Cinema in the Library


This article analyses the presence of the cinema in Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel The Swimming-Pool Library. Building on the work of Roland Barthes and Kristin Thompson, I argue that cinema does not have a consistent role in the novel as motif or metaphor but functions instead an element of excess. As such it functions like history in what is a historical novel of gay life, the history that will exceed and foreclose the story’s suspended temporalities. History is the Other to the novel’s enchanted summer, ‘the last summer of its kind there was ever to be’ as the book puts it; it is also HIV, ready to spread its appalling blossom through the Utopia of sex beyond book and summer’s end. Like this history, the cinema (and/as pornography) in The Swimming-Pool Library must be held at bay: it resists integration into the middlebrow poise of the novel and the unruffleable surface of its realist prose.
This is a longer version of a piece that appears in the volume from Alan Hollinghurst: Writing under the Influence, edited by Michele Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery (Manchester University press, 2016), pp. 141-55.



‘The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination […]. Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body.’ (Fredric Jameson)[1]

‘You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life—in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine.’ (Leo Tolstoy)[2]


Julian Murphet and Lydia Rainford begin their introduction to a volume on writing after cinema by citing Tolstoy’s prediction of a ‘crisis of the greatest narrative form of the nineteenth century—the realist novel—and the supremacy of a new mechanical one in the twentieth’.[3] Of course the realist novel has survived and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library,[4] the novel I discuss in this chapter, is evidence it has even thrived, apparently untroubled by the incorporation of the cinema into the cultural-economic ecosystem. Still, my argument will be that The Swimming-Pool Library, and perhaps the realist novel itself, is not untroubled by cinema. The appeal of The Swimming-Pool Library resides not only in the powerful vision it offers of its world (what I will refer to below as the novel’s ‘visible’) and the brilliant way that vision is realised through the musings of its narcissistic narrator (and the ‘extracts’ he reads from Lord Nantwich’s journals), but also in the formal unity of the book. Discerning this formal unity is a key readerly pleasure that manifests itself in parallel to the thrust of the tale, as one infers the discrete seeding of detail to be reaped as signification further on in the novel and the sense that The Swimming-Pool Library is the cunning account of its own genesis.  But the key theme of this essay is that which challenges the unity achieved by the novel and inferred by the reader: my interest is in the extent to which certain elements in The Swimming-Pool Library exceed the novel’s unifying forces in the same way that history will exceed and foreclose the story’s suspended temporalities. History is the Other to the novel’s enchanted summer, ‘the last summer of its kind there was ever to be’ (3). History is also HIV, the ghastly virus present but unidentified, ready to spread its appalling blossom through the Utopia of sex beyond book and summer’s end. Like this history the cinema in The Swimming-Pool Library must be held at bay. My purpose here is to show that the cinema is an excessive element resisting integration into the middlebrow poise of The Swimming-Pool Library and the unruffleable superficialities of its realist prose.

Cinema in the library

For Roland Barthes, the effect of reality is achieved in the novel by the ‘futile detail’, the element in the descriptive mise-en-scène that seems to carry no denotative or symbolic ballast. What such elements connote, in their extraneousness as mere information, is precisely ‘the category of “the real” (and not its contingent contents)’.[5] In a later essay on cinema, Barthes glosses similar details as ‘obtuse’, a word he uses to indicate how such elements refuse to carry meaning in the surface narrative and resist integration to the text’s symbolic superstructure.[6] Barthes’s commentators have preferred the term ‘excess’. As the scholar of cinema Kristin Thompson writes in an essay that builds on Barthes’ work, ‘excess is not only counternarrative; it is also counterunity’.[7] In other words, excess works against the design of a text, against those features that serve to achieve or give the impression of narrative and formal coherence. ‘Pretending that a work is exhausted by its functioning structures,’ Thompson writes, ‘robs it of much that is strange, unfamiliar, and striking about it.’[8] Part of what is strange, unfamiliar and striking about The Swimming-Pool Library is also sinister, menacing and deadly: the implied presence of HIV is associated with cinema and/as pornography, but in a way that cannot be dubbed ‘systematic’. I argue that cinema is an ‘obtuse’ element, an element of excess in The Swimming-Pool Library and, in order to show this, I list sequentially, below, various of the mentions of the cinema in the novel, annotating where appropriate.[9] If cinema is an element that resists integration in The Swimming-Pool Library, then we should not expect to find a consistent role for it in the novel as motif or metaphor. The inventory demonstrates that cinema, as this element of excess, ‘forms no specific patterns which we could say are characteristic of the work’.[10]

