The Line of Beauty book review
Not having read anything by Alan Hollingurst until now, it took me a while to get into the rhythm of his 2004 Booker Prize-winner, The Line of Beauty. Quite a while, actually. It wasn’t until halfway through that I began to see the point of 438 pages devoted to some of the most superficial, fatuous, and entitled characters, young and old, you’re ever likely to meet.
What I eventually realized was that this otherwise conventional novel is very funny, and if you accept “the gayness of the narrative position”, as the author has described it, and are prepared to follow it through all its explicit homoerotic adventures, you end up with a sharp, insightful picture of a ruthless decade. Not to mention a vivid description of gay sex before the terror and prejudice of AIDS put an end to that particular freewheeling, no-holds-barred lifestyle.
It’s the summer of 1983, “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be”. Twenty-year-old Nick Guest has graduated from Oxford with a First in English and is about to begin postgraduate studies at University College London. The focus of his doctoral thesis is Henry James – which gives him the opportunity to drop bits of the Master into conversations, a kind of showing off which becomes more than a little annoying. As in, “[He] spoke, as to cheek and chin, of the joy of the matutinal steel” when referring to someone who’s well-shaven.
A side note: I seem to be all about James these days. Three weeks ago I wrote about The Master, by Colm Tóibín; the following week it was a review of The Portrait of A Lady, and now we find him turning up in a novel that might have been written by James himself, had he been born a century later. But that’s it for now. Unless Salinger sneaks James into Franny and Zooey (next week’s read), we’re done with the Old Master for the moment.
In spite of his Oxford credentials, Nick is from middle-class stock. He attended university on scholarship, giving him a chance to rub shoulders with the sons and daughters of England’s elite. One of these, Tobias Fedden, has become a close friend. Nick has long had a crush on Toby, who’s straight, and ends up invited to stay with his family in their spacious Notting Hill home. Toby’s father, Gerald, is an MP – Conservative, of course – and has recently been elected member for Barwick, Northamptonshire, the fictional home of Nick’s parents. Nick admires Gerald, but nurtures a suspicion that “there might be something rather awful about him”. The money in the family – and there’s a lot of it – comes through Toby’s mother, Rachel.
As the story opens, Nick has been left on his own to watch over Toby’s sister, Catherine, while Toby and his parents holiday in France. Catherine, or “Cat”, is a troubled young woman with a history of self-harming. She has periods of manic energy, when she’s lively and upbeat, followed by dark episodes of depression. Nick talks her through one of these periods and when her parents come back they suggest he stay on; Cat’s become attached to him and he is, after all, a friend of Toby’s.
If ever there was someone in a position to survive merely on charm and goodwill, it’s Nick. Without ever seeming to do anything to earn it, he gains the trust of Gerald and Rachel, who treat him, for the most part, like one of the family. While it’s likely they’re aware that he’s gay, it’s never mentioned – not till the end when things turn sour for Nick and his benefactors.
So far, Nick’s sexual adventures are all fantasy. He has yet to actually have sex, although he dreams about it all the time. Through a personal ad he meets the vastly more experienced Leo Charles, a black man from Willesden, who lives with his mother. As Nick is too timid to bring Leo back to the Feddens’, and they can’t have sex at Leo’s, they’re restricted to conducting their affair on the fringes of park paths, public toilets, and side streets. Nick falls in love with Leo and tells him so; Leo is less effusive but obviously cares for Nick. He brings him home to meet his mother and sister, and takes him to meet “old Pete”, a former lover who is now middle-aged and sick.
AIDS isn’t actually mentioned until we meet up with Nick three years later, in the summer of 1986. Nick is now openly gay and has fallen in love with another Oxford friend, Antoine or “Wani” Ouradi. Wani, the son of a Lebanese millionaire, is, in Nick’s view, “beautiful as a John the Baptist painted for a boy-loving pope”. He’s deeply in the closet, keeping his coke-fuelled threesomes a secret from his parents, his friends, and, most of all, his fiancée. He treats Nick to expensive gifts, money, and drugs, and hires him as his editorial assistant for the luxury magazine they plan to launch.
The name of the magazine is “Ogee”, a rather ugly word for the beautiful double-S curve used in architecture. The ogee is the “line of beauty” used in the title, but it has other meanings: there’s the dip and swell created by a man’s lower back and buttocks, and there are, of course, the lines of cocaine used to keep the party going.
Hollingurst has an impeccable eye for character, and an ear for dialogue particular to class. Sir Maurice Tipper and his wife Sally are particularly gruesome: he’s an asset-stripping millionaire with no interest in anything but money . . . she’s smug, self-satisfied, and easily shocked. Together they make for unpleasant but necessary houseguests; Gerald dislikes them but sees them as valuable business contacts.
As awful as they are, the Tippers are only two in a host of unlikable individuals. One of my personal favourites is Toby’s grandmother, Lady Partridge, a wealthy harridan who could easily stand in for Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha. Attending Rachel and Gerald’s 25th anniversary party, she finds herself seated beside Wani’s father: “Nick knew it was upsetting for her to sit next to what she always called an A-rab, but something seemed to kindle in her too at the closeness of so much money”. Margaret Thatcher, reverently referred to by Gerald as “The Lady”, has a cameo appearance here: Nick, high on cocaine, asks her to dance. To his surprise, and Gerald’s chagrin, she agrees.
The party, of course, has to end, and it doesn’t end well for any of the characters, gay or straight. Lovers get sick, friends die, and the powerful Feddens become the focus of scandal – only partly due to the homosexuals they harbour in their midst. Gerald’s shady dealings are leaked to the press, and he’s forced to resign. On the home front, Rachel gets wind of his affair with his secretary but decides to stick with him, good Tory wife that she is. Nick does better than most, which seems a shame considering he’s a morally ambivalent, social-climbing hanger-on. Wani, who’s about to die, leaves him a large property in Clerkenwell, and so far he’s escaped the HIV plague. It’s early days, though; as the novel ends, Nick is waiting, once again, to be tested.
In one of the book’s best moments, Nick, after being told that Leo has died, remembers seeing him at a club, earlier that year. The shock of recognition is followed by an instinctive fear of being accosted – he leaves by the back way, his hand on the shoulder of a new acquaintance, “turning a blank gaze across the room to find the little woolly-hatted figure…who had once been his lover.”
Cool, a little callous, and sad, it pretty much sums up this funny, furious, bittersweet book. Read it, if you haven’t.