Review: Alan Hollinghurst, ‘The Line of Beauty’

A short while ago, I announced my intention of trying to read (and then review on the blog) a new book once a month.  I chose The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst to go first, mainly because I was already about two-thirds of the way through it when I had the idea.  Well, against the odds (usually when I faithfully promise something on this blog, it either fails to appear, or limps in weeks late), I’ve finished the book, and even managed to cobble together some vaguely coherent things to say about it in a review.  So here is that review…

The Line of Beauty is a historical novel; the story takes place between 1983 and 1987, though the action is not continuous.  It won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published, 2004.

The novel’s protagonist, Nick Guest, is the product of a middle-class family from Northamptonshire.  While studying at Oxford he develops a crush on a fellow student, Toby Fedden, a scion of a minor branch of the English aristocracy.  Nick quickly tries to ingratiate himself into Toby’s home life in an effort to spend more time in his company.  After graduation, he is invited to stay indefinitely at Toby’s parents’ home in London, initially as a friend, then as an informal carer for Toby’s sister, Catherine, who has bipolar disorder.  The novel proceeds by means of a number of more or less independent sections loosely linked by the overarching story concerning Nick’s status within the Fedden family.  Some of these sections trace Nick’s romantic and sexual adventures, while others concentrate on the Feddens; Gerald Fedden, the patriarch, is a wealthy Conservative MP who becomes embroiled in financial and sexual scandals.  By the novel’s end, the Fedden family have closed ranks against Guest; they blame him for failing to prevent a manic Catherine from speaking to a tabloid journalist, and for being the means by which the tabloids are able to connect the family to the AIDS crisis.  This last is possible because Guest has lost one former lover to AIDS, and is expecting to hear of the death of another at any moment.  On the final page, as he leaves the Fedden household for the last time, Guest becomes convinced a pending test result will reveal that he, too, is HIV positive.

This summary perhaps makes the novel sound like a conventional page-turner – House of Cards, but with gay sex – but this is not the experience of reading it.  The novel does not follow a linear path (some events are revealed to the reader years after they took place), and major plot points are sometimes disposed of in a couple of sentences, while minor events are handled in great depth.  If you are looking for a traditional family saga, or a political thriller, then this is not the book for you.  It would probably make most sense to class the novel as a reverse bildungsroman (that is, a novel in which, as a young man grows into maturity, he is progressively excluded from society).  Reverse bildungsromans are not unheard of in gay fiction; EM Forster’s Maurice, for example, has elements of the reverse bildungsroman, in that the protagonist’s slow process of self-realisation as a gay man can only reach fruition with his absolute exclusion from Edwardian society.

You’ve probably gathered this for yourself already but, in case not, I should spell it out: I’m not a particular fan of this book (though I didn’t hate it, either).  As I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t have much in the way of a coherently-presented plot, but this is something I can forgive (even if it’s an endemic disease in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction).  A much larger problem for me is that it doesn’t seem to have a purpose; when I’d finished reading this book I didn’t come away with any clear idea as to why Alan Hollinghurst had wanted to write it, let alone what I was supposed to have gained from reading it.  It does contain half-hearted nods in a few thematic directions, but none of these is fully developed.

The title suggests the book is perhaps meant to be read as being about the process of aesthetic appreciation, and there are elements of it that make sense in these terms; there are a number of set-pieces analysing and discussing visual art, furniture and music.  There’s some sense, too, that Guest is an aesthete amidst philistines, and this fits into one of the stories often told about the 80s, that they were an era when ‘commerce’ was valued above ‘art’.  There are other times when the book seems to want to comment on the superficiality and spiritual emptiness of the 80s, though this is very well-worn ground.  (In this regard, it doesn’t help that Hollinghurst decides to use cocaine as a metaphor for 80s culture, since this is something that’s been done before, and better.) Sometimes it seems as though the novel is really about social class, and the way in which the politics of the 80s promised mass social mobility, even as it closed down opportunities to all but the wealthy.  At other points it seems that Hollinghurst’s main concern is to showcase the futility of his characters’ existence, and that AIDS is pressed into service as a metaphor for this.  Finally, the way in which Nick is initially told he’s welcome to bring back boyfriends to the Fedden’s home (provided he’s discrete about it), but by the close of the novel is kicked out, in part for connecting the home to ‘this plague’ (as his former crush, Toby Fedden, describes AIDS during their last conversation), seems to stand as a metaphor for the social fortunes of gay people in the period.

Of all these ‘thematic’ readings, it’s the last that is, by quite some distance, the most effective.  This is territory I had not seen covered in a novel before, and it’s handled by Hollinghurst with considerable skill and subtlety.  It’s also an interesting choice, because the approach – using a fictional domestic world to stand for the larger real one – is fairly out of fashion at present, perhaps because the idea of fiction as social commentary is also out of fashion.  Unfortunately, this idea only really takes hold towards the very end of the novel, and much of the book cannot be interpreted in this light.  As with the other thematic approaches, what is of interest here is left under-developed, with the result that the book is less satisfying than it might otherwise be.