  1. The first mention of the cinema in The Swimming-Pool Library occurs before the book begins, in the epigraph taken from Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot: ‘“She reads at such a pace,” she complained, “and when I asked her where she had learnt to read so quickly, she replied ‘On the screens at Cinemas.’”’[11] Georges Letissier writes of the epigraph that it ‘prepares the reader for an intersemiotic experience’ throughout the novel,[12] and indeed ekphrasis is a technique employed throughout.[13] Few books dwell so insistently on images—often photographs, but also drawings, paintings and stone carvings as well as the moving image, while pornography, as we will see, is the subject of ambivalent and especial scrutiny. Still, inasmuch as the quoted lines can be read as a statement of poetics by Firbank, suggesting his elliptical modernist style, the epigraph is curiously inapt for The Swimming-Pool Library, which is unflappable rather than camp, and cast (as I will argue) in the mode of middlebrow queer. Cinema, as shown by Firbank’s use of it as analogue for the ‘speed’ of his prose, is a sort of other to modernism’s own other—the very middlebrow that was named only at the moment of high modernism itself.
  1. We find three mentions of the cinema during the book’s first visit to the Corinthian Club. ‘Corinthian pillars at each corner are an allusion to ancient Rome, and you half expect to see the towel-girt figures of Charlton Heston and Tony Curtis deep in senatorial conspiracy’ (11). The allusion is to the camp of the ‘sword-and-sandal’ film, and to the gay potential of ostentatiously heterosexual masculinity, in the case of Heston, along with the prettiness of Curtis. Closely following we have a description (11) of the image and caption on a club postcard (said no longer to be available) from after the Second World War, which is glossed in parenthesis as follows: ‘(James had immediately seen that this caption should be read with the clipped, optimistic tone of a Pathé news announcer.)’ The out-of-time camp of the Pathé tone has often been remarked upon. Finally, in the club’s underground swimming pool, ‘Small, weak spots let into the ceiling now give vestigial illumination, like that in cinemas […]’ (12). The comparison suggests there is something to be seen (as well as read) in ‘library’ of the swimming pool, and it links the pool to the book’s other basements: the Brutus cinema (see item 4) with its porn films, and the remains of the Roman mosaic in Lord Nantwich’s home with its more recent erotic fresco.[14] All function as metaphors for the concealed histories of gay life and its necessarily clandestine practices of pleasure.
  1. In the Corinthian club, Will observes Nantwich enter ‘one of the standard hard-on sessions of the shower’: ‘In a few seconds the hard-on might pass from one end of the room to the other with the foolish perfection of a Busby Berkeley routine’ (26). Berkeley was a director-choreographer famous for his geometrically abstract dance numbers often captured on film with ostentatious camerawork, and his work is still seen as a quintessential example of the so-called ‘cinema of attractions’ in which narrative is suspended for pure spectacle.[15] As the bodies in a Busby Berkeley routine are subject to the abstraction of the choreography, so the shower hard-on is shown to be a motif independent of individual bodies. This is comic but also sinister, in that it is associated with the first osmic manifestation of the ‘Trouble for Men’ fragrance, encountered by Will in the changing room, itself associated with the HIV virus.
  1. The important scene (47-54) at the Brutus, the Soho porn cinema where Will goes not ‘so much to see a film as to sit in a dark, anonymous place and do dark anonymous things’ (47) and where he may have a first sexual encounter with Phil. The passage contains the first (only?) explicit dating in the book (‘the far-off spring of 1983’ (48)) and the unexpected description of a television nature film (being watched by the duty manager in the cinema foyer) of an anteater devouring a termite colony that has been read as an AIDS metaphor, something confirmed by another mention of ‘Trouble for Men’. I consider pornography, below, as the object of both particular attention and particular ambivalence in The Swimming-Pool Library. However the porn projected in the Brutus scene (where most of the prose is expended on the activities in the cinema itself rather than those onscreen) is described as ‘touching’ (50); Will talks of the ‘blatant innocence of it all’ (52). In this context it is significant that the screen performers all seem to be white—or rather blond: golden haired Californians who contrast with the blackness fetishized elsewhere in the book.
