- The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Picador, 501 pp, £16.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 330 48320 X
It is to be observed, that straight lines vary only in length, and therefore are least ornamental. That curved lines as they can be varied in their degrees of curvature as well as in their lengths, begin on that account to be ornamental. That straight and curv’d lines join’d, being a compound line, vary more than curves alone, and so become somewhat more ornamental. That the waving line, or line of beauty, varying still more, being composed of two curves contrasted, becomes still more ornamental and pleasing, insomuch that the hand takes a lively movement in making it with pen or pencil.
Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (1753)
Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming Pool Library (1988), is set during the summer of 1983. The narrator, William Beckwith, is a young aristocrat of leisure. He lives in Holland Park, swims at the Corinthian Club, a gay gym on Great Russell Street (‘the masterpiece of the architect Frank Orme, whom I once met at my grandfather’s’), and picks up men everywhere. In a public lavatory in Hyde Park, he picks up, in a quite different sense, an elderly man who has collapsed at the urinal. This is Charles, Lord Nantwich, who also swims at the Corry, and is looking for someone to write his biography: he hires Will. Charles’s diaries are in counterpoint to Will’s narrative, describing life as a gay man in Britain when gay sex was a crime.
Yet the novel suggests that the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967 may not have been such a watershed after all: the law doesn’t protect Will from getting beaten up by a gang of skinheads for being a ‘fuckin’ poof’ and, worse, a ‘fuckin’ nigger-fucker’; one of his friends is arrested for soliciting by a policeman who is himself secretly gay (Will knows because he has had sex with him). There is even nostalgia for the camaraderie of the old days, and for the frisson of illegality – tempered by an awareness that one of the things about nostalgia is that the longed-for past almost certainly didn’t feel as wonderful at the time as it does in memory. Edward Manners, aesthete and voyeur, the splendidly creepy narrator of Hollinghurst’s second novel, The Folding Star (1994), is infatuated with his 17-year-old pupil, in love largely with the memory of being 17 himself.
The Swimming Pool Library is elegiac not just for Charles’s youth and Will’s schooldays, but for 1983, too, ‘the last summer of its kind there was ever to be’, the last summer before Aids, or rather the knowledge of it, would change everything. The last sentence – ‘And going into the showers I saw a suntanned young lad in pale blue trunks that I rather liked the look of’ – looks forward to life carrying on as it always has. But we know – and the novel, suffused with tragic irony, knows – that the circle is about to be broken. Will is staggeringly promiscuous: if he’s not HIV positive, he has been very lucky.
‘The Love-Chord’, the first part of The Line of Beauty, is set in the summer of 1983. It is a time of innocence. Nick Guest has just graduated from Oxford, and is living in Notting Hill with the Feddens: Gerald and Rachel, and their children, Toby and Catherine. He is about to start a PhD on Henry James’s style at UCL. Toby Fedden was a contemporary of Nick’s at university: they weren’t exactly friends, but Nick had a crush on him. Gerald is the newly elected Tory MP for Barwick, a town in Northamptonshire – Nick’s home-town, as it happens. In his study, Gerald, ‘like an uxorious bigamist’, has ‘photos of both Rachel and the prime minister in silver frames’.
Nick came out at Oxford, but has never had sex: the stories he tells Catherine about his romantic escapades are, to put it generously, exaggerations. He loses his virginity with a man he meets by answering a personal ad. Leo is in his late twenties, black, with a racing bike and a job in local government. They have sex, thrillingly, in the semi-private gardens behind the Feddens’ house, which only local residents with keys have access to.
Nick was more and more seriously absorbed, but then just before he came he had a brief vision of himself, as if the trees and bushes had rolled away and all the lights of London shone in on him: little Nick Guest from Barwick, Don and Dot Guest’s boy, fucking a stranger in a Notting Hill garden at night. Leo was right, it was so bad, and it was so much the best thing he’d ever done.
The Line of Beauty is concerned not only with Nick’s private life, but also with the public, political world to which he has gained entry by virtue of lodging with the Feddens, and having been at Oxford. The reader of The Swimming Pool Library or The Folding Star is immersed fully into the narrator’s consciousness: every thought and act, however secret or shameful, is described in frank, unembarrassed and beautifully turned sentences. Edward Manners is in many ways a very different character from William Beckwith: older, fatter, less self-assured, from a less exalted social class, he’s also a terrible swimmer. Yet they have in common not only a large libido, a finely tuned aesthetic sense and an enviable way with words, but a certain emotional distance from other people, a not uncruel self-absorption. This makes it hard to imagine being able to like them in real life; yet Hollinghurst gives such access to their innermost thoughts that it’s almost impossible not to become absorbed in them, too – it also helps that they’re funny. One of the problems with The Spell (1998), Hollinghurst’s third, shortest and least good novel, is that the point of view moves uneasily – and, at times, confusingly rapidly – between the four main characters. Seen too frequently through each others’ eyes, they struggle to sustain the reader’s interest or sympathy.
