Reading Matter
Jane Austen
The Novels of Jonathan Franzen
Alan Furst
Henry James
John P. Marquand
Shrieks (Pavillon Mitford)
On Trollope
Evelyn Waugh
Virginia Woolf
Books On the Side
Books In Brief
Blind In Washington
Joanna Trollope
Mr Phillips' Home Truths
Close To Home
The Alicia Letters
More Books Than Sense
The Library Project

The Line of Beauty

When the book came out, I decided against reading it, and I should probably have stuck to the resolution if I hadn't been seduced by unlikely circumstances. We were tracing our way through the Duty Free stile at Heathrow's Terminal Three, on the way home from Istanbul, when I spied a thickish paperback edition on display at one of the booksellers'. I was surprised that The Line of Beauty was out in paper already, and my pique was redoubled when, after lunch, I couldn't find the bookseller that had been touting the book. Caprice took over from here: I became determined to put my hands on a copy. (Insert image of Great White Duty Free Hunter; snort.) Of course there were other booksellers offering the very same EXCLUSIVE EDITION (ONLY AT THIS AIRPORT) - a new UK marketing gambit, evidently. I suspect that if I put my mind to it, I could make my purchase of The Line of Beauty sound as whimsical and self-contradictory as anything in the novel itself.

I didn't want to read The Line of Beauty because I didn't want to read another gay novel by Alan Hollinghurst. The Swimming Pool Library had been quite enough; not only was it self-absorbed, but Paul Golding's The Abomination covered much the same turf with far darker magic. As it happens, however, Beauty is not a gay novel. It is simply a novel. The protagonist's tastes - and for once we have a narrator who is the protagonist, not just an articulate observer of wild goings-on - are certainly homosexual. But Mr Hollinghurst writes as though we know all about what that means in general, and only tells us the few things that make Nicholas Guest, his hero for the nonce, different in particular. Nick is a "chocoholic," meaning that he is turned on by black men. There are worse afflictions, if indeed this is one. (And I suppose that it is, really, to have any preconceived idea of one's love, an affliction - an affliction suffered by almost every human being alive.) We are not even told, in so many words, that Nick is a "top" - we can figure that out for ourselves. Homosexuality in The Line of Beauty is an issue only because, in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, it is still disreputable.

It is still disreputable now, to be sure, or we wouldn't be arguing about gay marriage. But in the Notting Hill of 1983, I could not be discussed without enormous awkwardness, and Nick Guest, who happens indeed to be a guest, works hard at avoiding awkwardness. He has indeed been brought up to do so. The son of a provincial antiques dealer with a solid line in maintaining the clocks at the county's great houses, Nick has accompanied his father through many marble halls and Georgian salons, neither as a guest nor as a servant, but as (the son of) a professional service provider. When we meet him, he is quite pleased with himself for having pulled off an advance: he is living in the spacious London home of a new Thatcherite MP, Gerald Fedden, as a friend of the family. He has been introduced to the Fedden household, which consists of Gerald, his aristocratic but Jewish wife, Rachel (tied to an august banking family), their children, Toby and Catherine, and the housekeeper, an Italian woman called Elena, by Toby, with whom he spent his Oxford years at Worcester College, and with whom Nick was infatuated. Nick knows that he is gay, but he is still a virgin. And he is still, although he doesn't know it, a professional service provider. Families like the Feddens don't befriend the Nick Guests of this world, no matter how agreeably they take them on.

I have just gathered from a desultory Internet search that Worcester College is just the sort of place that Nick Guest would love: for the most part an eighteenth-century jewel. (My only Oxford memory, of a brisk walk with my ailing father from a car park to Blackwell's, is of sticking my nose into - sorry - Brasenose, of which I'd never before heard, but which I still think of as "my" college. It is brown and Tudor as I recall.) Nick has great taste. Well, of course he does: it's part of his professional upbringing. But chez Fedden, he has the opportunity to enjoy good taste, or, to put it in lawyer's tongue, he has the enjoyment of a very well-appointed residence. There is a Guardi in the drawing room, for heaven's sake. Nick has perched at the Fedden's because, faute de mieux, he has had no reason not to accept the invitation of generous, beautiful, dull Toby. He is given a little room in the attics, for which he pays a tiny rent. Ostensibly, he will find his feet at University College London and move on. Nobody seems to expect that Nick will spend the next four years in the house, except of course Nick. And even Nick does not intend to stay; he simply never gets round to intending anything else. Ger