  1. Will and his lover Phil encounter the former’s young nephew Rupert in the street. Rupert cantors along before the couple, facing backwards in order to take them in, and Will-narrator remarks: ‘I thought it must be like being filmed, walking towards an ever-receding camera, and I put on silly faces to make him laugh’ (155). The scene foreshadows the footage of Ronald Firbank described at the close of the book, which also features children, and Rupert’s gaze anticipates the more sinisterly angelic character of Gabriel, who also regards Will in the manner of a camera (see item 8).
  1. The porn filmmaking scene in Ronald Staines’ home-studio, which itself contains several references to film. The photographer-pornographer Staines explains to Will: ‘It’s the very last bit, dear […] It’s going to be the most wonderful film ever. We’ve been doing it for months now—a cast of tens … I thought you’d like to see us polish it off in this sensationally sensational scene’ (187): that is, a threesome involving two young white men and an older black one, all employees at Nantwich’s gentleman’s club. (It later emerges (245-7) that the film will be shown in basement cinemas like the Brutus of item 4.) The passage is plainly a key one for the staging of issues to do with pornography and exploitation. Will, appalled by the scene’s ‘achieved bizarrerie which made it normal to the participants, demonic to the outsider’ (187), makes his exit in a moralistic huff after noting that the black performer Abdul seemed ‘like some exquisite game animal, partly skinned and then thrown aside still breathing’ (188). The porn filmmaking scene later generates an exchange when Will challenges Nantwich on representation and race (245). Nantwich responds: ‘I don’t think race comes into it, does it? I mean, Abdul is black and the others aren’t … but I don’t want any rot about that. Abdul loves doing that sort of thing—and he’s actually jolly good at it. He’s a pure exhibitionist at heart.’ Working against Nantwich’s insouciance is the fact that the old Lord had found Abdul and the other young porn actors their jobs at his club Wicks, so that they are part of what Will ironically dubs the ‘Nantwich feudal system’ (137). The degree of coercion exerted on the men to appear on film is unclear but their performance can be inferred to be the expected pound of flesh paid and displayed as part of an economy of gratitude for Nantwich’s not disinterested benevolence―into which race (and empire) very much comes.
  1. Speaking to Aldo, one of Staines’ models, at an exhibition of the photographer’s images of martyrs, Will refers back to the porn filmmaking scene (at which Aldo had been present) in the context of a one-sided discussion of porn and representation. Will calls Staines’ photographs ‘soft porn’: ‘I honestly prefer to have hard porn—or no porn at all.’ A few lines later he remarks: ‘“They should be showing the film here,” […] and Aldo was full of giggly shock.’ (231)
  1. The farcical scene in the Queensbury hotel room with the Argentinian Gabriel. This is one of those moments where the book wryly acknowledges its own themes, the relationship between sex and the politics of colonization being prominent among them. The S&M-loving Gabriel offers: ‘I could whip you […] for what you did to my country in the [Falklands] war.’ Will responds: ‘“I think that might be to take the sex and politics metaphor a bit too seriously, old chap.” […] And I could see the whole thing deteriorating into a scene from some poker-faced left-wing European film’ (275). Questions of power and fetish are comically raised in the passage. Just before, Gabriel has donned a leather mask which obscures his face apart from the eyes: ‘Close to I could see only his large brown pupils and the whites of his eyes, blurred for a split second if he blinked, like the lens of a camera’ (274). Brenda Cooper argues that ‘as the mask is assumed, there is a reverse objectification as Gabriel becomes photographer, clicking in Will’s face’.[16]
  1. The book’s culminating scene of the projection in Staines’ studio of the footage of a Ronald Firbank nearing the end of his life in the town of Genzano on Lake Nemi near Rome. As in the porn filmmaking scene (item 6), the passage itself contains several allusions to cinema. The film of Firbank has been discovered as part of an auction batch of gay home movies; and Firbank himself is described as ‘Chaplinesque’ (285). The footage (which seems to be Hollinghurst’s invention) is minutely described; this is cinema as ‘a treasured piece of memory’.[17] Firbank as character has appeared previously in the novel, glimpsed in an episode from Nantwich’s journals, but he is made physically and grotesquely vivid to us in this passage as part of an impromptu ‘charivari’ (287) featuring the local children with Firbank described as a ‘marionette of a man’ (286).

