Saturday, 18 February 2006

Review: The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

Nick is gay and living in the Kensington Park Gardens house of the Feddens, whose son Toby he had befriended (without getting to know erotically) at Oxford, where Nick took a First in literature. He is now undertaking post-graduate studies at University College London, focusing on style and with much of his attention directed at Henry James. Nick has a small room at the very top of the large mansion. The head of the family in Nick’s new home is Gerald, a rich MP whose constituency of Berwick includes the area where Nick grew up and where Nick’s parents still live. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer and his mother is a worrier. Gerald is married to an elegant lady named Rachel (who never really comes alive until the end of the book) and they also have a daughter, Catherine, a manic-depressive who manages throughout the novel to have a string of short-term boyfriends. Nick and Catherine have a special friendship and Catherine detests so much of her father‘s life that the final rift that splits this ménage apart seems almost inevitable. But nothing is really inevitable in this novel, although Hollinghurst sometimes paints the beginning of a revelation in bright colours, so that you can feel something about to happen. The novel opens in 1983. The second section is dated 1986, and the last 1987. AIDS is a threat that is only too real.

First discussion of Nick’s sexuality comes on page 26 — Hollinghurst isn’t in a hurry, clearly, and prepares his offerings well. This is in chapter 2 — the languorous speed of the book is perfect.

Nick had never been on a date with a man before, and was much less experienced than Catherine imagined. In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imagined seductions took on — partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently — the quality of real memories. He sometimes had the sense, from a hint of reserve in people he was talking to, that while they didn’t believe him they saw he was beginning to believe himself. He had only come out fully in his last year at Oxford, and had used his new license mainly to flirt with straight boys. His heart was given to Toby, with whom flirting would have been inappropriate, almost sacrilegious. He wasn’t quite ready to accept the fact that if he was going to have a lover it wouldn’t be Toby, or any other drunk straight boy hopping the fence, it would be a gay lover — that compromised thing that he himself would then become.

Why compromised? Because gay men live a shadow existence on the periphery of society? Because ‘real’ life takes place in the heterosexual mainstream? Because the life of a gay man is full of subterfuges and evasions, reflected in the eye of scorn that is held firmly in the skull of respectable society? Nick and Catherine had, we feel, many such conversations as the ones described here. As a gay man he is her equal. With her disability always to the fore, she is equal to him, as his comes to the fore with experience.

The novel is peppered with bons mots, such as this one:

He loved the hard self-confidence of his date [Leo, the black man with the bicycle]; and at the same time, in his silent, superior way, he thought he heard how each little brag [of Leo’s] was the outward denial of an inner doubt.

And again:

It was one of those inevitable but still surprising moments when mere wishful thinking was held to account by the truth.

But there’s something exhausting, too, about this novel. As soon as a new scene opens you know that the author will explore every facet utterly, and that can sometimes dampen your enthusiasm for the story. He could, at times, one feels, move a little faster than he does. Hollinghurst explores his themes intimately. The Love-Chord — the title of the first book of this novel — is actually an inner sensation that Nick first feels when thinking about Leo during a dinner party at Kensington Park Gardens.
When he thought of Leo after not thinking about him for a minute or two he heard a big orchestral sound in his head. He saw Leo lying on his coat under a bush, his shirt and jersey pushed up under his armpits, his jeans and pants around his knees, small dead leaves sticking to his thighs — and he heard the astonishing chord. It was high and low at once, an abysmal pizzicato, a pounce of the darkest brass, and above it a hair-raising sheen of strings. It seemed to knock him down and fling him up all in one unresisting gesture. He couldn’t repeat it immediately, but after a while he could see Leo rising to kiss him, and the love-chord would shiver his skin again. It startled him while Penny was describing the enormous interest of working for Gerald, and he jumped, and smiled at his invisible friend, so that Penny worried that she’d been funny.

There is much talk about peoples’ feelings in this novel. Which is, after all, what a novel’s supposed to have.

Now perhaps he could really go upstairs, and taste the freedom of being the odd man. He didn’t have a place in either of the two parties. It was bad form to go away, it admitted a prior desire to do so; but he couldn’t go back and sit with Harry Groom. He thought Gerald might be angry with him too, but he would surely be glad of his taking an interest in Catherine.

The ogee curves in Wani’s apartment constitute the first appearance of the line of beauty, which is, of course, also the novel’s name.

Nick looked for reassurance in remembering social triumphs he had had, clever things he had said. He expounded the ogee to an appreciative friend, who was briefly the Duchess, and then Catharine, and then a different lover from Wani. The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back.

