This is, perhaps, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, and yet it was also ultimately a book that had me not exactly spellbound but committed to it. At first, I wasn’t sure. Somehow, despite his Booker prize for The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst was not a writer clearly on my radar so to speak. It wasn’t until I saw him interviewed courtesy of the BBC earlier this year that I thought, “There’s someone whose work I ought to read.” Then my current copy of The Line of Beauty was given to me by a friend with a note attached: “not a fan; do not return.” And as I began the work, I could see why the earlier reader had given up. The characters populating this novel and their hedonistic lifestyles are far from endearing.
In 1983, Nick Guest, recently down from Oxford with a first, begins post-graduate work on Henry James at UCL and lodges in the Notting Hill home of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden, son of Gerald Fedden, the conservative MP for Nick’s home town Barwick, and Gerald’s wife Rachel, the sister of Lord Kessler. Even though Toby “was rarely there, . . Nick had been passed on [to the Feddens] as a friend to. . . [Toby’s] little sister [Catherine] and to their hospitable parents. He was a friend of the family” (4). He remains in Notting Hill until 1987 living on the edges of a wealthy, greedy, ambitious world.
Through Nick’s eyes, we see the Britain of the mid-eighties, a world of post Falkland War nationalism, of financial deregulation, of sexual licence and indulgence, a time when greed carried a veneer of respectability, and over it all the shadow of AIDS.
Despite being told very early in the novel that there was “something” about Nick that the Feddens “trusted, a gravity, a certain shy polish” (4), I wasn’t sure, when I began, whether I actually cared what happened to Nick Guest or not. He appeared to be a selfish, parasitic, insecure social-climber. What was there to evoke any empathy?
And yet. Nick is not the only greedy parasite in the novel, not the only character clawing a way to the centre of power and sucking all the pleasure possible out of the journey. This is a novel about the eighties after all. Guest by name and situation, Nick is the one expected to leave when things go wrong, the one expected to be grateful for what is given him, the one whose status condemns him to an “appreciative aimlessness” (271), the one given the not so comfortable room, the one who is expected to tidy things up, and who becomes ultimately the scapegoat, the one to bear the Feddens’ anguish for the catastrophe that we know must happen.
The novel achieves some of its effects from a certain mordant wit and from allusions to other works and other writers. Yes, they contribute to building Nick’s character as a Ph.D. student, but they also draw our attention to what Hollinghurst is doing; they place his novel into the tradition of its predecessors. I was struck particularly by a scene fairly early in the work where Lord Kessler is showing Nick his library and Nick takes down a copy of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. One cannot help but make the connection between Trollope’s critique of the financial upheavals and greed of the 1870s and Hollinghurst’s own work. Adding irony to irony, Lord Kessler comments that Trollope’s “very good on money” (48), but the volume Nick is holding, part of a set with “an armorial bookplate” actually has “its pages uncut” (48).
In its time setting and in some of its concerns, the novel reminded me somewhat of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, also a novel about ambition, about being on the margins, about defining and expressing one’s sexuality. But Kureishi’s novel was published in 1990, so is much closer than Hollinghurst’s to being a novel that reflects rather than recalls its period. Published in 2004, The Line of Beauty is already in a position to look back almost a generation, to take advantage of the dramatic irony of its readers’ knowledge about the times through which Nick Guest is living. Reading it for the first time, as I did, a decade after its publication, I found myself wondering, just how long ago really are the eighties? Yes, I know, thirty years, but psychologically, how far away are they?
Politically, socially, and technologically, the early to mid eighties seem far removed from us, and yet for those of us of an age with Nick Guest or older, the eighties, even if half a lifetime or more removed from us, stand as a pivotal time, a time when the world changed, especially in Britain. At the heart of that change, of course, was Margaret Thatcher, and “the lady” is at the centre of this novel. Although it isn’t about her, she is an important figure in the lives of the characters of The Line of Beauty. Nick lives in the house of an ambitious Tory MP, and even dances with the Prime Minister. The social and political climate that she created changed the social fabric of Britain in many ways. And yet, she, too, had to fall. And it is this consciousness that we have as readers that gives some of the poignancy to the novel. We know, unlike Nick, Wani, Gerald and Rachel, how this will all end. Even Margaret Thatcher will fall from her self-elected grace; the financial bubble will burst; the dream will die just as Nick’s first lover Leo dies and Wani is doomed to die.
While this foreknowledge on the part of the reader contributes to the elegiac mood of the novel, The Line of Beauty is more than an engagement with and critique of the historical past. Its title, drawn from Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty, suggests that the work will address the whole idea of beauty and beauty’s relationship to the connectedness of things, and even to the moral foundation of things. It suggests that the novel engages with ways of seeing and being, and with ways in which there is order in variety. I found myself thinking of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just published only five years before Hollinghurst’s novel. Further, Hollinghurst allows us more than a glimpse of the shade of Henry James in his concern for moral oppositions. Terry Eagleton suggests that “the most ‘beautiful’ act for James—the meeting point of the ethical and the aesthetic—is that of renunciation” (The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, 231). I would argue that Hollinghurst presents a similar view in The Line of Beauty.
Nick at the end of the novel, unsure of his future, of whether he even has a future, looks back at the street where he has lived for four years and realises a “love of the world that was shockingly unconditional” (438), but he has given up the keys to the “big white Notting Hill House” (4) and “the sleek bronze Yale for the communal gardens” (437).