but he is more purposeful and manipulative than is immediately apparent, and he is adroit at tactical use of the ‘egocentric discontinuities’ of his conversational style. He wants Will to write his biography and to that end hands over his diaries, extracts from which form a considerable part of The Swimming-Pool Library. The diaries chronicle Nantwich’s education (Winchester and Oxford – just like Will) and his time as a District Commissioner in the Sudan, as well as his holiday and wartime experiences in London. The contrast between Nantwich’s life and Will’s is one of the main themes of the novel: Nantwich’s life has been shaped by the criminalisation of his sexuality, and by the way in which that impelled him towards a life of ‘philanthropic sublimation’.

The theme is emphasised and its general applicability is tested by passages in the novel which deal with the work of the generation of artists who did their work in the closeted pre-Wolfenden climate. If the idea of ‘homosexual writing’ is useful, it probably applies best to the period when homosexuality was criminal, and hence when the fictional treatment of same-sex love had to be implicit, indirect, deflected, latent. Hollinghurst’s unpublished M. Litt thesis, which I stumbled across as a graduate student, made a forceful case for this idea as applied to the work of Firbank, Hartley and Forster. His novel takes up the idea in asides: ‘It’s the whole gay thing, isn’t it,’ Will remarks to a boyfriend reading The Go-Between, ‘the unvoiced longing, the cloistered heart.’ The most extended and moving treatment of the theme comes with Will’s visit to the opera in the company of his grandfather: the opera is Britten’s Billy Budd. Interval discussion of the work’s ‘deflected’ sexuality is interrupted by the appearance of Peter Pears, who arrives as a living witness from a kind of heroic era for homosexual artists.

The Swimming-Pool Library is a rich and clever and funny novel. The richness is in large part a matter of the density of detail the book manages to accumulate, detail like the concrete gulley in Holland Park Underground station ‘where a whole family of nervous, sooty little mice shot back and forth as if themselves operated by electricity’. Will’s architectural enthusiasms provide a starting-point for his distinctive but absolutely compelling vision of London, which is always under the careful tonal control already mentioned. The meticulous realism of the novel is accompanied by a careful use of imagistic and symbolic parallelings. A typical piece of simultaneous realism and symbolism is the fact that Will’s best friend James keeps his diaries (which are secret-but-not-secret: Will reads them with James’s tacit consent) on the same shelf as he keeps his treasured collection of Firbank novels (which embody, more than any other novelist’s work, a technique relying on secrecy and implication). The most important current of images relates to swimming-pools and subterranean places. The two main pools in the novel are the one at the Corinthian Club (site of the Busby Berkeley shower-scenes) and the archaeological remains of Roman baths which are preserved under Lord Nantwich’s house (baths now decorated with an explicit fresco painted by a friend of Nantwich’s, baths where experiments in magic are alleged to have taken place). The images parallel the contrast on which the novel is built, but Hollinghurst is careful to avoid too straightforward a correspondence between the symbolic and the explicit levels of the book, and other underground images are plentiful: the ‘subaqueous’ atmosphere of Firbank’s Café Royal (also a kind of sexual marketplace), the ‘subterraneous’ back parts of the hotel where Phil works, the underground night-club called The Shaft, and the Underground itself, where the novel opens with Will contemplating two night-shift maintenance men ‘with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives’.

But if the richness of the book is a matter of detail and specificity, its cleverness has a lot to do with one bold technical stroke, which is summarisable by the fact that there are no women characters in The Swimming-Pool Library. The novel adheres rigidly to Will’s point of view, and that point of view is strictly circumscribed. His absolute immersion in London gay life has the effect of excluding women and heterosexuals from his consciousness (the only heterosexuals in the novel, both of them fleetingly characterised, are Will’s brother-in-law and his grandfather). The effect of this circumscription is enhanced by the temporal location of the novel in 1983, before the first UK deaths from Aids occurred. The general election passes by without remark, nor is anything said about the Falklands war of the preceding year – that is, until Will comes close to having sex with an Argentinian (‘I could see the whole thing deteriorating into a scene from some poker-faced left-wing European film’). Will’s ignorance about Aids gives a flavour of the summer of 1914 to the summer of 1983, and the limited nature of his Weltanschauung makes him not especially likeable but at the same time curiously prelapsarian and innocent. His hedonistic self-confidence, his sense that ‘I was both of the world and beyond its power,’ has a historical poignancy of which he is unaware.

