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May 05, 2005

The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst

Posted by David Womersley

The Line of Beauty
by Alan Hollinghurst
Pp. 501. London: Picador, 2004
Paperback, £7.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.

Just under half-way through this justly fêted novel, its central character, Nick is lying in a post-coital daze looking up at the canopy of his lover's bed which is made up "of two transecting ogees crowned by a boss like a huge wooden cabbage". In reverie, he expounds to himself the meaning of the ogee curve (p. 200):

The double curve was Hogarth's "line of beauty", the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement.
The image of the double curve recurs throughout the book: Nick is involved in launching a magazine entitled Ogee and funded by Wani, his rich lover; the ogee lurks in the bodily curves of other of Nick's lovers, such as Leo; it hides in the lid of a piano; it abounds at Hawkeswood, the sumptuous country house of the Kessler family (evidently modelled on, respectively, Waddesdon and the Rothschilds); it is there even, as Nick imagines trying to explain to the highly-strung Catherine, as a explanatory principle of the circumstantial intersections which comprise the novel(pp. 349-50):
He couldn't unwind the line of beauty for Catherine, because it explained almost everything, and to her it would seem a trivial delusion, it would seem mad, as she said.
But a leitmotif may recur in a work of art while nevertheless doing no useful aesthetic work by so recurring. What is the explanatory power of the line of beauty which justifies, not only its prevalence in this novel, but its adoption as the novel's title?

The Line of Beauty appears to fall into a familiar form. At a casual glance, it tells the story of the sentimental education of a callow protagonist set against the background of the Thatcher years. Nick, just down from Oxford, is beginning a doctorate in the English Department at UCL. His subject is stylistic beauty in the work of his hero, Henry James. He is lodging, not in some estaminet of East London or multi-occupancy dive in Finchley, but in the altogether more eligible surroundings of Kensington Park Gardens and the opulent home of the Feddens. Toby Fedden had been a college friend of Nick's, and was the object of his undeclared yearnings: he is making fumbling attempts to begin what is clearly going to be a deeply undistinguished career in journalism. Gerald Fedden has just – the novel begins in 1983 – been elected to the Commons as Conservative MP. His wife, Rachel, is a Kessler, and has brought that family's deep pockets to the marriage. Their fragile daughter Catherine has a tendency to self-harm.

With this mise-en-scène and this cast of characters, a certain line of development is foreshadowed. Our hero comes to London, learns how to put his homosexuality into practice, develops his superior aesthetic insight with ever-greater refinement, and eventually triumphs. By contrast the Feddens, in thrall to the money, power and willingness to embrace the methods of intimidation for which "Thatcherism" is the bien-pensant shorthand, come dramatically unstuck and end up confounded in the smash-up of that political experiment. We imagine we are in for a gay Tom Jones, with the Feddens corporately taking the part of Blifil. But in fact that is not what we are given; and the far richer and stranger novel that Hollinghurst has written is shaped and sequenced with such careful art that the line of beauty represents, not only its aesthetic arrangement, but also its moral insight.

This is a novel of wonderful comic reversal (it includes some exceptional comic set pieces, such as the birthday party at Hawkeswood, or the holiday spent at the Feddens' French manor house, or Gerald Feddens' visit to his constituency, Barwick, where Nick's parents live), and the principle of reversal – "of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement" – applies to the development of the plot, and in particular to the relation between what we might initially have thought of as the main strand of action and the contrasting backdrop of Thatcherite politics. In Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, that structuring opposition of sensitive gay sexuality and brutal right-wing politics supplied the material for the novel's final anagnorisis. But in The Line of Beauty the two elements – gay sexuality and Thatcherite loyalties – converge.

The scenes of gay sex are not the subject of lyrical idealisation, and the potential for exploitation, degradation and self-loss in homosexual relationships comes ever more sharply into focus. Foreground and background, instead of contrasting, begin to merge. Nick's growing confidence in homosexuality is as much an experiment as were the policies of Mrs Thatcher, and both will end in tears. The novel closes with Nick on his way to collect the result of a test, and it "came over him that the test result would be positive" (p. 500). The two lovers of his whom we have met in the novel, Leo and Wani, have both died of AIDS. Leo, whom Nick sodomises at the beginning of the novel, has a former lover, Pete, who is from the outset unspecifically "sick". The act which makes Nick, who up till then is a virgin, feel that "he'd been switched on for the first time" (p. 40) is the act which, a few years later, will kill him. Exhilaration and aftermath: this cruellest of double curves applies equally to the innovative sexuality and the innovative politics of the eighties. So the central moment in the novel – the point at which the ogees transect – comes during a party at the Feddens' attended by Mrs Thatcher. Nick, slightly elated with stimulants, asks her to dance (p. 385):

Gerald saw the PM, his idol, who had said before that she wouldn't dance, but who now, a couple of whiskies on, was getting down rather sexily with Nick.
The moment represents "a sudden shifting of the centre of gravity", but it is also the moment, with its "nimble footwork, the light grasp of the upper arm … [and] a deeper liveliness", which marks the reverse of the double curve, and establishes it as a line of pathos, sympathy and judgement, as well as of beauty.

The presiding genius of The Line of Beauty is designedly Henry James, and the comparison is made good. In a short period when novelists have, it seems, been eager to discover stimulus in James [see, for example, my review of David Lodge's Author, Author], Hollinghurst is the most truly Jamesian, but not – as is often and slackly supposed – on the grounds of what is sometimes mockingly referred to as his "achingly beautiful" prose style. It is rather the compassionate pitilessness of vision which recalls James – James who, as Nick remarks, could see through everyone. But The Line of Beauty also invites comparison with another great novelist of the fin-de-siècle: Zola. We find here none of Zola's would-be scientific scaffolding, of course. But the project of the Rougon-Macquart series – imaginatively to explore the conditions of life under a particular political dispensation – is also, although on a smaller scale, the ambition of The Line of Beauty. Nana ends with its heroine, poxed, suppurating and virtually deliquescing, upstairs in a squalid flat while below the Parisian mob yells "À Berlin" and clamours for the débâcle of Sedan. In 1987, at the moment of the election victory which would, in the end, bring on Thatcherism's own Sedan, Nick goes off to collect his test result. Zola and James: good company.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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What an apposite review for election day. I wonder how future novelists will write about/look back upon the Blair era - what will they see as its central features? I suppose we already have Ian McEwan's "Saturday" set on February 15th, 2003 - the day of trhe big anti-Iraq war march. It is interesting to think about how different political eras have been considered by different novelists. I suppose the basic trite "intelligentsia" critique of the Thatcher era is one of "greed", "selfishness", "loads-a-money" etc.

Posted by: Jane at May 5, 2005 01:09 PM

Ogee, the line that curves from one extreme to an other, a line that reverses itself and creates tension and beauty simultaneously. In the novel at one extreme the references to the title are quite blunt, the line of the crack of Leo's butt, a line of powder. Straight lines leading to uncomplicated pleasures. At the other extreme the references are more subtle; the reversal of fortunes for all the major characters; the opposition between the readers perceptions of the characters and events vs. the protagonist perceptions of those same characters and events. Our pleasure in reading the novel lay in the twists the author has us navigate and in the connection we make between the extremes of the novel in both form and content.

Posted by: Line Noise at September 23, 2006 05:19 PM

A wonderful, full review of a fascinating and beautifully subtle book. The final comparison to Zola, in addition to the common James comparison, is very interesting. Thanks for providing real food-for-thought.

Posted by: Matthew (@thebibliofreak) at November 4, 2011 01:22 PM
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