The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

10/04/04, The Times

Suddenly the literary world seems to be thrummingly alive with the afterlives of Henry James. Last month, there was Colm Tóibín’s triumphant imagining of four years of James’s life in The Master, and now we have Alan Hollinghurst’s fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, in which James’s shadow and authorial presence stalks his luminous pages, sometimes glimpsed as a reflected blur passing fleetingly across the mirror of the fiction, here caught in the allusions, homages and quotations, there transparently discussed, read, remembered.

Hollinghurst’s protagonist, Nick Guest, is writing a doctoral thesis on James and, later, scripting, even more desultorily, The Spoils of Poynton, for a possible, but not very probable, film in his capacity as the ‘artistic director’ of Ogee, the trendy, hollow and ineffectual ‘art and design’ office set up by his beautiful and chilling multimillionaire lover, Wani Ouradi. But all this provides just the vehicle for Hollinghurst to pay homage to the Master in this astonishingly Jamesian fourth novel, a crafty, glittering, sidelong bid by a contemporary master of English prose to be considered heir to the Master himself.

For a novel that spans only four years, 1983 to 1987, the years which returned Mrs Thatcher to power, it seems to encompass a world as capacious as any in a James novel, surprising in a book set in a deliberately narrow world – the elite section of Oxford and the posh Kensington residence of Gerald Fedden, Tory MP, and his wealthy wife, Rachel. It is here that Nick Guest (a Jamesian name, that), college friend of Gerald and Rachel’s son, Toby, lives as a syncretic and precarious confection of lodger, house guest, housekeeper, and caretaker of Toby’s manic depressive sister Catherine. Nick initially moves in as Toby’s friend – he’s hopelessly in love with Toby, who is straight – and then becomes a fixture in the house, gaining entry to the world of the eighties’ ruling class, all opulent sheen and menace, tawdry glitter and ferocious snobbery.
Nick is the novel’s ‘centre of consciousness’ through which every event in the novel is filtered. In that first summer at the Feddens’, Nick, clear-skinned, curly-haired and only just twenty, has his very first taste of love, in a relationship with a black council worker, Leo. The novel catches all the giddiness and pulse-racing, the levitating excitement and anxieties of first love, in a long-held frisson of delighted transgressions: of unprotected sex, of daring juxtapositions of class and race, of the sheer anomaly of gayness in this world.  In the rapacious and predatory Britain of Thatcher, with its ‘greed is good’ mantra, Nick is an outsider; while everyone around him pursues wealth and power with amoral ruthlessness, Nick is a pure aesthete, in love with beauty, the singular and unchangeable object of his desires, the consuming end-point of the trajectory of his pursuit. His later relationship with Wani is predicated solely on this; when Catherine confesses that she didn’t think Wani would be Nick’s type, he replies, with perfect honesty, ‘I just think he’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.’

The novel sets up the oppositions as in a majestically complex sonata – theme and wrestling, divergent, contesting countertheme – in which Nick’s uneasy position as both outsider and participant, simultaneously collusive and detached, measures the very disjunctions, fractures and incongruities of Thatcherite England. In a way, Hollinghurst’s novel is a companion piece to those two other demolitions of the eighties: Amis’s Money and Coe’s What a Carve Up!, but whereas those two earlier novels take the scalpel to the period with a manic, almost possessed, energy of hatred, Hollinghurst’s technique is that of a surgeon’s with his cruel steel, the savagery delicately nuanced and evasive, the skewering graceful and balletic. This is style as weapon as objet d’art.

In the moments when Hollinghurst does ungloved satire, every turn of phrase can be a rapier thrust. When Lady Kimbolton, fundraiser for the Conservative Party hears of filthy rich Lebanese Bertrand Ouradi’s hefty contribution to the Tories, she brays ‘Splendid’ and gives ‘him a smile in which political zeal managed almost entirely to disguise some older instinct about Middle Eastern shopkeepers’. The very Englishness of the novel lies in this, that every sentence, every subtlety of register is capable of giving its reader a warning flash of the treacherous floes and icebergs of class entrenchment and social difference barely submerged under it.

As Nick’s skewed relationship with Wani, fuelled by prodigious amounts of cocaine, cruising, money, deception and porn, unfolds and then inevitably unravels, the urban pastoral seems already foredoomed to a hurtling disaster. Both AIDS and greed, the malign gods of the eighties, proclaiming their triumphant Et in Arcadia nos, shatter the world of the aesthete and dent the world of high politics. It is here, in the final section, that the novel becomes a lingeringly tender and almost unbearably moving rendering of evanescence, loss and irreversible endings.

For all its scope and resounding success as a ‘novel of the times’, The Line of Beauty remains, ultimately, a novel of immense interiority. Hollinghurst is glorious with the minute and infinitesimal shifts in moods, in the almost uncalibrated fluctuations of the inner meniscus, while his use of architecture and nature as a barometer of the inner weather is the perfect refinement of the pathetic fallacy, a resonant communion between the inside and the outside. The moments of beauty in Hollinghurst are also moments of truth as in no other author. To echo another aesthete, if all art really does aspire to the condition of music, Hollinghurst’s achieves it with a radiant splendour and richness unparalleled in contemporary fiction.