The Line of Beauty
‘What would Henry James have made of us?’, wonders an ambitious secretary to Gerald Fedden, the Tory MP whose house and family lies at the centre of The Line of Beauty. Hollinghurst’s protagonist Nick Guest, an ardent follower of ‘the Master’, provides an answer that, one feels, the author’s own work modestly strives for:
He’d have been very kind to us, he’d have said how wonderful we were and how beautiful we were, he’d have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn’t have realized until just before the end that he’d seen right through us.
Henry James’ shade was a much-noted presence when the Booker shortlist was announced earlier this year—as Hollinghurst’s hero’s hero, the eponymous subject of Colm Toíbín’s The Master, and the subject of a notably absent longlister, David Lodge’s Author Author. While the latter two use James’ biography for their material, The Line of Beauty makes his influence felt in the texture of the prose itself: the third-person voice, filtered through Nick’s mind, is languid, at times complex, and beautiful. Hollinghurst avoids mere pastiche but is not ashamed to acknowledge the debt. Nick’s summary of The Spoils of Poynton which, late in the book, he is attempting rather non-committally to adapt for the screen, could serve Hollinghurst’s tale just as well. It is a ‘bleak’ comedy ‘about someone who loves things more than people’, and Nick is surrounded by characters who fit that description. Equally, Nick’s thesis on ‘style that hides things and reveals things at the same time’ informs the structure of the society and the novel in which he exists.
The exposure of privacy is at the heart of the novel, in two parallel and socially opposed worlds: the corruption of Thatcher’s revolution, figured in the ‘Tory sleaze’ which lurks in the background from the beginning of the book and finally explodes in Gerald Fedden’s face and Nick’s discovery of the hidden yet public gay scene of the 1980s, which leads him to a transition from chaste adoration of unattainable straight men to active sexual encounter. The latter has been something of a media fixation (culminating perhaps in the Daily Express’ bizarre headline ‘Booker Won by Gay Sex’), but in fact, Hollinghurst himself has admitted that in comparison to his previous works (including The Folding Star, nominated for the Booker in 1994), the sex scenes themselves are comparatively chaste. When Nick loses his virginity—perhaps the most explicit sexual description in the novel—he thinks to himself how he has ‘never seen it described in a book’, a tacit acknowledgement that a young man twenty years later could not say the same. Certainly there is, as Hollinghurst has acknowledged in interviews, less political and literary urgency in writing about gay sex in 2004. Instead, the interest lies in the context, the actual social and physical space, in which these encounters occur.
The first sexual experience takes place in a West London private garden, to which, as the Feddens’ guest, Nick holds a key. The line between private and public is blurred again and again over the course of the novel and is central to the map Hollinghurst outlines of gay London in the 1980s—a city where a tube station toilet is famous for having been cruised by Rudolf Nureyev. It is that same combination of promiscuity and enforced silence which leads to another masked presence in the text. Early on we hear of ‘illness’ but even when a friend of the Feddens’ dies of AIDS, the subject is quietly absorbed into that realm of the ‘vulgar and unsafe,’ a subject which the upper classes efface. Privacy, as a key Conservative ideal since the Victorian era from which Rachel Fedden’s wealth originates, is revealed to be both a privilege and a prison. Nick is allowed to remain in the house only on the unspoken assumption that his sexuality will remain closeted. The political disaster that strikes Fedden at the climax of the novel similarly turns upon the revelation of hidden transactions. A scandal involving insider trading is followed swiftly by the discovery of his affair with his secretary, but it is the gay Guest, the lover of a millionaire’s dying son, who becomes a scapegoat, sacrificed in order to allow the Fedden family to retreat back into the security of their unvoiced alliances.
The Feddens circle remains an impenetrably exclusive environment throughout. Hollinghurst’s satire of the 1980s cult of money cunningly positions (and helpfully labels) its hero as only a ‘Guest’ in the world of the fabulously wealthy. As such, he is at once fascinated by and excluded from that world and its mores. Nick’s first association with his hero Henry James is that he too can ‘stand a great deal of gilt’ (a clever play on words)—he loves ‘beautiful things’—but for much of the novel, and for the Feddens’ strata in general, this beauty is confined by possessions and wealth. As Hollinghurst has publicly explained, Nick is ‘not just looking on in horror, but is actually susceptible to the glamour of it all’. All of this—the brilliance and sparkle, a veneer for corruption and emptiness, the social whirl, and the gaze of the outsider-inside fascinated with the society he observes in one rather oblique young man (first Toby Fedden, then the young millionaire Wani Ouradi)—recalls another American novelist and another Nick, as if the narrator of The Great Gatsby has at last emerged from the closet. Hollinghurst’s novel, like Fitzgerald’s, traces the transition from old to new money, and similarly observes that behind the apparent difference between schooled, refined elegance and brash showiness is the same hollow love of ‘things more than people’. While in the earlier novel it is Gatsby who owns shelves of unread, uncut books, here it is an English lord who keeps uncut ‘classics’ in a ‘gilded cage’—he, of course, has read them elsewhere; his library is precious for the objects, not the words, it contains. Nick notes that the ‘new’ Lebanese millionaire Bertrand Ouradi’s art collection, which he regards with distaste, is a part of the ‘necessary trappings of his position’, sensing vulgarity in the disparity between class and money; however, the same might equally be said of the Feddens’ and their extended family’s possessions, from the gift of a Gauguin to a performance of classical music in their drawing room (one of several brilliant satirical set-pieces).
