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Homosexualising the Novel: Alan Hollinghurst, Ronald Firbank and 'The Swimming-Pool Library'

Vlitos, PMJ (2017) Homosexualising the Novel: Alan Hollinghurst, Ronald Firbank and 'The Swimming-Pool Library' In: Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst. Palgrave Macmillan UK. ISBN 978-1-137-33721-4

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Introduction Open to the public from 2 July to 18 October 2009, the National Portrait Gallery’s Gay Icons exhibition aimed to explore ‘gay social and cultural history through the unique personal insights of ten high profile gay figures who have selected their historical and modern icons’ (National Portrait Gallery 2009). The ten selectors - Sandi Toksvig, Lord Waheed Ali, Billie Jean King, Chris Smith, Ben Summerskill, Sarah Waters, Sir Elton John, Jackie Kay, Sir Ian McKellen and Alan Hollinghurst - were each asked to choose six ‘icons’ for the exhibition: ‘The chosen icons, who may or may not be gay themselves, have all been important to each selector, having influenced their gay sensibilities or contributed to making them who they are today’ (National Portrait Gallery 2009). Alongside such diverse figures as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and Joe Dallesandro - actor, Warhol superstar, and the owner of the crotch pictured on the cover of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers LP - Alan Hollinghurst’s personal gay icons also included the novelist Ronald Firbank (1886-1926). Firbank, Hollinghurst commented, ‘is celebrated as a master of high camp, but he was also a radical technician and radical homosexualiser of the novel’ (National Portrait Gallery 2009). Hollinghurst has written extensively in appreciation of Firbank: publishing an essay on ‘The Shy, Steely Ronald Firbank’ in the Times Literary Supplement in 2006, composing Firbank’s entry in the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, editing a Penguin edition of three of Firbank’s novels in 2000, writing the introduction to a collection of The Early Firbank in 1991, and as early as 1979 dedicating a chapter to Firbank in the 50,000 word dissertation on ‘The Creative Uses of Homosexuality in the Novels of E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank and L.P. Hartley’ he submitted as part of his Oxford University MLitt degree. The first section of this chapter will use Hollinghurst’s critical writings to explore what makes Firbank’s literary techniques so ‘radical’ - and to ask in what ways they can be said specifically to constitute a ‘homosexualisation’ of the novel. Firbank is also an insistent - we might even say iconic - presence in Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), which takes its epigraph from Firbank’s 1923 novel The Flower Beneath the Foot. Not only does Hollinghurst’s narrator, Will Beckwith, read Firbank’s Valmouth (1919), The Flower Beneath the Foot and Prancing Nigger (1924), but Ronald Firbank himself makes two cameo appearances: first in the diaries of the elderly Lord Nantwich and then in a short piece of amateur film footage showing Firbank in Italy near the end of his life. That Firbank is assigned such a prominent role in The Swimming-Pool Library is perhaps unsurprising in a novel which, like Firbank’s own fiction, explores the intersections of race, class and homosexual desire. But as Alan Sinfield has pointed out, If The Swimming-Pool Library has distinct resonances for gay readers, this does not mean that it amounts to a piece of cheer-leading for gay culture. On the contrary, gay commentators have been troubled by its deployment of stereotypical images of gay relationships, particularly in respect of Black and lower-class people. It is not pleasant to find these groups, who figure generally in the western tradition as walk-on parts, appear here as the objects of Will’s [sexual] opportunism. (Sinfield, 2000, p.96). This ‘western tradition’ of fetishizing and eroticizing class and racial difference is one in which the novels of Ronald Firbank are deeply - although not straightforwardly - enmeshed. While Hollinghurst has praised Firbank for ‘homosexualising’ the novel, other critics have drawn attention to the ways in which novels like Prancing Nigger and Valmouth patronise, primitivise, infantilise, and sexualise their black characters (see Lane, 1995, pp.179-80; Brown and Sant, 2001, pp.116-7). It is on precisely these issues of stereotyping and exploitation that that The Swimming-Pool Library’s engagement with Firbank’s fiction is most direct, most complex and most vexed - and on which the second part of this chapter will focus. It is hoped that a more detailed exposition of the nature of this engagement will help in attending to some of the most troubling questions raised by Hollinghurst’s novel. The aim of this chapter is not simply to explore how the iconic Ronald Firbank has ‘influenced’ Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘gay sensibilities’. Neither does it seek to suggest an ahistorical and essentialised ‘gay sensibility’ that unites Hollinghurst and Firbank as ‘homosexualisers’ of the novel as well as novel-writing homosexuals. Instead, it seeks to suggest that critics of Hollinghurst have previously underestimated the intensity, specificity and vigour with which Hollinghurst and The Swimming-Pool Library are engaged in dialogue and debate with Firbank’s fiction.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects : Literature
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of Literature and Languages
Authors : Vlitos, PMJ
Editors :
Mathuray, M
Date : 15 April 2017
Copyright Disclaimer : © 2017 Mark Mathuray and Paul Vlitos, 'Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst' (chapter 2: 'Homosexualising the Novel: Alan Hollinghurst, Ronald Firbank and The Swimming-Pool Library'), Palgrave Macmillan UK. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive, published, version of record is available here:
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 28 Feb 2017 15:14
Last Modified : 15 Apr 2020 02:08

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