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The Line of Beauty

By Alan Hollinghurst

Picking up from where his popular debut The Swimming Pool Library left off, Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel covers the four years from 1983 to 1987, beginning with the ’83 Tory landslide election victory, which copper fastened the hold of the political and economic philosophy which has come to be known as Thatcherism over the British people.

Meet 20-year-old Nick Guest, son of a provincial antiques dealer, who has just ‘come down’ from Oxford with a first in English, where he also ‘came out’ as a homosexual. Embarking on a dissertation at UCL on Henry James and style, he takes up residence in an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Fedden family, having been friendly with – and fancied – the son of the house, Toby, while at college, although this passion had remained in the realms of fantasy, due to Toby’s exclusive straightness. The ostensible reason for Nick’s first moving in was to ‘keep an eye on’ Catherine, Toby’s sister, while the rest of the family were on holiday in France, as she is prone to mood swings and unpredictable behaviour, and is later diagnosed as manic-depressive. She is also the single most interesting character in the book since, more than any of the others, she provides a kind of moral centre, by standing at a critical angle to the assumptions and ambitions of her parents.

These progenitors are Gerald, a fiercely competitive and shamelessly self-publicising newly-elected Tory MP and successful businessman, with a telling line in those hideous white-collared shirts with a differently-coloured body, so beloved of plutocrats and other high-achieving male professionals the world over; and Rachel, his wealthy, aristocratic wife, characterised by her own neat line in quiet irony.

 

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And so we swan with Nick from one interminable party to another, even sojourning, through him, at the Feddens’ French chateau for a month-long summer break. Two vividly contrasting love affairs, with a young black local council clerk, and the son of a Lebanese supermarket millionaire, dramatise the dangers and rewards of the aesthetic Nick’s own private pursuit of beauty, which is as compelling for him as the acquisition of power and money is for the Feddens and their friends.

It all starts to become strongly redolent of an updated Brideshead Revisited although, tellingly, the old money as represented by Rachel’s brother Lord Kessler have nothing but disdain for the parvenus sponsored by the Thatcher boom years, however wealthy they may become. ‘The Lady’, as she is known to her admirers in her party, even gets a walk-on part, at a party in the Feddens’ house, where Nick actually dances with her (although he secretly voted Green at the election which gave Thatcher her third term). Given that the now thankfully moribund Celtic Tiger was, to a large extent, identikit Thatcherism, a dissection of this nouveau riche milieu may prove of some interest to Irish readers. On the other hand, if observing the doings of vacuous wannabe aristos does not float your boat, it can get mighty tedious.
For my part, I found myself tiring of spending 616 pages of my time in the company of a collection of people who, for the most part, would be greatly improved by, and benefit immeasurably from, being slapped around the head, face and neck with a wet fish. (Indeed, there is a school of thought which says that they should be first up against the wall, come the revolution, but let it pass.) The majority of them, whether of the older or younger generation, are crushing bores, the kind of people you wouldn’t want to be marooned at a weekend house party with – our hero only intermittently excepted. But, then again, they’d probably think I wasn’t a lot of fun as their house guest, either. The choice is yours.

For the last third of the novel, things grow steadily darker. With the onset of AIDS, many of those around Nick start dropping like flies, until in the end he intuitively concludes that he himself is infected, and learns that most difficult lesson of all for would-be aesthetes: to see beauty in simple things. The moral decay anatomised by Henry James in The Spoils of Poynton, for example, of which Nick has written a screenplay, consists in loving things more than people – although that is hardly an attitude exclusive to aesthetes. Gerald is forced to resign in disgrace after being exposed in insider trading (not that that stops him taking up an £80,000 p.a. directorship the following week), and found out having an affair with his secretary (but, hey, that’s what Tory M.P.s do, isn’t it?). Nick and his buddies also get increasingly snowed under in an avalanche of cocaine – the phrase of the title working on several levels.

What is noteworthy here, as evidenced also by Colm Toibin’s recently published novel The Master, is the extent to which Henry James is retrospectively becoming something of a gay icon, although he never wrote directly about the topic himself. This reticence is undoubtedly understandable since, as Toibin has observed elsewhere, in relation to James’ attitude to the Wilde controversy, we can imagine James’ reaction to the prospect of hard labour.

A problem arises, however, if you ponder how applicable the methods of The Master are to contemporary situations. With his playful, yet exact, yet subtle discriminations, Hollinghurst is a much finer prose stylist than Toibin, but the greatest gay writers and artists – among them Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Edmund White – were all doing something new with the language and the form, in an attempt to reflect the times, rather than rehashing tried and trusted techniques. Or else, like more traditionally humanistic practioneers such as David Leavitt or Michael Cunningham, they touch emotional depths the surface of which remains only scratched here.

While, as Josef Brodsky wrote in his essay on Constantine Cavafy, ‘homosexuality is a form of sensual maximalism which absorbs and consumes both the rational and the emotional faculties of a person so completely that T.S. Eliot’s old friend, “felt thought” is likely to be the result’, he also qualifies this by stating, ‘What matter in art are not one’s sexual affiliations, of course, but what is made of them.’ Just as feminists tend to bring feminism into everything, and Irish writers tend to bring ‘Irishness’ into everything, so too can gay writers seem to write of nothing but gay life. So who is being ghettoised by whom? With Hollinghurst, one thinks of an observation in Julian Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot, about how Auden, Spender and Isherwood preached ‘socialism as a sideshoot of homosexual law reform.’ To be kinder, it could be argued that they framed their socio-political views in terms of their psychosexual identities. While The Line of Beauty is a worthwhile sociological record, rich in its awareness of manifold ironies, it ultimately remains strictly for the gay set – and the more well-heeled of that confraternity to boot.

First published in The Sunday Independent


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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