My Macquarie Dictionary has this definition of an ogee: “a double curve (like the letter S) formed by the union of a concave and a convex line”.

The above quote comes from the second book of the novel — ‘To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong’ — by which time Nick has become addicted to the demands and satisfactions of the drug cocaine. He now relies on it to buoy him through social occasions, such as the time he sits among the other diners at Kensington Park Gardens.

  ‘I’d be happy to,’ said Nick; ‘by all means.’ The black-jacketed man removed the plates, and just then Nick felt the steady power of the coke begin to fade, it was something else taken away, the elation grew patchy and dubious. In four or five minutes it would yield to a flatness bleaker than the one it had replaced. However, the wine was served soon after, so there was an amusing sense of relief and dependency. Bertrand himself, Nick noted, drank only Malvern water.

The novel is structured as a series of discrete but elegant vignettes, so the pace is steady, sometimes relying on transition scenes, other times stopping and restarting after a caesura. A scene in book 2 is typical. It describes an interlude at a musical soiree from the top of page 237 to half-way down page 238. To read it, you’ll have to buy or borrow this excellent novel.

When Hollinghurst wants to build a scene for an important finale, he does it thoroughly; he places people exactly and sets the stage for a purposeful dénouement. The couples patting their pockets and the receptionist who thinks Gerald had just gone out the back for a breath of fresh air are rendered effectively, adding positively to the drama of the moment. But still, as this scene starts, you feel immediately that something momentous is about to occur — and it does, about a page and a half later. The scene opens with a discovery — fairly minor but as discrete and shining as a special event — and then builds until the real discovery is made at the end of the scene.

He started the car, and craning round to reverse into the road he saw the folder with Gerald’s speech in it lying on the back seat.

That sets the scene.

In the crowded hall he was still the driver, the messenger, and if any of the guests recognized him, members of the Operatic, men who had filled his teeth and fitted him for school blazers, they didn’t show it. If it was a snub it was also a relief. He asked at reception, and the girl thought Gerald had gone out to the car park at the rear — she thought he wanted some air.

So Nick turns down a hallway toward that part of the building that leads out back.

The sign said ‘Staff Only’, so that Nick looked round too — it was probably a back way through to the Fairfax suite. Inside there was a service passage, less glaringly lit, and he saw Gerald’s head through the small wired window in another swing door — and Penny’s too, giggling; that was good, it meant things were under control.

Then he makes his discovery. This section of drama is very writerly and slightly contrived. There will be another such scene toward the end of the novel when another disclosure is made — this time much more publicly — which leads to the final dénouement of the novel. Despite the dry aesthetic of the novel, there is drama, of an active kind, as well as the smaller, more ironic dramas of sentiment. Wani’s father bears the brunt of much disapprobation, and the scenes on the hustings in Berwick are fraught with irony and satire.

A little on from this first big discovery, Hollinghurst describes, himself, the method and the intended effect of the cunning dénouement:

He sat back, smiling tolerantly, loving the heat and the sunlight through the huge old roadside oaks and chestnuts, and the sense of a prepared surprise, of being led through screened back ways toward a view.

The novel has its rhythms. After the first flush of London life at Kensington Park Gardens, we move forwards to 1986. Soon, Nick tries to regain lost innocence:

  ‘It’s fabulous to be here,’ said Nick, with just a shiver, as they turned in between urn-crowned gate-piers, of the old feeling, from the first day at Oxford, the first morning at Kensington Park Gardens, of innocence and longing.

Although at 501 pages this is quite a long novel, it reads like a much shorter one. But the quick reminiscences and elisions of time remind you that time has passed by, and brisk associations bridge the years.

‘Champagne for now,’ Nick drawled, ‘and something stronger later.’ The view of pleasure deepened in front of him, the lovely teamwork of drugs and drink, the sense of risk nonsensically heightening the sense of security, the new conviction he could do what he wanted with Tristão, after all these years. Tristão himself merely nodded, but as he stooped to reach an empty glass he leant quickly and heavily on Nick’s knee. Nick watched him going away through the crowded room and for several long seconds it was all one perspective, here and Hawkeswood, the gilt, the mirrors, room after room, the glimpsed coat-tails of a fugitive idea: which then came to you, by itself, and it was what you wanted. The pursuit was nothing but a restless way of waiting. All shall have prizes: Gerald was right. When Tristão came back and bowed their drinks on their tray towards them, Nick plucked up his glass in a toast that was both general and secret. ‘To us,’ he said.
  ‘To us,’ said Catherine. ‘Do stop flirting with that waiter.’

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