first line friday

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the stale heat of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives, of how their occupation depended on our travel, but could only be pursued, I saw it now, when we were not travelling.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library, 1988

Ever since Hollinghurst’s most recent novel was long-listed for the Man Booker, I’ve been thinking about revisiting The Swimming-Pool Library. Not many books succeed for me in portraying London as a place I might actually want to live, but this one does: it helps, I suppose, that between shags the young protagonist, Will Beckwith, lives a highly-cultured life of privilege amidst impossibly beautiful people and buildings.

Like Will’s desiring gaze, Hollinghurst’s prose lingers on every sight and sound. The effect is both heady and languorous. This is a book best read on a warm mid-holiday afternoon, on the steps of the shallow end.

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