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.

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