Nick’s social and sexual emergence—and subsequently his dramatic fall from grace—is foregrounded against and parallels directly the boom and bust, the promise and the disillusion of 1980s Thatcherite Britain. The satire hinges, like much of Henry James’ work, upon issues of class, which is ultimately at the root of Nick’s outsider status. As the son of an antiques dealer, whose intimacy with the interiors of stately homes has in the past been that of the clock-winder, not the guest, he is ‘a puzzle […] in many contexts – he was often being interviewed obliquely, to see how he fitted in’. The subject of money or class origin itself is occluded by the ‘upper-class economy’ of speech that Nick admires and imitates. Hollinghurst, like James, has a keen ear for the inflections and elisions of upper class social chatter, and an equally keen eye for the proprieties of the semi-rural middle class (again drawing parallels between 1890s and 1980s social convention). Pages of dialogue are sustained with the merest hint of intervention from the author. At other times, he throws out an off-the-cuff portrait in perfect miniature: witness the lady who wins ‘a half-bottle of Mira Mart gin’ at a village fête, ‘and laughed, and blushed violently, as if she’d already drunk it and disgraced herself’.
In this brittle and thrilling new world, the ‘line of beauty’—which might be variously figured in the novel as a bloodline, an aesthetic ideal, or a literary style—appropriately recalls the ritual of cocaine addiction as well. The drug becomes an integral part of Nick’s sex life, social life, and sense of self; that ritual, ‘all done with money’, as Wani observes, is linked explicitly to the enabling power of wealth, inducing the feeling that ‘everything had become possible’. Like the gilt-laden possessions of the first half of the novel, coke exerts a fascination for Nick that injects a certain glamour into his life. His intoxicated vision is handled with finesse by Hollinghurst, whose style takes on a hard quickness and boldness, narrowing his adjectival range to all that glitters, capturing the ‘gleaming’, ‘brilliant’, ‘bright’ surfaces which Nick fails to see beyond so that we too are caught up in a trick of the light… until it is all deflated by a characteristically piercing observation, the realisation that the drug is ‘pure compulsion, though it gave them the delusion of choice, and of wit in making it’.
As the second half of the novel progresses, Nick’s experience of ‘come-down’ increasingly dominates, and elegant, remote Wani Ouradi’s ‘love of corruption’ gradually erodes his glamour. The description of his flaccid, coke-fuelled porn marathons must surely rank among the most uncomfortable reading of recent years. Hollinghurst has a gift for observing those states of being which lack purity or grandeur. His range of emotional nuance, worthy of James himself, reveals an unrelenting honesty in the face of the pettiness, sordidness, meanness and self-absorption which accompany emotions of a supposedly grander scale. Later, when Wani is dying of AIDS, Nick feels himself somehow in possession of that story, so that it becomes ‘his own drama’; the notion of our responses as a performance which we watch ourselves enacting recurs throughout the novel and is, I think, among Hollinghurst’s most acute observations about human behaviour.
The novel as a whole, tracing the middle years of the decade, has a refined balance of structure that reflects Nick’s myriad invocations of the ‘line of beauty’ itself. Taking Hogarth’s sweeping curve and finding its most perfect example in the dip of a man’s spine, Nick mirrors the figure to make an ‘ogee’, the double curve of a window, door or angel’s wings, also paralleling the high and subsequent come-down of cocaine use and the classic rise-and-fall narrative in miniature. The two parts of the novel each accelerate towards a politically-charged party (first Toby’s twenty-first birthday, then the Feddens’ wedding anniversary) and then fall away; the novel begins and ends with Nick entering and leaving the empty Notting Hill house, in very different circumstances, but both entering and departing with nothing. On the level of syntax, for all the bite and sharpness of Hollinghurst’s prose, there is as much that is genuinely lovely, as when Nick, looking out over London from the privileged vantage point of a Notting Hill balcony, feels that ‘he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista or vision of the night, and then held there’. Like the thrill of Fitzgerald’s Long Island evenings, this description succeeds in transcending the world of property so that we read on poised with Nick at the start of a new decade, full of promise. Hollinghurst’s achievement, at the last, mirrors Nick’s own: he retains a sense of the beautiful, and asserts its possibility, against and within a world of deceptively brilliant surfaces.
Amy Sackville has just completed an MPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford. Her thesis focused on James Joyce and Salman Rushdie. She has recently published work in the James Joyce Broadsheet.