Like The Spell, The Line of Beauty is told in the third person, but everything is filtered though a single consciousness, Nick’s: we see things as he sees them, so there is no logistical reason for the novel not to have been in the first person. It isn’t, however, partly because it’s more Jamesian not to be; and also because Nick is an actor on a public stage as well as an individual with a private life. He has a dream about the two staircases in a country house:
The service stairs were next to the main stairs, separated only by a wall, but what a difference there was between them: the narrow back stairs, dangerously unrailed, under the bleak gleam of a skylight, each step worn down to a steep hollow, turned tightly in a deep grey shaft; whereas the great main sweep, a miracle of cantilevers, dividing and joining again, was hung with the portraits of prince-bishops, and had ears of corn in its wrought-iron banisters that trembled to the tread. It was glory at last, an escalation of delight, from which small doors, flush with the panelling, moved by levers below the prince-bishops’ high-heeled and rosetted shoes, gave access, at every turn, to the back stairs, and their treacherous gloom. How quickly, without noticing, one ran from one to the other, after the proud White Rabbit, a well-known Old Harrovian porn star with a sphincter that winked as bells rang, crowds murmured and pigeons flopped about the dormer window while Nick woke and turned in his own little room again, in the comfortable anticlimax of home.
This is (rather obviously, though the fabulously baroque prose more than compensates for the obviousness) an allegory of the way Nick – and indeed everyone, though it takes a while for Nick to realise this – moves between public and private life.
Toby’s 21st birthday party is on the last Sunday in August 1983, ‘when the Notting Hill carnival would be pounding to its climax’. Toby’s party, however, is held at the country house of Rachel’s brother, Lord Kessler, in Buckinghamshire. The Feddens and Nick go down early. In the library, Nick takes a copy of The Way We Live Now off the shelves to have a look at, because the ‘set of Trollope had a relatively modest and approachable look’. Lord Kessler asks him if he’s ‘a Trollope man’, and Nick says he’s not because Trollope ‘wrote too fast’. He quotes Henry James on Trollope’s ‘great heavy shovelfuls of testimony to constituted English matters’. Lord Kessler replies that Trollope’s ‘very good on money’. Nick’s not sure what to say to this, ‘feeling doubly disqualified’, Hollinghurst writes, with skilfully deployed bathos, ‘by his complete ignorance of money and by the aesthetic prejudice which had stopped him from ever reading Trollope’. Hollinghurst, however, clearly has read Trollope, another of this novel’s forebears.
The guests at Toby’s party include various members of the Tory Party, from the home secretary on down (the prime minister isn’t there, to everyone’s simultaneous disappointment and relief); a photographer from the Tatler (Catherine’s boyfriend); and many of Toby’s Oxford contemporaries, just embarking on their adult lives, ‘all of them with their ideas and bow ties and plans and objections’. Toby is about to start work at the Guardian; his girlfriend, Sophie Tipper, is a ‘highly promising’ actress. ‘Highly promising’ is the ironic judgment of Paul Tompkins, known as Polly, ‘a noise, a recurrent clatter of bitchery and ambition, a kind of monster of the Union and the MCR, throughout Nick’s years in college’, who has ‘recently started in some promising capacity in Whitehall’. Sam Zeman is a ‘curly-headed genius who’d gone straight into Kesslers’ on twenty thousand a year’: ‘Nick loved Sam because he was an economist but he’d read everything and played the viola and took a flattering interest in people less sublimely omniscient than himself.’
The bright young things wind up at the end of the party in Toby’s bedroom, smoking dope and talking crap. Nick misses an assignation he made with one of the waiters, a boy called Tristão (after wandering off through ‘a side door into a brown passageway’, he found himself in a pantry; they agreed to meet by the main stairs at three o’clock). Toby and Wani Ouradi, an astonishingly beautiful boy whose father owns a vast supermarket empire, sneak ostentatiously and shockingly into Toby’s bathroom to take cocaine: Nick remembers this ‘tensely’ a few weeks later, when he goes to see Scarface with Leo; ‘the film confirmed his worst suspicions’ about the drug. It’s hard to like Toby’s friends, wallowing ignorantly in the trappings of their privilege, but still relatively easy to forgive them: they’re almost too young to know better.