‘In Hollinghurst’s evocation of gay life, from the 1920s up to “the far-off spring of 1983”, writes Letissier, ‘movies are a privileged medium’.[18] Certainly the foregoing inventory demonstrates that there is a rich employment in The Swimming-Pool Library of cinema as a resource of locale, exposition, figure and allusion; but it also shows that such usage follows no particular pattern. Cinema itself is not a distinct theme of the novel and the motifs and metaphors drawn from it pull in their own multiple directions. However I want to suggest that the opposition between what I will call (following Jaime Harker) the ‘middlebrow queer’[19] of The Swimming-Pool Library and cinema as the old vaunted enemy of the realist novel allows something like a non-systematic deployment in the book of cinema as sinister trope.

The epigraph discussed in item 1 above may help explain why. Cinema, history and heartbreak are conjoined in Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot; in fact the novel is framed by references to the cinema. The lines from Hollinghurst’s epigraph occur on the second page of Firbank’s text, and just at the tragic end of what has been (until then) a comic novel we find mention of ‘the preparation of a Cinematograph Company on the parapet of the Cathedral’.[20] The film crew is setting up to record the wedding cortege for the local prince Yousef, their preparations and the procession itself witnessed from afar by that same Laura who had learned to read ‘on the screens at Cinemas’. She has rejected Prince Yousef though deeply in love with him, and now stands high inside the walls of the convent where she has elected to take orders. The book ends:

Laura caught her breath.


A shaking of countless handkerchiefs in wild ovation: from rooftops, and balconies, the air was thick with falling flowers—the bridal pair!

But only for the bridegroom had she eyes.

Oblivious of what she did, she began to beat her hands, until they streamed with blood, against the broken glass ends upon the wall: ‘Yousef, Yousef, Yousef….’

The stream of blood marks the eruption of grief into the comedy of manners, and of history—the marriage of alliance between Balkan prince and plain English princess—into the love between two individuals. Recording the public event for projection and posterity and implacable in its ignorance and indifference to the tragedy, the cinematographic newsreel is the engine and voyeur of this history, its agent, means and emblem. Cinema is none of these things in The Swimming-Pool Library, but it is an excessive element that resists integration to the novel’s suave middlebrow. In its pornographic aspect (for Fredric Jameson, the quintessence of film) cinema becomes an ambivalent figure at once of innocence and pleasure but also of the threat to being that is HIV/AIDS, the known future history irresistible beyond the book.

Signatures of the invisible

If HIV/AIDS is all too well known in the future beyond the suspended summer of The Swimming-Pool Library, it remains invisible in the book itself, something that generates a paradox in the novel’s construction of a plausible world, its sharable version of ‘reality’. Speaking of the cinema (but his account is applicable to other media), French sociologist Pierre Sorlin has characterized the idea of a shared perception of reality as the ‘visible’.[21] For Sorlin, films do not duplicate reality but provide just fragments of the society they portray. The cinema of an age, he says, ‘captures a fragment of the outside world, reorganizes it, makes it coherent, and produces, starting from the continuity of the sensible universe, a finished, circumscribed, discontinuous, and transmissible object’.[22] Sorlin argues that a tacit agreement with the audience about what it will accept as true (what viewers will accept ‘without surprise’),[23] permit a film’s fragmentary-as-whole portrayal.

In terms of literature, Sorlin’s ‘visible’ can be understood as that which is accessible to textualization, as ‘the perimeter within which it is possible to pose [a society’s] problems’.[24] Such ideas call to mind Roland Barthes on verisimilitude, which he describes as ‘entirely subject to public opinion’; subject that is to an implicit but social agreement on the receivable content of the world.[25] The Swimming-Pool Library too has to establish this ‘truce’ with its readers, but there is a double irony if we consider the ‘visible’ in relation to The Swimming-Pool Library. HIV is invisible in the novel, rendered only as the ubiquitous scent ‘Trouble for men’, mentioned seven times in the novel, but it will have been all too present to Hollinghurst’s reader in the late 1980s.[26] Secondly, what is ‘visible’—accessible to awareness and textualization, verisimilitudinous—must differ for different groups, and taboo and convention may proscribe the communication of that which is perfectly well known by subcultures within a given society.

Viewed, as I suggest below that we view it, from the perspective of what I will call the ‘straight mainstream’, The Swimming-Pool Library transposes the regime of the visible from the heterosexual to the male homosexual milieu. Indeed, for Stephen Murphy, the unapologetic portrayal of gay life in The Swimming-Pool Library represents the Forsterian ideal of an unashamed, public and ‘masculine’ homosexual community.[27] Certainly, the book presents as entirely normal ‘a certain kind of man’s world from which women are excluded’.[28] This absence of women, recalling the gay male porn scenario in which the female would be a bizarre interruption and unwelcome distraction, is one of the conventions that renders The Swimming-Pool Library specifically or potentially pornographic—a pornographic, as I will argue below, the book must harness and tame. But for now I want to note that the structuring absence of women functions in the same way as what Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier would call an ‘obstruction’, an arbitrary formal constraint that generates something unexpected.[29] This unexpected is introduced however within the horizon of socially ratified representability so that it can reach those beyond the constituency it describes. The ‘opinable’ verisimilitude permits the introduction of the new element into the schema or truce of the visible, and ultimately this regime of the visible—realism itself, one is tempted to say—is consolatory: it communicates that the world is as one knows it to be, however sinister such an assertion must seem in a book that implies the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS beyond its covers. Ultimately, though, the ‘visible’ for the possible mainstream addressee of The Swimming-Pool Library (to whom I will allocate a gender and a sexuality below) has been augmented, so that the book’s ‘realism’, in the colloquial sense of that which is jarring or harsh, is also flattering. The shock of the new is of a piece with the flattery of interpellation. The mode of this receivability, embellished rather than obstructed by the novel’s element of surprise, can be described as ‘middlebrow queer’.

