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Thursday, December 9th, 2004


 

The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst

The Ogee Curve

A review by James Wood

In this season of James-chasing, here is the real thing: a novel at once in explicit dialogue with Henry James and more quietly but deeply infected by the rhythms of his prose. But Alan Hollinghurst's novel is not an example of overfed antiquarianism; it rations what it needs from the Jamesian gift. Hollinghurst's talents are themselves quite large enough to manage any overwhelming predecessor, and the result is a confidently contemporary novel, set in a privileged London world of the 1980s, which faces backward and forward, alive to what James called the "palpable present-intimate" but ripe with inheritance.

Hollinghurst's prose is a genuine achievement -- lavish, poised, sinuously alert. His sentences are rich but not languid. He is an aesthete who finally avoids aestheticism, partly because, in a characteristic Jamesian swerve, he is morally suspicious of an aestheticism whose charms he also swayingly registers. His writing is most Jamesian, perhaps, in its constant air of poised intelligence, the sense we have that Hollinghurst, while recording the sensuous delights of the world that he is describing, is intent on placing and carefully measuring the claims of that world.

The novel is set in Notting Hill, and revolves around a large stuccoed family house, which looks onto one of London's communal gardens, those blessed holidays from the city accessible only to a few fortunate keyholders. One of those lucky ones is Nick Guest, the young gay man from whose eyes we see the action of the novel. Just down from Oxford, presently a graduate student at the University of London at work on the ideally vague thesis "style in Meredith, Conrad and James," he is a merely middle-class young man thrown into -- or rather happily nested in -- an upper-class world.

Nick is a lodger, as his name suggests, in the family home of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden, whose father, Gerald Fedden, is a rising star in Mrs. Thatcher's government. Gerald and Rachel Fedden are aristocrats; in addition to the Notting Hill house there is the country pile of Rachel's brother, Lord Kessler. By contrast, Nick's father is a provincial antiques dealer, and Nick, who is in love with the "pompous spaces" of the Feddens' houses, also remembers that he used to visit places like these as a child, but in a very different station: accompanying his father on professional trips to wind the houses' antique clocks. Hollinghurst deftly catches Nick's mingled adoration and reserve when he writes that he looked at the rare furniture in Lord Kessler's house "and found his heart beating with knowledge and suspicion."

Since we see this materially rich world through Nick's eyes, it is Nick's doubleness, at once insider and outsider, at once known friend and unknown homosexual, that usefully alienates Hollinghurst's own richness as a prose stylist, letting his gorgeous sentences swim, as it were, in a thinner medium than the one into which they were born. There are passages of wonderfully free lyricism. Twilight in London is exactly described: "Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights." The two white stuccoed terraces of Notting Hill houses "stared at each other with the glazed tolerance of rich neighbours." Inside the Fedden house, a huge main staircase of stone ascends from the large hall, while "the upper flights had the confidential creak of oak." (Hollinghurst, like his Master, enjoys the chafing lull of alliteration.) As he picks out disjointed notes on a piano, "the faltering notes were like raindrops on a sandy path." Gerald Fedden, lying by the side of a swimming pool, has fallen asleep, "head bent over a book in his lap, but unambiguously asleep, since the pages of the book stood up in a quivering comb." Someone settles a wet umbrella on the floor "like a blown flower." Wani Ouradi, a beautiful Oxford friend of Nick's, is described -- in rather Firbankian terms -- as "sweetnatured, very rich, and beautiful as a John the Baptist painted for a boy-loving Pope."

Hollinghurst has a poet's lyrical impulse, but these passages are rarer than his more usual and novelistic composure, which tends toward the ironically comic. Nick is intelligent and sensitive, and this necessarily distances him from the less intelligent and less sensitive upper-class world he has chosen to join. His ally is not, in fact, his friend Toby, who turns out to be dismayingly conventional as the London years stretch on through the 1980s, but Toby's sister Catherine, a troubled manic-depressive who has tried to commit suicide. It is Catherine who jokes that her father has never liked the people he represents in his rural constituency: "If only you didn't have to be MP for somewhere, Gerald would be completely happy."

