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whose line is it anyway?

June 6, 2005

I often read books for the wrong reasons: that they have won some commercialised prize, or that they have lurid descriptions of hot gay sex in them. The Line of Beauty has both: won the Man Booker, and delicious passages devoted to carnality. This time, however, I was not disappointed: and I’m not only talking about the gay sex. The Man Booker’s decision to confer the title upon Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel has redeemed the organisation from the rather more questionable choices that it has made in years past: the yawnishly boring (is it just me or does everything have an odour, smell, scent or fragrance in that book?) God of Small Things, as well as the hideously garish (wow, talking animals, let’s just call it magical realism) The Life of Pi. For The Line of Beauty is a delectable little offering, tight, well-put together, amazingly written and thoroughly enjoyable.

Named after the S-shaped curved present in many forms of architecture that were so prized by Hogarth as essential to beauty, The Line of Beauty, set in Thatcherite England, tells us the story of Nick Guest (Guest in name and in substance), who has been invited to stay at the house of his friend Toby Fedden (father an MP, mother from an ancient family). One thing leads to another, his stay at the house lengthens and he remains there from the rise of the Tories to their fall. Along the way Hollinghurst traces the sparkling emptiness of modern gay life (as lived by Nick): falling in love, falling out of love, anonymous sex, drugs, clubbing, and, of course, the shadow of the AIDS epidemic.

For Alan Hollinghurst is very good on the social history. As Edmund White points out (in a completely unrelated essay), ‘to have been oppressed in the ’50s, freed in the ’60s, exalted in the ’70s, and wiped out in the ’80s is a quick itinerary for a whole culture to follow’. But Hollinghurst follows this very well, and offers us a historical perspective on homosexuality that is often missed out by so many of today’s shallow gay men to whom homosexuality is only now, even as they chase down the latest fads and swop breast-cancer-ridden Kylie for the even trashier Gwen Stefani. Hollinghurst shows us the glamour and the glitter of being a homosexual: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, but this is not all gold: soon the chilling void of gay life, the lack of enduring love, the shallowness (present even then), the disease. He continues on the theme of placing homosexuality in a historical context visible already in his previous books, of which two I have read: The Swimming Pool Library and The Spell.

It is to Hollinghurst’s credit that he has created a world in which homosexuality is so rampant and everywhere that straight people and their lives and their ways seem so unimportant and alien: merely coincidental intrusions. Among this is the presentation of the Tories and the rise to power of Maggie Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher herself is idealised to the point of satire: one of the loveliest moments in the book is when Nick (at a party thrown by the Feddens), in a fit of Dutch courage, invites Mrs Thatcher to dance. She deigns, and the delicious heightened irony of the occasion is wonderfully sketched out by Hollinghurst.

For that is another of the author’s strengths: he is very strong on social comedy. He uses this ability to create humour to great effect: whether in demonstrating the rotten and rotting nature of the gentry, or satirising the characters. One of the funniest moments in the book: when Rachel Fedden (Tobias’s mother) takes a shot at deciphering pop culture, asks if Boy George is a girl or a boy, to which Nick replies. Upon hearing the answer, all she can muster is a feeble ‘not like George Eliot’.

But the humour is never vicious or contemptuous. While his characters are detestable (Nick is nothing more than a pompous, self-inflated PhD student pursuing a rather dull paper, if you think about it), the tone never approaches scathing, and perhaps is best characterised as gently and mockingly ironic. The characters are portrayed in all their human frailty (with the exception, of course, of Mrs Thatcher and the few other ‘flat’ characters), and their humanity makes them both repugnant and attractive. The ending is therefore immensely tragic and crushing, and, as all sad things are, terribly and horribly beautiful.

But this remains, of course, a book review, and reviews can hardly do much justice to a book of this magnitude and stature. This deserves to be read: stop here and go now. And after that, read The Swimming Pool Library. Mr Hollinghurst is certainly an author to watch closely.

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