Posted July 21, 2008on:
I have several drafts on Wharton (whoops, missed that deadline), Silent Light (for First Magazine), Lydia Millet (that one was supposed to be an epic), A.L. Kennedy and others seething from neglect in the bowels of my dashboard (while I wonder what else I can do for Open Letters Monthly). There are many (many) print and online literary magazine issues languishing unread. (This never, never happens. If I read anything it’s my LRB and OLM.) I’ll offer no excuses only my apologies and this post which I just churned out in an effort to get the juices flowing.
My most recent novel read is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. It’s a Booker winner so I heard about it but the prize plus the title emitted waves of tedium — I figured it featured some middle-aged don’s limpid natterings plus an affair with a fresh young student. This changed last year when I read Hollinghurst’s excellent TLS Commentary piece on Ronald Firbank. I thought his name sounded familiar and behold! he was the same Booker winner of that one book. Still wary I swerved and reached for his first novel instead The Swimming-pool Library and was amazed. Never had I imagined such an unabashedly sexual novel could at the same time be so “literary” — in this case simply meaning a book with complex themes, stimulating, morally ambiguous character dynamics, lovely writing, interesting set up of ideas, motifs and so on.
A lot can happen between 1988 when that book was published to 2004. If I had known that The Line of Beauty was so recent I might have skipped it for one of the 90s novels. (I held the impression it was a mid-90s novel for some reason.) Hollinghurst aged, mellowed, became wiser, a little less outrageous, more subtle, judicious, wilier, perhaps, likes to take his time, turn the wheel, build the moment with layer upon intricately built layer. Basically, it turned out to be the novel I dreaded. The sort of book that, I imagine, innocent hoi polloi buy in an effort to obey their betters by partaking in the superior literature of the day, only to have it lay on the nighttime table for half-a-year with the book mark at somewhere around page 110 holding up the latest Stephanie Plum and the new non-fiction sensation.
If I were a Henry James fan I may have loved this book, squeeing in delight at every big and small allusion. (Amateur Reader doesn’t think so.) Usually, I get a bit excited when a writer so consistently links his book to another’s, especially if it’s a classic one with which I am unfamiliar. Unless it’s Henry James whose books have always looked very long and sound very boring. (I was wrong about Edith — could be wrong about James…but have you seen the size of his books? I do it for Proust but he’s French. I’ll do a lot for French writers. And British Victorian writers but James is Edwardian, right? Missed it, old chum. Can we pretend his fiction is Edwardian for the sake of this post and my excuses? Isn’t he American or something? There, Americans don’t count, I go for the British.)
Nick Guest, the protagonist in Hollinghurst’s most recent novel, is a doctorate student in Literature at UCL writing an unfathomable thesis on James, his favourite writer. He graduated from Worcester College, Oxford where, despite his middle-class trappings, he managed to make friends with the handsome rower Toby whose uncle (on Mom’s side) is an Earl and whose politician father is similarly (though I think a less illustriously, title-wise) connected and very wealthy besides. The family likes Nick, so much so that they rent him one of the rooms in its London home, making him feel like one of the family. It helps that he can act as a vaguely defined guardian for Toby’s younger 19 year old sister who is clinically depressed and a bit wild besides: keep her from cutting herself, vet her boyfriends, assess and report on her general well-being, all the things a 21 year old is uniquely qualified to do. He is also a gay virgin and desperate to hook-up and indulge in much thought over pleasures.
