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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 31st, 2004


The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst

The double curve

A review by Henry Hitchings

The title of Alan Hollinghurst's fourth novel comes from William Hogarth's aesthetic manifesto, The Analysis of Beauty (1753). Hogarth argued that there are no straight lines in nature; that everything is bent. His "line of beauty", the serpentine caress of natural grace, was most memorably expressed in a delicious double curve -- "the ogee", as he called it -- which he illustrated with images of harps, chair legs and women's whalebone corsets. To Nick, the scholarly aesthete who is Hollinghurst's protagonist, Hogarth's examples seem miserably anaemic. "Really", he reflects, "it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty": his life is dedicated to the quest for living, breathing (often panting) embodiments of the world's "animating principle".

The pursuit begins in 1983. The Conservatives have just swept to Election victory, and, fresh out of Oxford, Nicholas Guest -- note the surname, deliberately suggestive of parvenu detachment -- is living with the Feddens, a grand English family, in their West London house. Gerald Fedden is one of the 101 new Conservative MPs, keen to make an impression. In contrast with Gerald's obsessive self-advancement, and with the careerism of Gerald's pliable son, Toby, Nick has settled on the less worldly business of postgraduate study -- specifically, a thesis concerned with "style" in the works of Conrad, Meredith and Henry James. This may sound suspiciously open-ended, a subject for an old-fashioned essay rather than a doctorate, but Nick has a nostalgic affection for belles-lettres and, as we learn, a reluctance to focus closely on any one object save himself.

Nick is typical of the young men who populate Hollinghurst's novels: beautiful, intelligent, scholarly yet thoughtless, and cocksure to a fault. His hosts are seduced by his "gravity" and "shy polish", but readers are clearly meant to be mesmerized by his wit and perspicacity, the careful carelessness of one of life's natural observers. For Nick is a spectator disguised as an actor, perpetually casting a disenchanted eye over everyone else's meretricious designs. Maybe because he is the son of a provincial antiques dealer, he appraises not just judgements and values, but possessions, the material signifiers of taste.

Appropriately, he is hooked on The Spoils of Poynton, a novel much concerned with furniture, and complacently remarks that he shares with its author the capacity to "stand a great deal of gilt". As we immediately suspect, the pun is intended: Nick ends up with a good deal about which to feel guilty, although he rarely lets the feeling take hold. He doesn't lack principles, but moral accountancy is too prosaic for the racy 1980s. Instead he assumes the role of flaneur.

Fortified by inexperience, he consults the Personals. Through these he meets Leo, a black office worker. The relationship is a sexual education, yet concentrates Nick's powers of disdain. When he visits Leo's pious mother, he recalls his teenage dabblings in community service -- a lesson in "the subtle snobbery of aesthetics". Now he reacts ambiguously to "the little necessary systems" of her domesticity even as he finds them funny, and smirks at Leo's succumbing to the influence of mere "capsule reviews" of films; he is respectful of their tidy self-certainty, and ruffled by his own insistence on a more recondite canon of taste.

Nick's penchant for small observations is relentless; the meagre dimensions of other people's abilities are measured against his own strapping talent. Exhilarated by the discovery of his sexual expertise, he feels that nothing is beyond his reach. He delights in the Feddens' gift of a scent called "Je Promets": his trajectory is upwards, forwards. Leo dumps him, but it barely seems to matter. After all, his prospects are fabulous. The past, on the other hand, reeks of his petit-bourgeois origins.

In a revealing moment, he is anxious lest his dinner jacket, once his great-uncle's, reawaken the "ghost of numberless long-forgotten dinner-dances in Lincolnshire hotels". As he rises with effortless charm, such embarrassing impedimenta must be cast aside. Soon enough the dinner jacket is discarded; and so are his parents (the "smallness" of his father's gin-and-tonics is especially shaming). Yet his swift ascent is not sufficient; fatefully, there is a part of him that craves not just acceptance, but "scandalous acclaim".

The 1980s glide by, and opportunities for scandal are legion. Nick becomes the Feddens' confidant, a troubleshooter capable of dealing with even the most thankless guests a soaring politician has to entertain. The romance of his intimate relationship with the family is counterpointed by less coolly sensuous pleasures. He takes as his lover Wani Ouradi, the beautiful son of a rich Lebanese businessman. Their relationship is explosive: Wani, not yet wise to the threat of AIDS, has a zest for rough trade.

Forever scenting opportunities to make himself dangerously indispensable, Nick even briefly cosies up to Mrs Thatcher, whom he meets at a party. Dressed like a regal Country-and-Western singer, she moves "in her own accelerated element, her own garlanded perspective.... she noticed nothing, and yet she remembered everything". The experience is impressive, even if it troubles Nick's finer feelings. "There is a sort of aesthetic poverty about conservatism", he muses, adding that "blue's an impossible colour". But blue is Nick's colour -- the melancholy shade of suppressed truths, doomed loves, and a sex life that is often athletic, and sometimes voyeuristic, yet rarely fulfilling.

Although Nick is not the novel's narrator, events are consistently seen from his point of view, and the result is that its pages are suffused with a queasy aestheticism. Wani bankrolls an art magazine glutted with images of the "extraordinarily exotic". Nick contributes to the opening issue an article -- sedulously furbished with "photos of brooches, mirrors, lakes, the legs of rococo saints and sofas" -- defining his creative misprision of Hogarth's sensibility. The name of this lavish vanity project, propelled as much by the preening tediousness of a cocaine habit as by his lover's largesse, is Ogee. Wani's father mishears this as "Oh, gee!", and his mother mishears it as "Orgy". The three possibilities elide into one as Nick gorges on the cartoonish rapture of a gilded existence which consists of reading difficult novels, going to parties, and picking up men.