Many of Nick's encounters with the absurd ambassadors of this realm are as funny as anything in Waugh. Toby's friend Sophie Tipper, a posh girl trying her hand at acting, boasts that she has just landed the part of Lady Agatha in Lady Windermere's Fan, "a role," comments Hollinghurst, "which famously contained nothing but the two words 'Yes, mamma.'" Sophie's mother, Lady Tipper, gets into a confused argument with Nick about AIDS and about how the gays "had it coming." Nick replies that, certainly, homosexuals will have to be careful now, or just switch to oral sex, which is less dangerous. "Kissing, you mean," comments Lady Tipper, all-knowingly. Gerald's mother, Lady Partridge, a ferocious old conservative, complains that Mrs. Thatcher's Home Secretary has, in a politically correct way, been talking boringly at dinner about the necessity of combating racism. "'He talked a lot of rot at dinner on ... the coloured question. I wasn't next to him, but I kept hearing it. Racism, you know' -- as if the very word were as disagreeable as the thing it connoted was generally held to be." And by contrast with this world of easy ignorance, a working-class Oxford friend of Nick's, who is always trying to start intellectual discussions, is instantly recognizable when Hollinghurst tells us that at Oxford he had been known as "the ablest historian of his year," but had "failed to get a first [class degree], and seemed now to be acting out some endless redemptive viva."

The range of Hollinghurst's comedy, its elasticity, is nicely shown when Gerald Fedden decides to impress some of his politician friends with a concert at home. A Czech pianist is hired for the evening. The ghastly concert arranged by Charles Ryder's father in Brideshead Revisited surely casts a shadow here. But unlike Waugh, who plays his short scene only for laughs, Hollinghurst expands his, mining it for its subtle criticism of a certain kind of English society. The pianist performs Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert, and the delicate massive music seems, at least to Nick, to challenge the complacent audience with its radical otherness. One man cries, yet most are simply eager for it to be over: "It was all so sudden and serious, the piano was quivering, the sounds throbbed through the floorboards, and there were hints on some faces that it could be thought rather bad form to make quite so much noise indoors." As soon as the last piece ends, "firm applause broke out, given a new edge of enthusiasm by the fact of its being the end -- the whole experience was suddenly seen in a brighter light, it was time for a drink, they'd all done rather well." But the pianist is not done; she tortures the audience with three encores, ending with a frilly virtuosic confection by Khachaturian. In conversation afterward, everyone goes around praising the popular Khachaturian ("I liked the last piece she played. I think I've heard it before.... Got a swing to it"), and saying things like "there seems to be an absolute mania for concerts.... This is the second one I've been to this year." It is already high summer.

There is also the dinner party that yields this finely preposterous, absurdly circular dialogue:

"I'm doing a doctorate at UCL -- on ... on Henry James," said Nick, seeing the style question might lose her completely.

"Oh..." said Jenny warily, getting a hook on it. "Yes. I've never got round to Henry James."

"Well..." said Nick, not caring if she had or not.

"Or hang on, did I read one? Dr Johnson or something."

"No...I don't think so..."

"No, not Dr Johnson, obviously...!"

"I mean there's the Boswell."

"It was set in Africa...I know: Mr Johnson."

"Oh, Mister Johnson is a novel by Joyce Carey."

"Exactly, I knew I'd read something by him."

