The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

line_of_beauty

This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below.  We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

 

Reviewed by Anthony Quinn in the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/31/books/review/31QUINNL.html?_r=0

 

‘The Line of Beauty’: The Last Good Summer

By ANTHONY QUINN

Published: October 31, 2004

 

As a novelist, Alan Hollinghurst has set himself an intimidating standard. There haven’t been many English debuts more exquisitely executed or scorchingly candid than ”The Swimming-Pool Library” (1988), nor follow-ups that could outdazzle it as brilliantly as did ”The Folding Star” (1994). Thereafter ”The Spell” (1999) conjured a lighter tone, though still sprung with the enchantments of Hollinghurst’s sly, feline wit. To say, then, that his latest novel, the Booker Prize-winning ”Line of Beauty,” is also his finest should give some idea of its accomplishment, not just in the breadth of its ambition but in its felicities of observation and expression.

Historically, ”The Line of Beauty” picks up where ”The Swimming-Pool Library” concluded, in the summer of 1983, the last summer before AIDS began its grim reaping. Nicholas Guest, intellectual, gay and about to turn 21, has been invited to lodge in the seigneurial West London mansion of Gerald Fedden, M.P., a coming man in the Thatcher government and the father of his Oxford friend Toby. As the boom years of the 80’s unfurl, Nick becomes ever more deeply entwined with the romance of the Feddens and their luminous world of money and privilege, while through a black civil servant, Leo, he avidly discovers the pleasures of metropolitan gay life.

Often seeking his reflection in the gilt-framed mirrors of his fashionable friends, Nick is unsure of his footing in this opulent ”looking-glass world” and is secretly ashamed of his own dull provincial parents — his fretting mother and his antique-dealer father, who winds the clocks in the grand houses of the local aristocracy. Carefully situating his protagonist as both insider and outsider, Hollinghurst summons the ghosts of two earlier Nick-names: Nicholas Jenkins, who monitored the British ruling classes in Anthony Powell’s cycle, ”A Dance to The Music of Time,” and Nick Carraway, infatuated with the wealth and glamour of his neighbor Jay Gatsby.

But the presiding genius of the novel is neither Powell nor Fitzgerald. Nick is distractedly writing a thesis on Henry James and later tries to stir interest in a film adaptation of ”The Spoils of Poynton.” When a dinner guest asks him, ”What would Henry James have made of us, I wonder?,” Nick replies: ”He’d have been very kind to us, he’d have said how wonderful and how beautiful we were, he’d have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn’t have realized until just before the end that he’d seen right through us.” He would also, you can’t help thinking, have approved Hollinghurst’s discriminating eye and perhaps even enjoyed the half-facetious, half-adoring tributes Nick pays to his famously orotund late style, the ”plums of periphrasis” Nick likes to slip into his conversation. (”He spoke, as to cheek and chin, of the joy of the matutinal steel” is Nick’s Jamesian circumlocution for someone clean-shaven.)

Yet you have to wonder how the Master might have reacted to Nick’s forthright notation of the heft and size of male genitalia, whether companionably spied over a lavatory stall or outlined in trouser fabric as a ”jutting bulge”; and he would probably have needed a fainting couch during the novel’s middle section, when Nick becomes rapturously involved with Wani Ouradi — Lebanese, superrich, depraved and ”beautiful as a John the Baptist painted for a boy-loving pope.” Wani has hired Nick as an editorial consultant for his new magazine, Ogee, named after the curve that is Hogarth’s ”line of beauty,” a recurrent architectural motif but also lovingly illustrated in ”the dip and swell” of a man’s back and buttocks. Their relationship, closeted because Wani is nominally affianced, isn’t the only secret they share: Wani has introduced Nick to cocaine, a different line of beauty and emblematic of the perilous gratifications the 1980’s have seemingly underwritten.

Despite Nick’s sexual adventures, the novel marks a change from Hollinghurst’s predominantly homocentric fiction. In fact, female characters, hitherto felt by some readers as a decided absence, are among the liveliest here. Gerald’s wife, Rachel, is a marvelously nuanced portrait of velvety graciousness lined with steel. The Feddens’ manic-depressive daughter, Catherine, serves to some degree as the conscience of the novel, a corrective to the chinless brutes swaggering around her. Lady Partridge, Gerald’s mother, is a rival to Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, with a similar line in charm.

Most audacious of all is Hollinghurst’s introduction of ”the Lady,” otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher, a presence felt throughout the book but, like Kurtz in ”Heart of Darkness,” invisible until near the end. Appearing at a party chez Fedden, the P.M. is mobbed by her courtiers until Nick, emboldened by coke, spots his moment:

”It was the simplest thing to do — Nick came forward and sat, half-kneeling, on the sofa’s edge, like someone proposing in a play. He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister’s face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque. She smiled back with a certain animal quickness, a bright blue challenge. There was the soft glare of the flash — twice — three times — a gleaming sense of occasion, the gleam floating in the eye as a blot of shadow, his heart running fast with no particular need of courage as he grinned and said, ‘Prime Minister, would you like to dance?’ ‘You know, I’d like that very much,’ said the P.M., in her chest tones, the contralto of conviction. Around her the men sniggered and recoiled at an audacity that had been beyond them.”

It is a notable cleverness of the book that, while acutely critical of her period in office, there is nothing but the warmest praise voiced for ”the Lady” herself. Moralist that he is, Hollinghurst generally prefers to proceed through subtle modulations of irony, slipping in a dagger rather than wielding a cutlass. This treatment is as true for Nick as for the cast of grandees and gargoyles among whom he moves. His ambivalent character is a vehicle for the novel’s central tension — between private conscience and public display. Courteously, perhaps cravenly, ingratiating himself with the Feddens and their friends, Nick nevertheless makes you wonder whether, behind the show of his slightly unctuous civility, he actually likes these people. Occasionally his distaste is unambiguous, as when he dances attendance on the plutocrat Sir Maurice Tipper and his wife — as incisive a sketch of upper-class English ghastliness as anything in Evelyn Waugh. Yet even around Gerald, to whom he feels an almost filial tenderness, there lingers a warning suspicion, ”long resisted, that there might be something rather awful about him.”

Although it gathers ominously in mood, ”The Line of Beauty” feels more blissful than baleful in its anatomy of the era because it is, among other things, a magnificent comedy of manners. Hollinghurst’s alertness to the tiniest social and tonal shifts never slackens, and positively luxuriates in a number of unimprovably droll set pieces. One of the funniest is a piano recital, given by an Eastern European prodigy, that delights Nick but rather tests the patience of the assembled toffs: ”Lady Kimbolton . . . kept a careful frown as she looked discreetly through her appointments diary. . . . She might have been in church, at the memorial service of some unloved colleague, in a world of unmeant expressions, the opposite of Beethoven.” What lends the scene extra piquancy is our knowledge that Nick has come to this august gathering with his heart still aflutter from a risky coke deal.

It is highly characteristic of Hollinghurst to oscillate between the high and the low, often within the same paragraph: consider the moment of weird hilarity as Nick, ever the aesthete, absently recalls the details of a Gothic-style church seen through the windshield of his drug dealer’s car. The pathos of old buildings is later reprised as Nick surveys the tearing down of a Victorian workshop, a melancholy intimation that beautifully dovetails with the sudden dramatic unraveling of his family idyll. It is also of a piece with the elegiac close, rendered with a grace and decorum entirely appropriate to this outstanding novel.

Anthony Quinn is the film critic for The Independent in London.

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