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The cost of beauty.

March 10, 2011

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, $22.95

Sometimes, when I am reading an especially well-written book, I tell myself that I should write down those sentences and phrases that are so wonderfully evocative they give me a chill (this happens right before I become suddenly and irrationally jealous that such lines didn’t spring from my own pen, or keyboard). I read the lines again, I marvel silently at their perfection, and then I keep reading, and I keep reading, and I finish the book and I have written down nothing, because I didn’t want to interrupt my reading to make notes. Two days later, I can’t remember any of the chill-inducing quotes and the idea of going back and searching for them is revoltingly effortful. Leaving aside my failed resolutions and large collection of empty notebooks, no novel has given me such pause to stop and marvel at the crystal brilliance of its prose as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I finally read in January.

Hollinghurst’s novel, which won the Booker in 2004, is a sort of 1980s Brideshead Revisited, a wistful tale of desire and privilege set in the boom years of Thatcher’s England. In 1983, Nick Guest, a rather shy and inexperienced Oxford graduate, begins his tenancy as a lodger with the Fedden family: foppish Toby, his unstable younger sister Catherine, and their parents, smoothly arrogant Tory MP Gerald and his aristocratic wife Rachel. Nick has harboured an unrequited crush on Toby since the start of their student days at Oxford; in the attic room of the Feddens’ Notting Hill mansion, with its ‘curvy French furniture’ and ‘confidential creak of oak’, Nick’s yearning for his friend spreads into a deeper longing to belong in the Feddens’ easy world of wealth and beauty. As the eighties progress, bringing with them a wave of hedonism, material pleasures, and the first devastating sweep of AIDS, Nick attempts to carve a place for himself as a young gay man in London society.

Hollinghurst’s title refers to William Hogarth’s term for an s-shaped curve evident in beautiful and accomplished works of art and design. Nick is on an endless quest to fulfill his desire for beauty, both physically and emotionally. He pursues a thesis on the work of Henry James, ‘the Master’, with whom he finds himself ‘at the height of a youthful affair…in love with his rhythms, his ironies, and his idiosyncrasies’. As Nick moves among the polished and privileged, negotiating life with the Feddens’ with his increasingly risky sexual exploits, he finds the curve of beauty in the ‘dip and swell’ of a lover’s back and buttocks and the ‘charm and promise’ glinting in lines of cocaine.

But as Hogarth’s line could be found within an object and as a boundary between two objects, Nick’s desire for beauty bisects his domestic life and his erotic conquests with increasing sharpness—his increasingly complicated personal life, and the encroaching shadow of the AIDS crisis, begin to throw a dark pall over the final years of the decade. Paradoxically, Nick’s quest for beauty only mires him deeper among characters whose finely rendered surfaces mask an almost comic grotesqueness: the Feddens and their circle swell with a sense of inviolable entitlement. Lady Partridge, Gerald’s mother, ‘stood rigid while he kissed her rosy cheek—Nick never knew if she regarded a kiss as a homage or a liberty’. When Sally Tipper, the wife of obnoxious millionaire Maurice Tipper, remarks that the book Nick is reading is ‘one of Maurice’s’, Nick fumblingly tells her that ‘it’s actually mine—I’m reviewing it for the THES’. ‘Oh I see, no no’, Sally retorts with a ‘coldly tactful smile. No, Maurice owns Pegasus—I just noticed they publish it’. But we are reminded that even the privileged have their idols: when Lady Thatcher, the emblem of eighties excess, arrives at a dinner party thrown to celebrate Gerald and Rachel’s wedding anniversary, the assembled titled and moneyed guests are reduced to a fawning mass of jostling, scurrying sycophants.

Hollinghurst’s delicate, lyrical prose deftly counterbalances the narcissistic cast of his novel. Nick admiringly describes ‘the upper-class economy’ of Rachel’s speech, ‘her way of saying nothing except by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement’; the houses along the Feddens’ street sit side-by-side with ‘the glazed tolerance of rich neighbours’. The brilliance of The Line of Beauty lies in its portrayal of a class and time that is at once subtle and alarmingly frank: the resonance of Hollinghurst’s social satire is only strengthened by the lack of moral or ideological commentary evident in the narrative. Like Henry James, Hollinghurst chooses to make his point by showing rather than telling, and the fine beauty of his prose reveals a world of vulgar hypocrisy that is comic and appalling in equal measure.

For all his obvious weaknesses, the figure at the centre of The Line of Beauty is a strangely sympathetic one. Nick is one of those people who lets things happen to him with a sort of relentless reverse determination, but he is a product of his time and environment. As the eighties draw to a close, the question of whether Nick is freed or redeemed remains just that: a question, one tinged with bittersweet ambiguity. His unfortunate desire to find a foothold in the Feddens’ world can only mirror the moniker he bestows on a glossy magazine, the vanity project of his wealthy onetime lover: Ogee is named after a curve that ‘was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome’.

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