This effect is local and verbal as well as structural: much of what Will says seems to be darkened by the pressure of another possible reading, a reading which has a deeper vision of life than the narrator’s. ‘It was all very clean,’ he remarks of the lavatory where he saves Nantwich’s life, ‘and at several of the stalls under the burnished copper pipes (to which someone must attach all their pride), men were standing, raincoats shrouding from the innocent visitor or the suspicious policeman their hour-long footlings.’ The observation about the pipes is a typical piece of Beckwithian aestheticism, an instance of the ‘camp, exploitative, ironical control’ of his expression: how amusing that some troglodyte should spend his days cleaning the Gents. But there is, at the same time, a kind of latent compassion and humanity about realising that lavatory fittings don’t get that clean just by accident, and in realising that someone’s life must therefore be entirely bound up in keeping them that way. You are fleetingly led to wonder, as Beckwith clearly does not, what that would be like if it were your life.

The double focus – operating in that moment of an observation which is both Will’s and more than Will’s – becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses. Where there is a darkening and enriching of the words Will speaks, it usually derives from the sense that those words have an ethical dimension of which he is not fully aware. As the story moves along and the various forms of idealism it depicts (emotional, aesthetic, erotic, familial) turn sour, the ethical dimension presses on the reader more and more. Will conducts two love affairs during the summer (both with boys ‘vastly poorer and dimmer than himself’), and they both fall humiliatingly apart; he is beaten up by skinheads; James is entrapped by a homosexual policeman. Most disturbingly of all, Nantwich shows Will a journal he has been keeping back: he turns out to have been jailed for six months in 1954 at the instigation of Will’s grandfather, who as DPP led a ‘crusade to eradicate male vice’ – for which he was ennobled. While Nantwich was incarcerated, his Sudanese servant of 28 years’ standing, ‘the light of my life’, was killed in ‘an act of racial hatred and ignorance’. It isn’t quite clear how far the events of The Swimming-Pool Library lead Will to realise the limitations of his own behaviour and world-view. For the reader, those limitations could not be made clearer (though it is a novel that is bound to attract galumphing misreadings and denunciation).

The book ends with the screening of a film of Firbank toiling up the hill at Genzano on an expedition to Lake Nemi (a trip that took place, according to Lord Berners’s memoir of the writer, a few days before his death). A crowd of children, attracted by Firbank’s fatally idiosyncratic walk, collects and capers around him.

The marionette of a man, on his last legs, had been picked on by the crowd, yet as they mobbed him they seemed somehow to be celebrating him. He became for a moment, what he must always have wanted to be, an entertainer. The children’s expressions showed that profoundly true, unthinking mixture of cruelty and affection. There was fear in their mockery, yet the figure at the heart of their charivari took on the likeness not only of a clown, but of a patron saint. It was a rough impromptu kind of triumph.

‘I see you as more of a Firbankian figure,’ Will has earlier told Nantwich. ‘It’s this idea that rather appeals to me, of seeing adults as children ... I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you were lucky in being able to turn your caprices into a career.’ To be attracted to black men is one thing: to pursue that affinity and make it the basis of a career of service, as Nantwich has done, is another. An aesthetic caprice, sustained and carried through to its consequences, can become a moral choice: it’s at this point that the aesthetic and the ethical concerns of The Swimming-Pool Library are shown to be interdependent. The tone of the novel could hardly be less Firbankian, but Firbank is the book’s patron saint.

At one point in The Swimming-Pool Library, Will remarks that he ‘felt all over some seasonal compulsion, quite exhilarated by that grand illusion, that I could make myself change’. The assumption that the possibility of change is illusory is very typical of the English novel, the characters of which tend to be rooted, weighted down by class and character and circumstances. The sense that the personality is unfixed, on the other hand, is often to be found in American fiction: it relates to the Emersonian legacy of a belief in possibility, a belief in the expandability and perfectibility of the self. Edmund White is very much in this tradition, and remembering that helps one to understand the charm of his work, which has a lot to do with the way his creations seem to have invented themselves in accordance with a clear idea of what they want to be like. (This has something in common with the poetry of John Ashbery, who praised White’s first novel, in words that could easily be used to evoke his own work, as the ‘account of an almost terminally sophisticated society’.) The beautiful room is empty has several characters who come to life in the quintessentially Whitean way, like Lou, the gay junkie and advertising man who ‘liked everything deformed by the will towards beauty, whether it was a ballet dancer’s mangled feet and duck walk, a nun’s pallor and shaved skull, or a trumpet player’s split pulpy lips’. A popular gambit in reviewing White is to point to his authorship of, on the one hand, The Joy of Gay Sex, and on the other of Caracole, and to say that there is a dichotomy between the candid how-to book and the exquisitely overwritten fiction about a naive newcomer in a hyper-refined society. In fact, the two books have a common impulse and a common preoccupation: the self-help manual as a genre is, after all, nothing but applied Emerson.

