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Hollinghurst, Alan (b. 1954)  
 
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In 1994, although touted by London book makers as the odds-on favorite to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, The Folding Star lost, possibly because of its explicit gay content and provocative flirtation with .

Ten years later, however, Hollinghurst's fourth novel, The Line of Beauty (2004), upset the literary world, both for its devilishly satiric look at the excesses of the Margaret Thatcher era, and for its beating the book makers' favorite to win that year's Man Booker Prize. Hollinghurst's award, which carried a cash stipend of 50,000 pounds ($90,000 US), was widely reported to be the first gay novel to be so honored.

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The Swimming-Pool Library

The summer of 1983, narrator Will Beckwith notes at the opening of The Swimming-Pool Library, was to be "the last summer of its kind there was ever to be. I was riding high on sex and self-esteem--it was my time, my belle époque--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 proves "the last summer" in two ways. First, in late 1983 the earliest reported AIDS cases in the United Kingdom would convince British gay men that the epidemic was not limited to the United States, putting an abrupt end to the sexually self-indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by Will and celebrated within the novel. And, second, Will's self-esteem will be damaged when the arrest of his best friend by an undercover policeman, following upon Will's encounter with an elderly gay lord who had been similarly entrapped more than thirty years before, forces him to accept his complicity in a social system to which he has been otherwise oblivious.

If Will is twenty-five years old in 1983, then he was born in 1958, in the wake of the Wolfenden Report, which was issued in 1957 and which in 1967 effected the decriminalization of homosexual activities in the United Kingdom. Having come of age in a comparatively more liberal period, Will presumes that he and his coevals are free to pursue the objects of their desire without fear of arrest or social censure, and pities men of earlier generations for the compromises that they were forced to make.

Invited by the eighty-three year old Lord Nantwich to examine the peer's private papers with an eye to writing his biography, however, Will is increasingly surprised to learn what rich opportunities for both emotional and sexual fulfillment were available in same-sex relationships in a supposedly more closeted time, and to recognize the extent to which the men of Will's purportedly more liberated generation are trapped in a pursuit of physical gratification that leaves them unable to connect with each other emotionally.

While reading Lord Nantwich's diaries, Will is further shocked to discover that his own grandfather orchestrated the campaign against "male vice" that led to Nantwich's imprisonment. Indeed, the family fortune that frees Will to pursue a hedonistic lifestyle in the 1980s is revealed to have been the fruits of his grandfather's government-directed homophobia in the 1950s.

The Swimming-Pool Library emerges as a powerful meditation upon the exploitative abuses of power in which even those who seem most innocent are implicated. The diaries of Lord Nantwich and of Will's best friend, James, function within the novel like a series of Chinese boxes: the further Will reads, the more uncertain grows his complacent view of the world. Ultimately, the reader's view of Will likewise undergoes serious revision: His narcissism grows less amiable the further one reads Will's own "diary"-- that is, the novel.

Thus, whereas Lord Nantwich begins the novel seeming to be little more than a ditzy old queen who was so closeted as a young man that he went as a Foreign Service officer to the Sudan in order to indulge his tastes for black men (who he felt were more open than whites in their expression of physical affection), he is gradually revealed to be a complicated mixture of sexual self-interest and altruism that places him at the center of an unusual social network.

Conversely, Will--who initially thinks himself to be so much more liberated sexually--is shown to have very little real feeling for either of his current partners, a black teenager named Arthur, and a white, teenaged hotel worker named Phil, both of whom he treats with a sort of sexual noblesse oblige. The tables of sexual imperialism are turned when Will is roughly used by Abdul, the black chef at Lord Nantwich's men's club. Abdul is revealed to be the grown-up son of Tata, the teenaged servant with whom Nantwich fell in love while in Africa some sixty years earlier, thus closing one of the many circles of relationships that structure the novel.

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