Straight mainstream and middlebrow queer

The Swimming-Pool Library is a realist novel, and its explicit descriptions of men having sex with men are intrinsic both to this realism and to the book’s appeal—an appeal, it has been attested, that goes beyond any ‘gay’ readership, so that the book has been receivable by what I am calling the straight mainstream. It has achieved this mainstream reception through its employment of the mode of middlebrow queer. I take this term from Jaime Harker’s work on Christopher Isherwood in which she argues against accounts of that writer as exemplar of ‘queer modernism’.[30] Cyril Connolly notoriously spoke of Isherwood’s popular appeal as ‘fatal readability’;[31] those who insist on Isherwood’s modernism are trying to rescue the writer from the strictures of a Connolly and the connotations of mediocre, reactionary, melodramatic, feminine, and sentimental typically associated with the middlebrow mode.[32] Harker’s strategy, conversely, is not to recuperate Isherwood as modernist, but to recuperate the middlebrow itself as destabilizing concept: for Harker ‘middlebrow’ functions like ‘queer’ as a reclaimed pejorative to unsettle binaries, including gay and mainstream. Like Isherwood, Hollinghurst writes in The Swimming-Pool Library a realistic novel in the middlebrow mode, a novel that reaches and queers the mainstream.

As middlebrow queer, The Swimming-Pool Library deals with the serious questions of love, life and the law in a number of ways: with an immersive story, empathetic characters, and a direct and transparently mimetic (though intensely self-aware) narration.[33] Apart from self-reflexivity, these are all characteristics disdained by the high culture that modernism shaped, though they are perfectly at home in a national culture dominated by figures like, say, John Galsworthy and Evelyn Waugh—as it is by adaptations of their work and of many other worthy classics. Essential to the middlebrow mode, however, is precisely this worthiness, the measured component of challenge to the reader or viewer.[34] In order to distinguish itself from the mere pleasure provided by trash, pulp or lowbrow, the middlebrow needs to contain an improving aspect.[35]

This, ironically enough, the role of the explicitly described sex in The Swimming-Pool Library: where the form of The Swimming-Pool Library is highly achieved but (in terms of modernist aesthetics) essentially conservative we find content outré enough to be flattering to the reader seeking validation for the middlebrow plaisir du texte. Flattering, that is, because the straight reader feels himself man-of-the-world enough to be above shock if not revulsion at the descriptions of man/man sex. If I am deliberately here, and in defiance of my own politics, gendering and ascribing a stable and delimited sexuality to this putative reader I do so because some of Hollinghurst’s early readers did precisely this of themselves, and because the terms of their appreciation tell something of how the sexually explicit account of gay life is accepted as mainstream literature.

Let us take two early accounts of the book: a review by John Lanchester of The Swimming-Pool Library and the mentions of Hollinghurst’s novel in Nicholson Baker’s rumination on writing, reading and John Updike in his non-fiction U and I.[36] What characterizes these accounts is their foregrounding of the sexual aspect of The Swimming-Pool Library, their insistence that the descriptions of sex go beyond the salacious to justify themselves in aesthetic and other terms; and, in Baker’s case, the fantasy use of the gay sex in The Swimming-Pool Library as a discursive gambit between (straight) men.

The following quotation is taken from the incipit of Lanchester’s review:

One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library […] 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. […] The measured, formal movement of the prose, its hints of scholarly fastidiousness, give a flavour of comedy of manners […]. However Dionysian the events depicted—fellatio, sodomy, an erection passing along a line of men in the shower ‘with the domino effect [sic] of a Busby Berkeley routine’—the narrator’s tone remains, in keeping with his personality, resolutely Apollonian.[37]

Lanchester disavows The Swimming-Pool Library’s potential for generating arousal because of the book’s style and address. That is to say, the straight reviewer can discount the novel’s pornographic power by reference to its amused, ironic and unwavering narrative voice, its ‘Apollonian’ decorum. This decorum is a taming of the excess that sex itself represents in the novel, sex which must in a sense be an analogue for ‘history’. Hollinghurst is on record as wanting to celebrate in The Swimming-Pool Library man/man sex despite writing in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.[38] Still, sex remained the primary medium of HIV transmission, and so the celebration’s ineluctable limit, and it exceeded the experience and control of any one body. This excess, as Lanchester notes, is figured by the image from cinema (discussed in item 3 of the list above) tellingly misquoted by the reviewer so that it seems to point to the presence of the deadly virus—one thinks of the Pet Shop Boys single ‘Domino Dancing’, released the same year as The Swimming-Pool Library.

