An Introduction to Alan Hollinghurst

Prepared by David G. Hallman for 

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

July 21, 2020

I first started coming to Toronto on weekends in 1968. I was 18-years-old. I would stay at the YMCA which at that time was on College Street where the Toronto Police building is now. The Y had a swimming pool of course along with exercise facilities, offices, and meeting rooms. The top three floors of the building were for accommodation, each with a large number of single very spartan bedrooms. You could rent a room cheaply. Communal showers and washrooms were in the far corner of the floor. A lot of sex went on in the showers. A lot of sex went on in the bedrooms. Guys would leave their doors slightly ajar and others would wander around in the hallways, pausing and glancing into the rooms. If the eye contact was held and an inviting signal given, you would go in and close the door behind you. I can attest to a similar setup and sexual atmosphere at the YMCA in Montreal and in New York. 

When the Village People sang in 1978 “…it’s fun to stay at the YMCA…”, it was not a fabrication.    

But outside of disco tunes, nobody was writing engaging, candid, explicit, unsensationalized, literary fiction about our contemporary lives at that time. Alan Hollinghurst was among the first. 

There had been other gay authors, certainly, who had written gay-themed books: E.M. Forster, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, John Rechy, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Armistead Maupin, and others. And many of those books are brilliant evocations of time, place, and character. 

What Hollinghurst did so terrifically in his 1988 debut novel, “The Swimming Pool Library,” was to describe contemporary gay life matter-of-factly, including the sex that was part of gay life. As one reviewer wrote, it is the “first major novel in Britain to put gay life in its modern place and context … a historic novel and a historic debut.” 

Hollinghurst has observed about his literary debut, “There really wasn’t any serious fiction in Britain that was explicitly and unapologetically about gay life and that was a fantastic position to find myself in as a novelist. I had this amazing area of human interest to explore.”

A 1988 article about Hollinghurst in the London Review of Books reads, in part,

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. 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. 

It was this authenticity in depicting sex as being part-and-parcel of gay life that contributed to the enthusiastic reception of “The Swimming Pool Library” within the gay community. It was also what scandalized the novel for many heterosexuals. 

The Corinthian (men’s) Club in “The Swimming Pool Library” played a role as a place for gay men to meet and have sex in London in 1983 (the year in which the novel is set) as did YMCAs of that time in Toronto, Montreal, and New York.

One short illustration from the book:

The Corinthian Club in Great Russell Street was a place I loved, a gloomy and functional underworld full of life, purpose and sexuality. Boys, from the age of seventeen, could go there to work on their bodies in the stagnant, aphrodisiac air of the weights room. As you got older, it grew dearer, but quite a few men of advanced years, members since youth and displaying the drooping relics of toned-up pectorals, still paid the prices and tottered in to cast an appreciative eye on the showering youngsters.

It is astonishing to think of “The Swimming Pool Library” as a debut novel. Hollinghurst’s writing here is so accomplished, so confident, so elegant, so funny, so natural, and so literary without a hint of pretention. How did he learn to write like that? He studied English at Oxford, taught English at various colleges, and was the deputy editor of Times Literary Supplement from 1985 to 1990. So, he had been immersed in literature all his life but still, unquestionably, he had an extraordinary gift. 

Five other novels have followed “The Swimming Pool Library.” I’m not as enthusiastic about Hollinghurst’s two most recent books, the 2011 “The Stranger’s Child” and the 2017 “The Sparsholt Affair.” But I can’t say enough good things about his 2004 “The Line of Beauty” which won the Man Booker Prize. “The Line of Beauty” begins in 1983 but then unfurls over the subsequent four years during the course of which a dark cloud began slipping across our lives as gay men. 

It was thrilling and heart-rending to re-read “The Line of Beauty” over the past couple weeks. The experience reaffirmed my assessment that it is one of my all-time favourite novels, gay or otherwise.

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