While Nick is ingratiating himself into this society -- like the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, he is politic, adaptable, and mildmannered -- he is leading a very different life outside it, or alongside it. He has a blind date with a black council worker named Leo, and the two men have sex in the Notting Hill communal garden. After Leo, he turns to the desirable Wani Ouradi, a millionaire whose father owns a supermarket chain, and who does not know that his son is gay. Wani likes inviting a third man, preferably a stranger, to his sessions with Nick; he is also addicted to porn and to cocaine. As in Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, part of the pleasure here is the traditional novelistic one of being invited to inhabit a new world, and of being confined to the radical optic of this world. Women are never physically appraised in Hollinghurst's fiction, and barely noticed as sexual beings (though this novel has several female characters, the most interesting of whom, Catherine Fedden, is a poignant, affecting creation). But men are described and redescribed as eagerly as Melville's whales. As ever, Hollinghurst's writing is precise and alive. A handsome waiter is checked out by Nick: "His dressy trouser-front curved forwards with telling asymmetry." Nick's erection is "still buttoned away in a hard diagonal." (How exact that phrase "hard diagonal" is. Hollinghurst, unlike some of his American coevals, knows when to end a sentence.)

Nick's homosexuality is a tolerated fact in the Fedden household, though, in English fashion, toleration requests discretion from its lucky beneficiaries. Gerald and Rachel Fedden are happy to keep Nick in their attic as long as they do not have to know about the actualities of his sexual activity. Nick, meanwhile, is falling deeper and deeper, thanks to Wani, into a wealthy hedonism that must be kept secret from the Feddens, as well as from Wani's Lebanese parents, who have already selected a fiancée for their scion. Nick and Wani become regular coke-snorters, chopping and sniffing "the fine white fuses of pleasure" behind closed doors. "Nick loved the way coke took off the blur of champagne, claret, Sauternes, and more champagne. It totted up the points and carried them over as credit in a new account of pleasure." Wani, whose aimlessness is merely a richer version of Nick's (Nick essentially sponges off Wani), fiddles about with the idea of making a film of James's novel The Spoils of Poynton (itself a wonderfully comic, unwittingly undergraduate kind of idea). He then decides to set up a glossy magazine named Ogee, dedicated to beauty.

Nick comes up with the word "ogee," used in architecture to describe a double curve: "The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural.... The double curve was Hogarth's 'line of beauty,' the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement." Nick has this idea while lying in bed with Wani in an atmosphere of "uneasy post-coital vacancy." The double curve, of course, is suggested to him by the dip and rise of Wani's back and buttocks: "He ran his hand down Wani's back. He didn't think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell -- he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty." It is this that gives Hollinghurst his novel's title, a deliberately ambiguous phrase, both the curve of a body and a line of coke.

Hollinghurst's book is broken into three parts, dated 1983, 1986, and 1987 -- the rise and dip of the moneyinfested, sex-loaded 1980s, a spoiled ogee curve of its own. In the first section, Gerald Fedden has just been elected to Parliament, and is clearly in the ascendant. Nick and Toby, and all their chums, have come down from Oxford, with everything ahead of them. Nick loses his virginity to the comely Leo, in the communal gardens. The 1986 section represents the decade's ripe, wavering acme: parties, cocaine, the swill of money, and sex still unhaunted by AIDS. But in Hollinghurst's account there is little pleasure, there is only degradation, in this particular line of beauty:

Tristão bent to snort his line, and Wani felt his cock and Nick felt his arse.... Wani was down on his knees, trying clumsily to do justice to the thing he always wanted. His pants were undone, but his own little penis, depressed by the blitz or blizzard of coke, was puckered up, almost in hiding. He was lost, beyond humiliation -- it was what you paid for. He sniffed as he licked and sucked, and gleaming mucus, flecked with blood and undissolved powder, trailed out of his famous nose into the waiter's lap.

In the novel's final section, titled "The End of the Street," everything unravels, as we knew it would. Leo dies of AIDS, and Wani is now deathly ill; his parents continue to maintain that he caught it from a lavatory seat. Gerald Fedden narrowly retains his parliamentary position in the general election of 1987. But he is soon being investigated for financial irregularities. The baying press, now camped outside his Notting Hill mansion, discovers that his lodger, one Nick Guest, is the lover of Wani Ouradi, the son of the supermarket millionaire and Tory Party donor. Gerald is finished as soon as this story is revealed, and the Feddens turn on Nick, who has kept, it seems, so much from them. "It's the sort of thing you read about, it's an old homo trick," Gerald tells Nick, in a final scene of some power. "You can't have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else's. And I suppose after a while you just couldn't bear it, you must have been very envious, I think, of everything we have, and coming from your background too perhaps ... and you've wreaked some pretty awful revenge on us as a result." The novel ends with Nick's ejection from the house and family. He stands outside the building, literally houseless, feeling a kind of terror, "made up of emotions from every stage of his short life, weaning, homesickness, envy and self-pity...."