Nicholson Baker several times mentions The Swimming-Pool Library in U and I, once in an imagined conversation with his literary hero John Updike:

If I were golfing with Updike this week, would I tell him, ‘Hey, I’m reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, and you know, once you get used to the initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex, which quickly becomes really interesting as a kind of ethnography, you realize that this is really one of the best first novels to come along in years and years! The guy does everything—dialogue, scenic pageantry, wit, pathos, everything!’[39]

Even as its potential to arouse must be denied the (‘disgusting’) sex in The Swimming-Pool Library seems to be the first thing to notice about it, immediately associated with the warrant of the book’s quality; only then is the novel also witty, pathetic and so on. This is in part a rather obvious protesting-too-much, so that the explicit sexual description in The Swimming-Pool Library has to be acknowledged in order for its threat to be dismissed.[40] What’s notable though is that the hysterical imperative to array one’s straight credentials on the golf links of homosociality is subtended by the sense of privileged access to knowledge. Again this is part of the flattery of address in the book’s mode of middlebrow queer—and in speaking of ‘ethnography’, Baker may be following a cue from The Swimming-Pool Library itself, picking up on the moment (discussed in item 5 of the list above), when Will comes across the duty manager of the Brutus porn cinema watching a nature film on the foyer television. One implication, in the book, is that Hollinghurst himself is training his pen, like the nature filmmakers and their camera, on a variety of ‘exotic’ species and their behaviour—indeed Will-narrator uses the term ‘exotic species’ of the assortment of men in the Corinthian club changing rooms (223). But if this is so then the question raises itself—exotic to whom? To a different ‘species’ from that described, presumably: to what I am therefore calling the straight mainstream.


The appeal of realism is essential to the address to the straight mainstream in The Swimming-Pool Library, and the book’s explicit sex is a key component of this realism. But the sex is presented and perceived as ‘knowledge’—what can be ‘learned’ of an ‘exotic’ way of life by reading the novel. The sexually explicit realism of The Swimming-Pool Library must distinguish itself from proximate but less favoured modes. One such mode is the gay art film. Allan Johnson suggests that The Swimming-Pool Library offers a ‘mischievous parody of [the] pre-AIDS celebration’ that is Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) in the kitsch photo-tableaux by photographer Ronald Staines.[41] As we have seen (in item 7 above), Will considers these tableaux to be ‘just soft porn’, to which he prefers ‘hard porn—or no porn at all’ (231). This is a statement of aesthetic preference on behalf of The Swimming-Pool Library itself, which is at once hard porn and no porn at all: its uncensored accounts of man/man sex are presented as ‘ethnopornography’, a kind of natural history that supposedly evades titillation.

Hard porn, however, is treated inconsistently in the novel. When Will storms in his censorious sulk from the porn filmmaking scene at Ronald Staines’ home-studio he slams the door ambivalently on behalf of the novel itself. As sexually explicit literary fiction The Swimming-Pool Library must distinguish itself both from Orientalism and from a certain pornographic that, for Fredric Jameson, is cinema’s quintessence. It may seem perverse to assert of a book so preoccupied with the corporeal, but The Swimming-Pool Library is concerned to evade any classification as ‘body genre’—Linda Williams’ term for film horror, melodrama and pornography, all designed to elicit physical reactions in the viewer.[42] Measured in prose, the body is a subject of The Swimming-Pool Library rather than its object—and pornography is that which must be harnessed by the novel’s wry tone, complex narrative structure and formal quilting. Beverley Brown has described pornography as the ‘erotic organization of visibility’;[43] the phrase also works as a characterization of Will Beckwith’s personal Weltanschauung and event the frankness of the book itself. As Letissier writes, ‘Hollinghurst’s insistence on visibility is […] all-pervasive, in particular through the scopic drive prompting the crude depiction of same-sex scenes and, to all intents and purposes, doing away with the refined effeminacy of camp’.[44] Will’s worldview and the crudeness of the register must be framed and tamed by another order—the middlebrow queer that means The Swimming-Pool Library is received as a respectable book.