Part Two skips ahead to 1986. Leo is out of the picture. (As, indeed, is the unnamed home secretary the ambitious Tories at Toby’s party were so eager to ingratiate themselves with: Leon Brittan was shuffled to the DTI in 1985, and resigned from the government the following year over the Westland affair.) Nick is having a secret affair with Wani: it’s secret inasmuch as the people they know don’t know, including Wani’s fiancée; it’s no secret to the stray men they pick up for cocaine-fuelled threesomes back at Wani’s Kensington apartment. To explain the amount of time they spend together, Nick has a job at Wani’s film production company, Ogee. The name was Nick’s idea: an ogee is a shallow S-shaped curve, Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, ‘pure expression, decorative not structural’. Looking at the ogees in Wani’s bedframe, and in Wani’s body, Nick lazily wonders if it isn’t time for an updated Analysis of Beauty.
The ogee may not have a structural purpose in architecture, but Hollinghurst uses it to structure his novel. The trajectory of Part One is an optimistic curve, with a rising gradient: everyone seems to be heading towards greater things. In Part Two, the curve changes direction: the gradient falls. Toby has given up on left-wing journalism, if it hasn’t given up on him, and set up his own company, presumably with family money; just what he does is never made clear. When Wani gives Nick a cheque for £5000, because he’s ‘just fed up with paying for you the whole fucking time’ – a shocking enough act in itself, though Nick tells himself, absurdly, that it ‘was quite a witty remark’, and decides to take ‘the roughness of it as a covert tenderness’ – Nick goes to lovely Sam Zeman, who’s been a banker for three years now, for advice on what to do with the money. Sam takes him out to lunch on expenses, and tells Nick to give him the cash so he can invest it for him. His parting words are: ‘Shall we say 3 per cent commission?’ Again, Nick persuades himself, ‘later’, that this is ‘a good, optimistic thing, with the proper stamp of business to it’.
Meanwhile, the public occasions continue, including an excruciating lunch party at Wani’s parents’ house, and a hilarious fête in Barwick, at which Gerald is ridiculously determined to defeat a bespectacled socialist in a welly-whanging contest (who can throw the rubber boot furthest wins). At the moment of Gerald’s greatest triumph – Margaret Thatcher attending his silver wedding party – Nick and Wani are upstairs with Tristão and several grammes of coke. Wani ‘sniffed as he licked and sucked, and gleaming mucus, flecked with blood and undissolved powder, trailed out of his famous nose into the waiter’s lap . . . Downstairs the prime minister was leaving.’ There is, superficially, a contrast between the two scenes. Yet Wani is the rawest embodiment of Thatcherism in the novel: brutally rich, peerlessly selfish, with a rapacious, insatiable appetite – for cocaine, sex, pornography, power, money. Wani can’t last: by the end of the book, he is dying of Aids. Not that there is a simple moral to be drawn from this: Aids strikes indiscriminately, in the novel as in life. Nick is HIV negative only because, as he says, ‘I was lucky, and then I was . . . careful.’
The third and final part of the novel, ‘The End of the Street’, is set in 1987. The narrative spans the time, publicly, between the two elections that returned Thatcher to power; privately, between Nick’s arrival at and departure from the Feddens’ house. On Black Monday, 19 October 1987, more than £50 billion was wiped off share values in the City. At the same time, Gerald Fedden’s political career comes to an abrupt end, in a midden of sexual and financial sleaze, a foretaste of what was to come for the whole of the Tory Party (one of the novel’s unspoken ironies is that Thatcher’s real heir did enter Parliament in 1983, only on the other side of the House). The public is overwhelmed by the private, as increasingly salacious revelations make their way into the tabloids. None of it is news to the reader of the novel, of course, who is the one person exempt from Nick’s observation to Toby that ‘really secrets are sort of impersonal. They’re simply things that can’t be told, irrespective of who they can’t be told to.’ That ‘simply’ is revealingly redundant, a reminder that secrets are rarely simple things.
Nick holds an uncertain position in the world he moves in: he is there because the others want him to be; he isn’t wealthy enough to survive on his own. What he has to offer is a refined aesthetic sense, the ability to appreciate in elegant sentences the beautiful things that the people around him are able to buy. He doesn’t make beautiful things himself, but he does, by the way that he sees them, make things beautiful – both for the other characters and for the reader. Arguing with Gerald about Richard Strauss, he is not unlike a court jester, speaking beauty to power. Like everything else, his talent is corruptible: towards the end of the novel, Nick, who has never shown anything but scorn for Merchant Ivory costume dramas, says that his screenplay for an adaptation of The Spoils of Poynton, which Wani’s production company is never going to make, is ‘the best fruit of his passion for Henry James’. His services are also expendable: gay and lacking in means, Nick makes a perfect scapegoat when things turn sour. And for all his verbal dexterity, he doesn’t know how to begin to write a letter of condolence to the mother of one of his ex-boyfriends who has died of Aids; but then there are some things which no words will ever be adequate to.