As in Hollinghurst's previous books, the sex is minutely depicted, and there are two kinds of sexual attraction. First there is the obvious, rather stereotyped allure of black men and working-class hunks -- memorably savoured by James in The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), who purchases his pornography from something called the Third World Press in Chicago and, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot, imagines his sex life as "a raid on the inarticulate". Then there is the veneration of Christ-like objects of desire, like Luc in The Folding Star (1994), a male Lolita apparently descended from a sixteenth-century printer who claimed he could trace his ancestry back to the Virgin Mary. Here, it is Wani who fills this role, "beautiful as John the Baptist painted for a boy-loving pope". Whichever of these codes the passion follows, the performance is sumptuously filthy. Of necessity, every male character has his sexual potential assayed. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the case of a waiter whose "dressy trouser-front curved forwards with telling asymmetry", or another's "little jutting bulge to the left, modest, unconscious, but unignorable". But then we have Gerald, with his "confusingly firm buttocks" and --just as confusing -- the "floppy" handkerchief cascading foppishly from his breast pocket, which later "billowed upwards like the flame of a torch"; and Leo, whose handwriting is characterized by its "enormous ascenders".

These priapic estimates are not superfluous. Rather, they are tragic. The rampant nature of HIV infuses the characters' lusts with a deathly significance. While Hollinghurst is not a polemical writer, and appears to resent the corralling of gays into a political regiment, he casts a revealing light on the implications of the virus for homosexual men. He also points up the vastly disingenuous treatment of homosexuality by politicians. This is the novel's main link with The Swimming-Pool Library, to which it is in a loose sense a sequel; in its one overt reference to the earlier book, it briefly revives Denis Beckwith, the "saurian" peer who made it his mission to demonize homosexuality. Here, the supposedly enlightened Gerald, even after several illuminating conversations with Nick, insists on maintaining this culture of intolerance. Appearing on the BBC's Question Time, he laughs off the idea of equal rights ("lunar imbecility"). Yet, as Hollinghurst implies, Gerald and his ilk cause far more damage than any disease: their blithely self-serving policies devastate swaths of Britain, and their insouciant personal conduct (their sexual conduct especially) destroys more families than any amount of gay self-expression.

This social criticism is important to Hollinghurst's art. He delights in sounding the lubricious fathoms of male sexuality, yet combines this with both an unsentimental moral intelligence and an ear for the glorious fatuities of fine living that recalls Thackeray as well as Firbank. Why then is his work not more widely popular? At his best he is an outstanding stylist, capable of distilling a whole life's experience into a withering judgement or a luscious apercu. The architecture of his novels is thrillingly conceived. He has written brilliantly about the solipsism of love, the rituals of homosexuality, the vertigo of passion. Here he returns to these themes, and writes poignantly about the apocalypse of AIDS. Even when he is below his best, there is something memorable on every page, and there is perhaps no contemporary writer in English more shrewd in his sense of how novels should end. Some will suggest that his writing has been marginalized by its flagrant queerness and its opulently pornographic descriptions of sex. But these are strengths, and should have earned him a larger audience of admirers.

The answer is, nonetheless, clearer than ever in The Line of Beauty. More than any of his three previous books it is overwhelmingly snobbish. Even as Hollinghurst pokes fun at his characters and their mannerisms, there is a Jamesian fascination with starchy duchesses and stately dinners with the pageantry of what James termed "bad manners organized". There are perfect touches in his evocation of what he calls the "clatter of bitchery and ambition": the "pompous discretion" of a parliamentarian, the "endless redemptive viva" performed by a student dismayed at failing to get a First. But he celebrates the very things he condemns, and the celebration prevails. There is too much of the "echoing and affirmative" chatter of patrician self-love. The reader tires of what the author has elsewhere labelled the "huge cross-indexed files of sexual anecdote" -- the incestuousness of the "scene", and the tedious mythologies it propagates. At times, moreover, the novel reads like an erotic parody of The Go-Between, a virtuoso study of the awfulness of being English.

Most fatally, there is a kind of arch artistic knowingness that affords the reader the same sensation as being bested at some nightmarish High Table. Nick is usually the culprit. Jamesian to the last, he mimics the Master's bewildering feats of punctuation, delighting in a prose style littered with "old-fashioned periods and perplexing semi-colons". He is smug, too, about filching James's "plums of periphrasis", and about taking them from the more obscure corners of the James canon (such as The Outcry, which he dubiously claims is "a novel... that no one's ever heard of"). He criticizes a performance of Tannhauser -- "an awkward hybrid of the Paris and Dresden versions" -- and the entire oeuvre of Richard Strauss -- a confection of "bumptious self-confidence". He hides his drug stash in Wani's presumably expendable "leather-bound Poems and Plays of Addison", and, on holiday in Perigord, skulks behind a critical study of John Berryman. He delights in recognizing the "secret geometries" of a Cezanne. His taste may be fine, but his allusiveness obliges others to attempt similar poses; even when the allusions are not his, they seem manufactured by his competitive imagination. The effect is wearisome.

Nick's prodigality can be excused as the necessary cargo of a work that celebrates the aesthetic possibilities of the superfluous, but it feels like a retrograde step for Alan Hollinghurst, whose best writing is more disciplined than this, more subtly melded of its thematic constituents, and above all more profound, more truly Jamesian in its treatment of the ordeals of consciousness. Nonetheless, there is much to savour in The Line of Beauty: not least its humour, a shivering yet morally exacting satire that leaves no character untouched and finally consumes the grotesques whose odiousness it has so generously indulged. Equally and characteristically, there is the stinging precision of its prose, a near-poetic aptitude for producing the very thing its title tantalizingly portends.

Henry Hitchings's book about Dr Johnson's Dictionary will be published in 2005.

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