Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The Line of Beauty


By Alan Hollinghurst

Here is, at last, a new writer in my library. But my first encounter with Hollinghurst has been a bit of a shocker. The explicit gay sex scenes and the unabashed depiction of drug use overwhelm first impressions. This mix of coke, sex and exquisite language proves to be a heady cocktail.

Nick Guest is a guest, a paying one at that, at the Feddens, an upper class English family with political ambitions. He is an outsider, an imposter in the Fedden world of power, glamour and wealth. Yet, Nick with his passion for Henry James and his intimate knowledge of aesthetics is the true inheritor of beauty. The Feddens might have a Gaurdi on their mantelpiece but it is Nick who understands its true worth. Nick is intoxicated with the idea of being a part of the Feddens because they represent to him a world that he should truly belong to. Yet in Gatsby-like fashion, it is evident he never does.

Gatsby’s 20-s Jazz-age America is Nick’s 80-s Tory England. It is an age where there is an impression of giddy success, where things are hurtling towards disaster, yet life goes on blithely, almost festively. Gerald Fedden is a Tory MP and his wife Rachel, whose house it is, is the one with the aristocratic title. Their son Toby is Nick’s college mate and introduces him to the household. His sister Catherine is the disturbed and rebellious child who the family does not know how to deal with. It is Nick who gets the closest to her, yet ultimately fails to understand exactly how disturbed she really is.

We are treated to 4 years of Nick’s life at the Feddens, exposed to a world of social privilege and pretension, of unapologetic Tory arrogance (with even an evening where Margaret Thatcher herself makes an appearance), of decadence beyond control. Nick himself remains a fascinated observer at first but we find him slowly entering this world and becoming a part of its dissolution, all the while remaining at some central level detached from it. His first encounter with homosexual sex in a garden is detailed dramatically, vividly. The sex scenes then become repetitive and increasingly casual, there is a lot of drug use (the coke line is another line of beauty) especially when Nick gets involved with a Middle-Eastern tycoon, a Dodi-type character, with whom Nick founds a magazine Ogee. Ogee (the curve that is a characteristic of a style of Gothic architecture) is the book’s real line of beauty, and proves to be the culmination of Nick’s quest for the beautiful. AIDS rears it ugly head, snatching away Nick’s lovers one by one. And as the Feddens’ personal and political lives start slowly disintegrating, Nick finds himself the outsider again, never truly able to belong. Yet, we know that at heart, Nick is the observer, able to see the society and age for what it really is – a shallow, bigoted and pretentious one.

Hollinghurst writes beautifully. His language is the best part of the book and some passages just beg to be underlined. While describing Toby’s liking of showing off his rower’s body, Hollinghurst writes ‘It was the easy charity of beauty’, capturing the unrequited longing in Nick beautifully. Nick’s observations about the people and society around him are exquisite. He calls the world a ‘looking-glass world’, where people are constantly looking around to seek validation of their worth. Describing Paul Tomkins, a fellow-Oxfordite, he says ‘It was a mystery to him that fat old Polly, who was rutted with acne scars and completely lacking in ordinary kindness, had such a conspicuous success with men… Nothing that lasted, but startling triumphs of will, opportunism and technique, even so.’ And describing the atmosphere at the Ogee office, he says ‘So he prattled on, mixing up sex and scholarship, and enjoying his wanderings away from he strict truth. In fact that was really the fun of it. And it seemed to fit in with the air of fantasy in the Ogee office, the distant sense of an avoided issue.’ Almost every page has such exquisite turns of phrase, and it kept me going, even when the sex and the coke began to pall.

It took me a long time to get to this book – it was the 2004 Booker winner – yet I am glad I waited. I would have been disappointed with it if I had read it along with the hype surrounding it. Now was a good time – away from distractions, I could savour the delicious language and setting at my own time and pace.