White’s narrators tend to feel the provisionality of their own personalities in relation to their environment: they watch other people carefully and have the skills of survivors – sensitiveness to mood, eagerness to please, readiness to dissimulate. What is made clearer by The beautiful room is empty is the way in which White’s interest in how we invent ourselves is a political concern. The unnamed narrator (the same one as in A Boy’s Own Story, to which this is a sequel) describes his education, intellectual and erotic, in the Midwest in the Fifties, and then his arrival and life in New York. The book ends with the Stonewall riot in 1969 – the event which precipitated Gay Liberation, ‘the turning-point of our lives’. The novel tells the story of the gay narrator’s attempt to comprehend his own sexuality in a society which offers no models for understanding that sexuality other than the legal (as a crime) or the medical (as an illness). The narrator, when not giving blowjobs in public lavatories, is attracted to types who are outside the established norms of behaviour – bohemians and artists like his beat friend the Communist lesbian paintress Maria. But America in the late Fifties is a society that places a very high value on the idea of normality, and the cost of the attempt to dissent is high: the narrator’s self-loathing is paralleled in the drug addiction, insanity and suicide of other characters.

Not that it’s a grim book. White writes too exuberantly for the effect of his work ever to be really lowering, and even though The beautiful room is empty is him in a comparatively austere vein, he is still wonderfully attentive to every sentence. Here, for instance, is the narrator mastering the technique of looking at Abstract Expressionist paintings.

I, too, would sit on a high wood stool, itself piebald with spattered paint, and look and look without saying a word. That was the trick: say nothing, show nothing. A senile radio would be muttering to itself. The smell of oil paint and turpentine (for acrylics had not yet been introduced) stung my eyes and made my nose run. Windows climbed one wall, floor to ceiling, and through them I could see the silver-lined clouds boiling and descending like a deity about to abduct an extremely willing shepherd.

The novel’s chief fault lies in its (confessedly) autobiographical nature. There are problems with the shape of the story and with the liberating climax of the Stonewall riot, which does not feel at all achieved in fictional terms: it just happens. Perhaps White’s point is that the central events of our lives can seem curiously downbeat as they are occuring – but at the same time the narrator goes out of his way to say how excited he was by the events at the Stonewall, so that explanation will not quite hold.

What does hold is the poignancy of the narrator’s plight in trying to live honestly and humanly with his sexuality in spite of the deforming pressures exerted on him (the strongest of which pressures come from within). It is impossible to imagine a novel which more plainly demonstrated the need for ‘positive images of homosexuality’. But that theme in The beautiful room is empty would more than qualify it for banning under Clause 28 of the new Local Government Bill. (The eulogistic description of Stonewall would probably be enough on its own.) It would be easy to imagine a similar judgment being reached on The Swimming-Pool Library by the combination of a prosecution case which chose to pretend that William Beckwith was being held up for our admiration, combined with a judge who – like the judge in the Gay News blasphemy case – ruled out of court any evidence on literary merit. Of course, the clause is so badly drafted that no one quite knows what its practical consequences will be. The ban on spending public money on the ‘promotion’ of those positive images might affect anything from the acquisition of library books to the licensing of cinemas. It is very likely to prevent council support for specifically gay causes – helplines and counselling services included. Even if the clause knew what it were doing – even if, say, it were narrowly and effectively drafted with the sole purpose of preventing the appearance on school library lists of Cordelia lives with Roger and Abdul, or whatever – it would be a stupid and pernicious piece of legislation. But there is something especially depressing in the way the clause seems to bungle away our liberties. It entrusts them to the courts and to the mad mullahs who preside in them.