Richard Dyer has written of ‘the fact that porn, like weepies, thrillers and low comedy, is realized in/through the body has given it low status in our culture’:

Popularity these genres have, but arbiters of cultural status still tend to value ‘spiritual’ over ‘bodily’ qualities, and hence relegate porn and the rest to an inferior cultural position. One of the results of this is that culturally validated knowledge of the body, of the body’s involvement in emotion, tends to be intellectual knowledge about the body, uninformed by experimental knowledge of it.[45]

The novel’s ‘ethnopornographic’ exploration—what it teaches of an ‘exotic’ way of life—is set against cinema’s pornographic essence (for Jameson) of mere gaze: a kind of reflex empty voyeurism. However, the book’s ‘culturally validated knowledge of the body’ cannot refuse the history its bodies may be incubating. In the episode of the Brutus porn cinema, the text’s sedate ekphrasis of the images on screen disavows (even as it is evoked by ‘Trouble for Men’) the information held, perhaps, by certain of the horny bodies in the seedy basement, the HIV that some may yet realise.

My argument is not that the cinema is an emblem or harbinger of HIV in The Swimming-Pool Library. However, the novel’s ambivalent treatment of cinema and/as pornography suggests how a rival medium and proximate mode might resist the novel’s formal system, just as the known future history of HIV/AIDS exceeds its ‘Apollonian’ (and Forsterian) diorama of homosexual virility. I don’t believe that cinema is deployed to make meaning in The Swimming-Pool Library in a systematic way. Cinema in the novel is, in Barthes terms, ‘obtuse’, and the book ironically confirms Barthes’ assertion that the obtuse subverts the whole practice of meaning, appearing ‘necessarily as luxury, an expenditure with no exchange’. Barthes goes on: ‘This luxury does not yet belong to today’s politics but nevertheless already to tomorrow’s.’[46] HIV/AIDS is likewise obtuse: its baleful luxury obeys no intention, partakes of no practice of meaning; and its politics—legislative persecution under Thatcher and the resistance of Stonewall and AIDS activism—are already tomorrow’s in Hollinghurst’s novel.

The Swimming-Pool Library requires its ambivalent others, cinema and/as pornography among them, to secure its celebration of gay life. The ‘visible’ proposed in the novel via its mode of middlebrow queer is among other things a matter of command over a history that cannot, however, be contained. This is not to disparage a book I love, but only to recognize the certain failure of its realist project to hold back with prose the tide of a history already rising to envelop the novel’s suspended summer.



[1] Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 1.

[2]  Cited in Julian Murphet and Lydia Rainford (eds.), Literature and Visual Technologies: Writing after Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 1.

[3] Murphet and Rainford, Literature and Visual Technologies, p. 1.

[4] Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library (London: Vintage, 2006 [1988]). Numbers in parenthesis in the text refer to this edition of the novel.

[5] Barthes, ‘The Reality Effect’, p. 148.

[6] Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning: Research Notes on some Eisenstein Stills’ [1970], in Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1990), pp. 52-68.

[7] Kristin Thompson, ‘The Concept of Cinematic Excess’ [1977], in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 130-42 (p. 134).

[8] Thompson, ‘The Concept of Cinematic Excess’, p. 134.

[9] By my count, there are fourteen distinct mentions of cinema in the book; I omit several in this list for reasons of space.

[10] Thompson, ‘The Concept of Cinematic Excess’, p. 132.

[11] Ronald Firbank, Five Novels: Valmouth’, ‘Artificial Princess’, ‘The Flower Beneath the Foot’, ‘Prancing Nigger’ and ‘Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli’ (New York: New Directions, 1981), p. 2.

[12] Letissier, ‘Queer, Quaint and Camp’, p. 200.

[13] I think it interesting that Barthes discusses ekphrasis as the ‘detachable set piece’ that anticipates the surplus/useless detail connoting ‘reality’ in the realist novel. Barthes, ‘The Reality effect’, p. 143.

[14] Letissier, ‘Queer, Quaint and Camp’, p. 205.

[15] The ‘cinema of attractions’ is a famous coinage of film historian Tom Gunning that puts the emphasis on the vaudeville origins or conditions of exhibition of early cinema. For Gunning, this was an ‘exhibitionist cinema’ characterized by its ‘ability to show something’ rather than its capacity to tell a story. The point is that the excessive, spectacular element of ‘attraction’ survives the early period and persists in narrative cinema to this day – to be ritualistically deplored, indeed, as ‘mere’ spectacle by critics who desire precisely that sense of formal unity and integration we may privilege in The Swimming-Pool Library. I would like to reveal in The Swimming-Pool Library a ‘novel of attractions’ that complements and exceeds the exquisitely wrought narrative and thematic substructure. See Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions’, in Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 56-62 (p. 57).

[16] Cooper, ‘Snapshots of Postcolonial Masculinities: ‘Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature , 34: 1 (1999), 135-57 (p. 143).

[17] Letissier, ‘Queer, Quaint and Camp’, p. 200.

[18] Letissier, ‘Queer, Quaint and Camp’, p. 200.

[19] Jaime Harker, Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). I return below to Harker’s concept of the middlebrow queer.