One exception to this general comment is the attempt to develop some kind of thematic or metaphorical role for AIDS: I’m glad that idea is not fleshed out.  I’m glad of it because I have a fairly profound problem with AIDS being developed as a metaphor for anything.  It’s not, after all, an abstraction, but a real disease, and a pretty nasty one at that.  Part of my hostility to the idea of using AIDS to stand for something other than itself is that the view was very commonly expressed in the 80s that AIDS was the physical manifestation of immorality (Hollinghurst includes this view in the novel, where it’s expressed by an especially unpleasant character).  I’m too young to be part of the generation of gay men who bore the brunt of AIDS in the UK, but I grew up and came out in the shadow of the disease, and I knew people who died from it; as such, I perhaps have a more visceral reaction to this than other readers might.  I think all readers, though, would agree there’s something a little shabby in using a real-world disease as a metaphor for a character’s failings.  I think, at any rate, I’d be as uncomfortable with a mother who failed to nurture her children being struck down with breast cancer, and that would be a similarly crass metaphor.

That sense of discomfort at something slightly unpleasant lurking just below the surface of the novel cropped up for me more than once.  For example, Nick Guest’s first lover, Leo Charles, is black, and he features prominently in early sections of the book, but his character develops very little.  He starts out as mysterious, and possessing a kind of exotic, glamorous danger, which is not unreasonable; he represents the protagonist’s first encounter with a confident, worldly-wise gay man, and also gives him his first sexual experience.  What’s more problematic is that the novel remains largely uninterested in Leo’s character and motivations, even as the text drools over his body in lingering, highly sexualised, detail; his buttocks, for example, are described at least twice.  I might be inclined to put this unpleasantness down to Nick Guest rather than the author (Guest is not presented as an attractive character, and we are not always invited to identify with him) if it weren’t for the fact that (as I recall; I read it several years ago) an earlier novel, The Swimming Pool Library, contains a black man who, again, is presented as a fetish object for the pleasure of a white man rather than a character in his own right.  At best, Hollinghurst is repeating himself in his representation of sexual racism; at worst, he’s indulging in it himself.

There are also problems with the novel on a technical level.  For a start, there’s the issue of character names.  The protagonist is a visitor staying with other characters – as their guest, you might say – and of course he needs a more familiar name, something people who know him can call him – a nickname, perhaps.  And so the character is named Nick Guest.  Then, at a late point in the novel, Hollinghurst finds himself in need of a name to be dropped into a conversation, a wealthy financier who may be persuaded to invest in a perennially-delayed film project.  And the name of this incidental investor, this man who’s only known attribute is his wealth?  Why, he’s called Julius Money.  I guess this might be called the Pilgrim’s Progress approach to character names.  (The hero of the Progress is a pilgrim called Pilgrim; along the way he meets such people as a nervous Mr Fearing, and an ignorant Mrs Know-Nothing.)

Hollinghurst’s characterisation can also be quite poor.  At one point, for example, Nick is invited to dinner with Leo’s mother.  She’s from a West Indian background, and her character seems to have been assembled from a ragbag of stereotypes; she’s a passionate evangelical Christian with a fiery temperament who rules over her adult children with a rod of iron; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Lenny Henry dragged-up as that character.  More to the point, perhaps, is that Hollinghurst seems incapable of fleshing her out in a realistic way.  A number of characters in the book are unusually knowledgeable about furniture (which is handy, since Nick shares the interest, and many of his conversations can thus turn to this subject immediately after he’s said hello), but the character trait reaches its apotheosis of implausibility in Mrs Charles, a woman who is supposedly poor and ill-educated, but nonetheless just happens to have some pieces of fine furniture for Nick to comment on.  It’s painfully apparent that Mrs Charles is given the furniture, and the technical knowledge about it, not because it’s something that makes sense for her, or expresses an aspect of her character, but because Hollinghurst can’t think of a more appropriate way to flesh out her character.

Hollinghurst also seems to struggle quite badly with dialogue, both in terms of creating natural-sounding conversations, and maintaining consistent speech patterns for his characters.  This problem crops up a fair bit but, as an example, here’s Tristão, who’s described as a Mediterranean waiter.  What follows is not a complete quotation, but extracts from Tristão’s speeches as they appear on pages 385-7 of the paperback edition:

I know where I see you now. […] Is Mr Toby birthday party.  In the big big house.  Long time ago. […] You come lookin for me, in the kitchen.  I think you was very pissed. […] Then I feel very bad because I say I meet you later, and I never come. […] I see you dancin with the big lady tonight, jumpin around.

This is a faintly embarrassing rendering of pidgin English, and some parts of it stretch credulity – this takes place in 1987, the ‘long time ago’ was 1983, which means that Tristão has been in the country for at least four years, and the ‘big lady’ is Margaret Thatcher; is it really plausible that a long-term resident of the country wouldn’t know enough at least to call her Maggie or Mrs T?  But these are minor quibbles: his speech is, to this point, consistent and characterful.  Now, this is the very next thing he says, still in reference to the ‘big lady’:

You a good friend of hers then, are you?