This is an undeniably lovely novel that is also an undeniably moral one. Still, the way in which it makes its moral critique is not unproblematic. Though Hollinghurst's prose has about it an air of Jamesian moral intelligence, one has the uneasy feeling that Hollinghurst is more in love with his gilded world than he can always acknowledge. The novel sometimes surrenders to a kind of yearning, not unlike Waugh's in Brideshead Revisited, the yearning that the middle- or even upper-class writer may sometimes feel for thoughtless, graceful aristocracy. So the reader feels that the novel's moral "turn" -- the fall from grace into the horror of the 1987 crash -- comes not a moment too soon, because the book needs precisely its moral quickening, that there has been a little too much gilded drift. But then the final section rather rushes this business of ethical critique, bundling it all into a series of rapid, over-emphatic collapses -- AIDS, Gerald's downfall, Nick's expulsion.

In the end, the explicit moral doubleness of Hollinghurst's ogee curve, "the line of beauty," is less effective as a mode of critique than Hollinghurst thinks it is. The reader gathers that the line of beauty may be both a good thing and a bad thing. Beauty can be dangerous: is not this a properly Jamesian argument about the menace of aestheticism? But Hollinghurst's own conceit of the doubleness of the line of beauty seems to offer something more reduced than James offers. After all, while the novel certainly seems to condemn the line of beauty that leads to a line of coke, it does not seem to condemn -- and why should it? -- the line of beauty that is a boy's ass. The very device that seems to bind beauty and morality together -- the double curve of beauty -- in fact enacts a binarism, an alternative, in which we are free to choose one line of beauty (the good kind) over another line of beauty (the bad kind). In other words, the novel seems to be delivering itself of a critique only about the potential uses and abuses of aestheticism; whereas James suggests that aestheticism is intrinsically dangerous. It is not just that Gilbert Osmonds come along and pervert aestheticism, it is that aestheticism lends itself in some essential way to perversion. That deep-rooted moral wail is not quite heard in Hollinghurst's book, for all that he wants it to be (he even makes explicit reference to The Portrait of a Lady).

In order to turn his beautiful novel into a beautiful and moral one, moreover, Hollinghurst effects a narrative unraveling so extreme that the book also ends up holding to a somewhat trite and anachronistic vision of the homosexual as a figure always doomed to be unhoused and exiled from happiness, solitary and lonely, without family or friends, always nostalgic for a bosom that has always, if only secretly, rejected him. If this picture of gay life were proffered by a straight writer, it would seem the merest sentimental prejudice. Proffered by a gay writer, amid the ruins of 1980s AIDS, it seems appropriately melancholy; but it is worth pointing out that Hollinghurst only reaches this sentimentality -- banished Nick standing outside the place that has been his home for four years -- because his novel has needed the extremity of its moral turn, in which, as it were, the story itself must turn on its beautiful creations and devour them in moral flames. One could imagine a novel just as moral and just as beautiful that was slower-burning, in which moral criticism seemed prolonged and systemic rather than hasty and just a little bit contrived.

For all this, though, The Line of Beauty is an ample and sophisticated delight, charged with hundreds of delicate impressions and insights, and scores of vital and lovely sentences. It is at once domestic and political, psychological and historical. It is funny, moving, and finally despairing. Perhaps its appropriation of James does it more harm than good -- when ballast is taken on, fuel also leaks out -- but the Jamesian comparison suggests the measure of Alan Hollinghurst's ambitions, and how finely near to fulfilling them his book comes.


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