[20] Firbank, Five Novels, p. 92.

[21] Pierre Sorlin, Sociologie du cinéma (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1977). Sorlin’s influential volume has not been translated into English, but his idea of the ‘visible’ is effectively discussed in Francesco Casetti’s Theories of Cinema 1945-1995, trans. Francesca Chiostri, Elizabeth Gard Bartolini-Salimbeni and Thomas Kelso (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), pp. 129-30. I rely on Casetti and his translators for the quotes from Sorlin used here.

[22] Sorlin in Casetti, Theories of Cinema, p. 129.

[23] Sorlin in Casetti, Theories of Cinema, p. 129.

[24] Sorlin in Casetti, Theories of Cinema, p. 129.

[25] Roland Barthes, ‘The Reality Effect’, in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 141-48 (p. 147).

[26] ‘Trouble for Men’ is mentioned on pages 27, 49, 82, 107, 223, 230 and 269. Most commentators agree it is a metaphor for the HIV virus. An exception is Tammy Grimshaw, who sees the fragrance (or its name) as ‘an allusion to the gay male’s “Trouble with the Law”’. See Tammy Grimshaw, ‘Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool [sic] Library’, The Explicator, 64: 4 (2006), 242-5 (p. 243). I am grateful to the editors of this volume for pointing out to me that ‘The Troubles’ had become, by the early 1990s, a slang term for AIDS, particularly as a diagnosis. A nurse in the second part of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (premiered in 1992) comments of a homophobic politician admitted to hospital with an AIDS diagnosis, ‘Guess who just checked in with the troubles? The Killer Queen Herself. New York’s number one closeted queer’ (1.4.56).

[27] Stephen Murphy, ‘Past Irony: Trauma and the Historical Turn in Fragments and The Swimming-Pool Library’, Literature and History, 13: 1 (2004), 58-75, (p. 70).

[28] This phrase is from Paul Bailey’s review in The Observer, an extract from which is quoted in the front matter to the paperback edition of The Swimming-Pool Library used for this essay.

[29] See The Five Obstructions, the 2003 film directed by Von Trier and Jørgen Leith.

[30] Harker, Middlebrow Queer.

[31] Quoted in Harker, Middlebrow Queer, pp. xi.

[32] Harker, Middlebrow Queer, p. xiv.

[33] I am grateful to my colleague at Leeds Diana Holmes for sharing with me a book proposal on the middlebrow the text of which has informed this material.

[34] The Swimming-Pool Library contains a dismissive reference to Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Will describes Nantwich’s journals as containing ‘some rather Bridesheady bits about Oxford—though somewhat more candid than that deplorable novel’ (177; the novel is found ‘deplorable’ presumably because of its refusal to be candid about homosexual desire). There are no specific allusions in The Swimming-Pool Library to the eleven instalments of the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, even if they were first broadcast in Britain from October to December 1981 so that the series’ portrayal of passionate male attachments and aristocratic and exotic milieus must be on the horizon of The Swimming-Pool Library’s 1983.

[35] See Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 128.

[36] John Lanchester, ‘Catch 28’, London Review of Books, 10: 5, 2 March 1988; Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story (London: Granta, 1991).

[37] Lanchester, ‘Catch 28’, p. 11.

[38] See Cooper, ‘Snapshots of Postcolonial Masculinities’, p. 137

[39] Baker, U and I, p. 53.

[40] I am not discounting Baker’s own self-awareness in all this, and the allusion to Hollinghurst in U and I forms part of a longer meditation that circles continuously back on its own fixations and modalities–a meditation from which it is misleading to extract, as I necessarily do here.

[41] Johnson, Alan Hollinghurst, p. 40. Johnson also expends some pages (pp. 40-50) on the parallels in The Swimming-Pool Library with a screenplay of Jarman’s (never filmed and unpublished until 1996) about the same Pharaoh, Akhenaten, depicted on the stone carving shown to Will by Nantwich, as well with the well known Philip Glass opera on the same figure, produced in London in 1985. Though ingenious, Johnson’s analysis of these campy but highbrow intertexts seems to me to distract from the essential middlebrow of Hollinghurst’s novel.

[42] See Linda Williams, ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’, Film Quarterly, 44: 4 (1991), 2-13.

[43] Beverley Brown quoted in Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 30.

[44] Georges Letissier, ‘Alan Hollinghurst/Ronald Firbank: Camp Filiation as an Aesthetic of the Outrageous’, Études britanniques contemporaines, 45 (2013), available at <> [accessed 20 June 2015].

[45] Richard Dyer, ‘Gay Pornography’ [1985], in Only Entertainment, ((London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 138-50 (p. 139).

[46] Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning’, pp. 62-63.