This isn’t in pidgin English at all.  It may not be formally correct, but it is the fluent, idiomatic English of a native speaker; in fact, it’s exactly consistent with the way most of the upper class English characters speak.  This possibly looks like a small detail, but it happens all the time in this novel, and it has the effect of making it almost impossible to believe in the characters.  Instead of seeming like real people, they come across as ciphers, randomly assembled collections of attributes and weirdly inconsistent vocal mannerisms who have no reason for existing beyond their basic, functional role.

Well, this has all been very negative so far, hasn’t it?  Let me try to be a little more positive, and point out the things I liked about the novel.  Perhaps the most important is that, despite all my criticism, I wasn’t bored while I was reading.  There were a couple of sections that could have been edited for length – a long account of a holiday in the south of France, and an excruciatingly detailed description of a piano recital – but for the most part the book sustained my attention throughout.  Given everything I’ve said about the plotting, characterisation and dialogue, that’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to you, but when I try to think about why, I think it’s probably because the various problems I’ve highlighted are intermittent.  For the most part, the book hangs together in a technical sense, which is why the various problems I’ve highlighted are so jarring; they spoil what has otherwise been flowing quite well.

Another reason for my engagement with the novel, I think, is that Nick Guest is, somehow, an interesting character.  This is odd, because there’s no doubt that he’s vain, almost entirely incapable of self-analysis, and about as deep as a puddle in the Sahara.  What’s even odder is that Guest isn’t, as you might suppose from this description, an attractively amoral antihero, just a rather dull, self-involved person.  (The closest Guest comes to amoral antihero is an unexpectedly funny moment when he’s helping Leo’s sister contact Leo’s previous sexual contacts with a view to advising them to get an HIV test, and he tries to memorise the address of one man he finds attractive.)  Despite this dullness, the experience of watching Nick plod his unimaginative way through his life is oddly engaging, even affecting.  It may be because, as readers, we know Nick’s complacent life is going to be disrupted by AIDS, but he spends much of the book unaware, and then trying to ignore his subliminal fears.  In the same way that scenes set amongst self-involved rich kids from the early part of the 20th century can take on an unearned melancholy because we know the 1st World War is waiting in the wings to kill or maim most of them, the scenes of Nick’s early, carefree gay life take on a blush of tragedy given the terrible events that are about to strike the gay community.

There are other, simpler, pleasures in reading the novel, too.  It’s fun, for example, spotting background characters who seem like they’re supposed to stand in for real people.  I’m fairly sure that a character called Maurice Tipper – a deeply homophobic business magnate with interests in the newspaper and publishing industries – is supposed to make us think of Rupert Murdoch.  Then there’s Bertrand Ouradi, a blunt-speaking but wealthy immigrant from a middle eastern country who tries to buy access to the establishment by means of large donations to the Conservative party, but is always semi-excluded for reasons of snobbery and racism; I doubt I would be entirely alone in finding him reminiscent of Mohamed al Fayed.  There’s also the scene – probably the most famous in both the novel and the TV adaptation – in which a coked-up Nick Guest dances with Margaret Thatcher at a party, before heading back upstairs to enjoy a threesome with two other men.

So, then, the book isn’t by any means a complete disaster.  I don’t regard the time I spent reading it as wasted.  There’s plenty in the book that’s good – the last few chapters, especially, are very effective – and I think I would use the word ‘breathtaking’ about a few descriptive passages.  Overall, though, the novel fails to satisfy.  Part of the reason for that, I think, is the episodic structure.  Together with the sketched-in but never fully developed thematic ideas that the novel toys with, that factor means this book reads more like an early draft than a polished masterpiece.  That’s quite an interesting way of looking at it, actually.  It would explain a lot, from why the dialogue doesn’t always work, to why important plot points are brought up for the first time as a mention in passing.  With a little more work to draw the various strands together – and with a lot more thought on the author’s part about what he wanted to say, and why – this book could have been a great deal better than it is.  Even as it stands, though, it’s worth reading, if not rushing to get hold of.

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3 Responses to Review: Alan Hollinghurst, ‘The Line of Beauty’

  1. corporation offshore says:

    .If Henry James could brave one more curtain call hed find a more encouraging audience than the one that booed him off stage after Guy Domville. The Booker Prize 90 000 will propel The Line of Beauty up the list too as its already done in England and that popular exposure will be interesting to evaluate.Line for line Hollinghursts novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book Ive read in years. British papers have noted that this is the first gay novel to win the Booker Prize in its 36-year history.

  2. Pingback: My next read | Aethelread the Unread

  3. A really full review – thanks! I think Hollinghurst’s style splits opinion – it’s so subtle that some find it wholly insubstantial. Personally, I fall on the other side of the debate and really enjoyed The Line of Beauty. I think saying so much, in such a restrained manner is a real achievement. My only real issue with the book is the occassional lapse in the quality of the writing, other than that I wholly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet!

    My review is here, if interested:

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