Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty (2004)
‘I’m just looking up Lebanon,’ she said, after a minute.
‘Oh yes …’ said Nick.
‘It sounds marvellous. Mediterranean climate, well we knew that, and it says homosexuality is a delight.’
‘Really,’ said Nick.
‘It does. “L’homosexualité est un délit”,’ she read, sounding like General de Gaulle.
‘Yes, délit is a crime, unfortunately.’
‘Oh, is it?’
‘Delight is délice, délit is a misdemeanour.’
‘Well, it’s bloody close …’
‘Well, they often are,’ said Nick, and felt rather pleased with himself.
It seems wrong to cover a Booker Prize winning novel in a few sentences, but I couldn't warm to this one. I thought the writing was gorgeous and Hollinghurst's ability to capture Thatcher's 1980s quite extraordinarily fine (as was his ability to nail the early 1980s in The Swimming Pool Library). But was I meant to like any of the characters in The Line of Beauty?
Nick was always a favourite with mothers, he was known to be a nice young man, and he liked the unthreatening company of older people. He liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity.
Nick, the protagonist, is a young man who enters into a parasitic relationship with a wealthy family closely connected with the aristocracy and the ruling Conservative government. Nick is also taking his first steps into the world of homosexuality. He considers himself an extremely bright and self-aware young man who can make a good pass at walking the walk with his upper-crust friends. Yet nothing is quite right.
The reader comes to realise that, like many people who consider themselves to be good readers of others' characters, Nick's own self-awareness is quite flawed. He is neither fish nor fowl: not part of the aristocratic circle he so enjoys; not part of the family with whom he lives; unable to get over an unreciprocated passion for the son of the family; not able to be open about his relationship with the closeted scion of a wealthy Lebanese family; almost unable to fend for himself in the real world without the cushion of comfort provided by others.
It is very telling that one insight he gains from cocaine is that, "He felt he could act himself all night." And Nick is, ultimately, a coward who possesses nothing that he has earned. When he returns to his home village in a car given by his lover, we read:
Now he revved round it, the lads looked up, and he savoured the triumph of coming home in a throaty little runaround. It was as though the achievements of sex and equities and titles and drugs blew out in a long scarf behind him. No, it was real superiority, it was almost lonely, a world of pleasures and privileges these boys couldn’t imagine, and thus beyond their envy.
The problem is, of course, that it is not his world.
I find it very difficult to maintain the energy to the end - of what was quite a long book - without some sort of either empathy or implicit assumption in redemption. Of course, I guess that's the problem with the 1980s: there seem to be no redeeming features amid all the Tories, easy money, corruption, parliamentary sex scandals, fast cars, the immense privilege vs. shocking poverty of Thatcher's Britain, the beautiful lines of cocaine and the spectre of AIDS.
In sum: wonderfully written (and I'd definitely persevere with more Hollinghurst), but it dragged for me. I think I have Booker issues. Fear of the books being too smart for me, I suspect. Silly, isn't it? Maybe I also need to read more of the Hollinghurst's inspiration in The Line of Beauty, Henry James. I could relate to this [on Trollope]:
‘To be honest, there’s a lot of him I haven’t yet read.’
‘You must know that one, though,’ said Lord Kessler.
‘No, this one is pretty good,’ Nick said, gazing at the spine with an air of judicious concession. Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion.
If you liked this... I enjoyed The Swimming Pool Library.