Not much in the book happens as Hollinghurst covers three years of Guest in the Fedden household. Nick sleeps with some guys, is eternally conflicted about his existence in this upper-class lifestyle, oft disapproving and yet addicted to its sensual gifts and lifetime of ease. He sees through Gerald’s fake politician affability yet takes pride in being connected to Gerald in the first place. He wants to be true to himself and those around him but can’t quite manage it much of the time, probably because he’s not so sure what to make of himself. (I’m guessing my ignorance of all things Henry James is working against me here.) To be fair, the choice of sleeping mates is an essential structural point. At the beginning, in more innocent times (of limited opportunity), he puts aside a long-held crush for Toby and sends out a lonely heart letter to a Jamaican working class man in his late 20s. In the second section he’s made a leap and bags Wani, a beautiful, wealthy Lebanese millionaire (from his Oxford batch), a closeted gay whose debonair, effortless cool demeanour that the world admires is wholly owed to Cocaine Productions. In the third that’s done away with due to ex-lovers left and right succumbing to an “illness” that goes unnamed for most of the story. Each marks an evolution in Nick’s character to an extent.
The story’s historical backdrop colours the story heavily as well, something that only became obvious to me after I pulled myself out of Nick’s constant “OMG I’m so middle class + gay but I love all this sex+drugs+money+class privilege but oooh they can be so callous + self-delusional and I’m totes better than that haha but am I really, I’m so lost? lawks” loop. They’re in Thatcher’s England as the book starts out at around the peak of her popularity and ends after her last Tory win when her prospects begin to dim — all the while England’s unemployment numbers rises in the millions. As an upper-class Tory who treats his rural constituents as if they were extra-terrestrial visitors who must be humoured one realises how effectively Gerald’s status acts as blinkers. So his Thatcher-mania is almost redundant in that regard. There’s a scene near the end where Gerald is over-the-moon to have “The Lady” at his house for his wedding anniversary party — which doesn’t figure much for his poor wife must remind him that they will have the first dance not him and Thatcher — in which Hollinghurst has a jolly, slightly caustic old time describing all the plump, middle-aged Thatcherites following her around reverentially, patting their balding pates while eyeing her bounteous crop enviously, kneeling on the floor by her as she sits on the coach desperate to get in a word. It was too much like those deb balls you read in Regency romances or a parody of a Jane Austen ballroom scene except that our intrepid hero sees through it all and gleefully succumbs to it (even though he’s not a Thatcherite). Story of his life.
Homosexuality figures largely as well and lends the novel a furtive quality. Most of Nick’s upper-class society know that he’s gay they just politely ignore it except the rougher ones who take jibes at him in order to establish some imaginary superiority. It’s a shadow world that, unfortunately, is gaining more public attention because of AIDS. The landscape is trickier because Nick has a penchant for black lovers who aren’t fortunate enough to have millionaire Daddies to smooth over the race issue among his company. Wani has that but is supremely conscious of its less than stellar supermarket origins therefore he’s not going to make things worse by even implicitly acknowledging a relationship with Nick. Add this to Nick’s class issues and although his life seems charmed for most of the novel it’s more like he’s dancing on a precipice held up by sheer luck. And though his richer friends may be more secured Hollinghurst never allows that secure decadence to permeate the entire novel. It has a much more enclosed quality like a snow globe and around them things are harder, more precarious, less glamorous.
Rather, this is how the novel appears to me now as I turn it over. I assure you while reading it it felt more like trying to do the foxtrot hip deep in mud. I know it is a more complex novel that The Swimming-Pool Library , far more intricately built. There are untold things you could pick apart that I’ve not mentioned, including the musical allusions and the architectural references and close attention to buildings in particular, which carries over from TS-PL. No doubt critics would view Hollinghurst’s change in hero an advancement — from the rich, carefree, lusty, outrageous yet often judicious William Beckwith to the anxious, naive, smart but wilfull, middle-class Nick more liable to sink than sail and so therefore a tastier morsel for a good novelist. However, I prefer when Hollinghurst’s caustic humour and abandonment is closer to the surface, when he doesn’t draw the curtain on a sex scene early enough to make it “tasteful” and more palatable (I suppose). That writer appeared in The Line of Beauty but not early enough to save it. My interest in Hollinghurst still remains, though, and I intend to read all of his backlist so that should tell you something.