intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘sensibility

The Swimming-Pool LibraryThe Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You never stop learning a language, which is why I buy two unabridged English novels from Audible every month and listen to them with as much concentration as I can muster. Style is very important. I don’t like to listen to bad style. So I choose very carefully what I listen to. Those books become like voices in my head. I absorb every cadence. I internalise, verbalise and repeat.

Finally I have found time for Alan Hollinghurst. He’s been on my list for a long time because everybody in the literary establishment says what a fine style he has.

I agree. He has a very fine English style. He also has a delicate sensibility. He has a beautiful sense of irony. He is mischievous, cheeky and arch, while at the same time having a coy vulnerability.

Let’s listen in on the secret thoughts of his narrator, William Beckwith, as he goes back to the hotel of his latest pick-up, an athletic young boy called Phil:

I was so lucky in general, so blessed, that my pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look. But with Phil I had let something dangerous happen, a roundabout, slow insinuation into my feelings. Though I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked – my stronger feeling was more protective and caressing. It was growing so strong that it allowed doubts not entertained in the brief certainties of casual sex. If I had got it all wrong, if going back to his place meant a drink in the bar, a game of chess, a handshake – ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow’ – the evening would be agony. Already I dreamt up headaches, queazy tums, excuses for dullness and an early escape; and I was so tense that as I did so I even began to feel the symptoms.

I wish I could quote more but already there is a lot going on. Hollinghurst takes a cliché of romantic fiction and gives it several ironic twists. The cliché in this case is that of the serial philanderer who meets our heroine and is reformed by love. Here the philanderer is a gay man. This is a beautiful twist. But he is also the narrator, which is another twist. We are asked to identify with the philanderer. To make it even more piquant, the philanderer is an aristocratic English gentleman who has been brought up in the finest English traditions – the traditions of queazy tums and other feeble excuses.

Hollinghurst’s ironies are best enjoyed in longer passages than this. But his ironies would be empty without the delicious observational details –

I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked

which make listening or reading to him such a joy.

Excellent English style is not just about vocabulary, word order and syntax. It is about something that is very hard to teach. It is something that perhaps you are born with, I don’t know, or that you have to absorb and acquire in the nursery. It’s about sensibility.

I’m hoping that having this voice in my head will help me acquire a refined English sensibility.

My only worry is that this particularly wicked, arch and mischievous voice will corrupt me and have me thinking about cocks and bums far more than is good for me.


Books by Vanessa Wu

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