It is perhaps not altogether unsurprising that The Line of Beauty is graced by a chaste presiding goddess, a Diana of divisions, Margaret Thatcher herself. She is at the center of almost everyone's attention; like Brünnhilde's fire, the excitement of meeting her mounts with the increased opportunity of doing so, and she actually appears in a nicely-extended scene (no White Rabbit she!) that only a writer as gifted as Alan Hollinghurst could insert in the place of a climax without sapping his true climax's power. (It is, rather, the climax of the novel's fun.) Pondering the greatness of Margaret Thatcher - was she? - I have concluded that by doing away with nobless oblige - which she denounced as impermissibly "wet" - the Lady, as she was called by a fascinated public, empowered the affluent brutes of England to behave like pillaging Normans, and it was not held against them if they happened to have aristocratic backgrounds. Thatcher's Britain utterly repudiated Victorian discretion, Trollopean gentlemanliness. It was red in tooth and rosbif. Poor Nick Guest thinks that Mrs Thatcher is no more than a somewhat unusual Prime Minister. He does not realize that she is, as I have called her, the presiding goddess, and that he, as someone who doesn't honor her rites, is never going to succeed in Notting Hill. He is so thick, in fact, that he can dance with her - dance with Margaret Thatcher at a party - and still not understand the nature of her power.

While historians of the Iron Lady make use of the window that The Line of Beauty throws open upon her reign, literary types will be polishing Gerald Fedden's image as a monster of English fiction. Gerald's monstrosity, like metastasized cancer, distributes itself in deadly little threads throughout the novel, and finding a juicily indicting paragraph is not easy. Here is Gerald on summer holiday in the Perigueux.

"No, of course," said Gerald insincerely. He was lazy, but he wasn't good at pure idleness, which he felt like a failure of self-assertion. He was obviously finding his annual poolside trek through one of the fatter Trollopes an irksomely passive exercise, though he said how splendid it was, and what great fun. 'I think they might enjoy the hike,' he said, 'We haven't done it since 83.' He poured himself a full glass of wine, and passed the bottle along the candlelit table.

Gerald is a minor Godzilla, a lizard whose id has been stamped with all the correct social gestures so that he cannot help but behave well, even though, to a discerning eye, his rapaciousness makes the piranha at feeding time look like an animal on a diet. Nick likes this about him; in contrast with his colorless parents (who, because they only care for his welfare, get stuck as object of contempt), Gerald bursts with vitality. (Monsters do.)

Gerald's counterpoint is Antoine Ouradi, known by his childhood name of Wani. We first meet Wani at Toby's coming-of-age party, in the first part of the novel:

As he trotted down the stairs he saw Wani Ouradi coming up. Nick sometimes greeted Wani with friendly grope between the legs, or a long breathless snog, and he'd once had him tied up naked in his college room for a whole night; he head sodomized him tirelessly more often than he could remember. Wani himself, glancing back to see if his girlfriend, his intended, was following, had no idea of all this, of course; indeed, they hardly knew each other.

Wani is Lebanese, which, while not quite "chocolate," is darkly not English, and when we learn that the "girlfriend" is actually a paid companion of Wani's mother, a French girl named Martine who will marry Wani no matter what, we enter Proustian territory, and psychologies unfold like spring's peonies. Surely, in the third and final part of the novel, the long-breathed Proustian thorough-bass sings to us about men who, denied the chance to live half as long as the Prince de Guermantes, would still have to be as interesting. The moral problems are simliar too, to both James and Proust. Is Nick Wani's gigolo, and, if so, who minds? The novel is worth reading just for the few pages in which this question is addressed. My favorite Wani passage is the last. Wani, dying of AIDS, is on his way to society wedding form which Nick feels (without regret) banned, and Nick is seeing him off, wondering if he will ever see him again.

He made a beckoning gesture, and Wani buzzed down the glass two inches. 'Give Nat my love,' Nick said. Wani gazed, not at him, but just past him, into the middle ground of ironic conjecture, and after a few seconds buzzed the window shut.

The Line of Beauty, however, is not a novel of manners. It is a novel of beauty, and throughout the third and final part, "The End of the Street," it is hard to say which great novelist hovers more luminously at Alan Hollinghurst's shoulder: Proust or James. Few writers have captured Henry James's logistical command of fictional action as well as Mr Hollinghurst; he grasps as few writers do the utterly unpsychological fencing of politeness under pressure. But nobody that I can think of has recently demonstrated anything like Mr Hollinghurst's command of society's solipsism, of the agreeable sense that "they like me" that the beau monde was designed to inspire, but that falls away the instant one ceases to be quite beau. As, for example, Nick does, when he bets on the wrong member of the family. I've said nothing about Catherine, Nick's great ally at the start, because I don't know how to address her bipolar disorder beyond pointing to it. Nick puts his trust in a woman who (for lack of other drugs) really needs lithium but who finds it an irksome medication: the novel's denoument is keyed to Catherine's abandonment of drugs. It is as horrifying as anything that I have ever read. It says: Don't Take Drugs. Strange country for a novel plumped so deeply, at its commencement, in comfort. Or perhaps not.

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