“My life was in a strange way that summer, the last summer of its kind there was ever to be,” says William Beckwith, the spoiled and rakish narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s highly acclaimed first novel,The Swimming-Pool Library (1988). “I was riding high on sex and self-esteem—it was my time, mybelle epoque—but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.” It is not only the coming of AIDS that makes the summer of 1983 a turning point for the twenty-five-year-old Beckwith, guilty of nothing worse than his own “mindless randiness and helpless sentimentality.” This is the summer that Beckwith, out cruising Kensington Park, saves the life of eighty-three-year-old Lord Nantwich, who later invites him first to lunch and then to write his biography. The difference in their ages, a variation on a theme from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), proves less significant than their considerable similarities, in education, in clubs, in sexual orientation. The temptation to write the biography of a man who had been friends with gay eminences such as Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank is great but not great enough—not because Beckwith has anything better to do with his time but because of what he discovers in reading Nantwich’s journals: that Beckwith’s grandfather was “really the driving force” of the 1950’s “crusade to eradicate male vice.” The crusade failed (a failure paid off with a peerage) but not before Nantwich had been arrested and imprisoned. “The one unspeakable thing that no one had been able to tell me threw light on everything else, and only left obscure the degrees of calculation and coincidence in Charles’s offering me his biography to write—a task he must have known I could never, in the end, accept.”
The Swimming-Pool Library is a startling, amazingly accomplished, and ambitious first novel, butThe Folding Star, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is an even better book, clearly indebted to the earlier yet in every way its superior in its artful exploration of homosexual desire. Neither polemical nor prurient, Hollinghurst’s treatment of gay life has at least as much in common with the postmodern novels of Peter Ackroyd, John Banville, and Julian Barnes as it does with the gay fiction of Edmund White. At once intricate, explicit, and elegiac, The Folding Star succeeds as both an engaging literary tour de force and a sad comedy of unrequited love and unfulfilled promise. Chief among its many strengths—its formal symmetry, verbal precision, attentiveness to the male body, and sheer intelligence—is the manner in which Hollinghurst creates and sustains, occasional humorous touches notwithstanding, a strangely, perhaps perversely inviting atmosphere, at once lucid and “tenebreaux.” As Hollinghurst has explained in Granta, “The writers whom I revere are grand and shadowy—Navokov, Proust, James. . . . I like things to reverberate, be suggestive.”
The novel is set in two shadow-filled locales, the small English town of Rough Common (as in “rough trade”) located southeast of London and, more important, the small and unnamed Belgian city with its bars (the Cassette for gays, the Golden Calf for old men), its Catholic gloom (St. Narcissus, St. Vaast, St. Caspianus), its small museums, its factories and baths, its working-class districts and the faded splendor of its once-grand houses and park, the Hermitage, now a cruising ground. In a world at once specific and spectral, the hero is right to claim, even late in the novel, that he knows “nothing of this country.” “To me,” he says, “it was a dream-Belgium, it was Allemonde, a kingdom of ruins and vanished pleasures, miracles and martyrdoms, corners where the light never shone. Not many would recognise it, but some would”—more, one suspects, by way of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic stories than by perusing Fodor’s and Michelin’s travel guides.
As the story opens, Edward Manners, the novel’s thirty-three-year-old narrator, has arrived in Belgium, his motives “too tenuous to explain” though ostensibly to tutor two boys: seventeen-year-old Luc Altidore, recently expelled from St. Narcissus, and sixteen-year-old Marcel Echevin, too sickly to attend. Overweight and shortsighted, a writer of limited abilities and financial resources, Edward is (his homosexuality aside) everything that William Beckwith is not. Longing for a future but locked in the past, he is only as self-deceived as he is self-aware, his life “one of understandings based on sex and misunderstandings based on love.” Even as he becomes infatuated with Luc, he takes on, or alternately is taken on by, a succession of sexual partners, including Cherif Bakhtar, a Moroccan from Paris, and Matt, also known as Vim Vermeulen, a confidence man and pornographer specializing in videos, stolen underwear, and most recently a telephone service at which Edward proves rather adept—disconcertingly so for Hollinghurst’s readers, if not for Matt’s clients.
Edward plays various roles—voyeur, vampire, victim, and more specifically in relation to Luc, mentor, father, lover. Clearly, Cherif, Matt, and the others only serve as substitutes for the adored and mistakenly idealized Luc, who as it turns out is himself a substitute, most obviously for Edward’s...
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