A review of The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst has talent, and talent for which he has won awards, but his expression of that talent seems limited by the assumptions he has inherited and accepted about the subjects he handles—and also by his consciousness of the effects he wants too desperately to stir in readers.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

The Line of Beauty
by Alan Hollinghurst
Bloomsbury Publishing
2004, ISBN 1-58234-508-2, $24.95

Alan Hollinghurst pays attention to the said and the unsaid, to physical space, and to some of the effects of social and political power. His novel, The Line of Beauty, is initially a coming of age story about a well-educated young man, Nick, who is befriended by Toby, the son of a British government official during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Hollinghurst gains the readers trust in two ways: one, by having the main character Nick register reality at various levels; and two, by noting the details—Nick notices how an old inherited jacket smells, experiences life as a series of shocks, and has sex fantasies that are extravagant partly because of his virginal state. In Hollinghurst’s depiction of Nick’s friendship with Toby and his sister Catherine, and of Nick’s move into their family home, Hollinghurst reproduces what it’s like to be an outsider taken into the home of the wealthy: one is abnormally polite, grateful, sensitive, and entertaining. When Oxford-educated Nick, infatuated with the young black Leo is conscious of a desire to be Leo’s jeans, I thought inevitably of Prince Charles, who wanted to be an object even more intimately involved with his own lover (is that a British fetish?). The novel portrays Nick’s first-time sexual experience with the black British male, a man who is introduced as a mysterious sexy other, and yet part of a multicultural scene with a rich white center.

This reader felt a loss of understanding between the first part of the book, which featured a likable young man, Nick, and the second part, taking place several years later in which Nick has become a cocaine-snorting promiscuous homosexual, a depressing change. Hollinghurst’s depiction of a man who becomes a sexual robot is accurate and revolting; and it would have been more interesting if we could have seen the change by degrees.

When Henry James is introduced in the novel as a subject, mentioned is James’s sense that art gave meaning to life and his admonition that seeing something as vulgar is not the same as understanding its nature or force. Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, which strikes me as ridiculous: James did not write about men putting their lips to other men’s hind quarters. The explicit sexuality of The Line of Beauty does not render it bad or even shallow but it cannot be treated as if it is concerned with the discretion and taste that interested James. Manners in James made desire and need more important, more intense, but it also indicated that characters had self-respect and a genuine value for others that people whose preoccupation is sex and drugs—selfish rather than social—cannot ever have. James’s characters weren’t simply smart or rich: they had high ideals they wanted to live by, and the real story was always how they reconciled themselves to reality, and that’s not true of Hollinghurst’s characters. Vulgarity can sometimes be an expression of an unambiguous, unashamed life force (whereas, in Hollinghurst’s book it drains energy, and brings death). Vulgarity, here, then is a fact, not a force: and when Henry James is mentioned again it is in reference to arcane, irrelevant phrases, unfounded speculation about sex, and a James book is used for cutting cocaine. That is almost a tragedy of intelligence. A line of cocaine is referred to by Nick’s Lebanese lover, Wani, as a line of beauty.

Drug-addled, promiscuous, and rich Wani will suffer. The Line of Beauty is partly a document of the plague years, when death began to occur at an unexpected rate among the young and sensual, and among the talented and distinguished, as well as among the vain and vacuous, some of whom had not disclosed the nature of their sexuality to family and friends. Wani’s secrets will be read on his face and body: the ugliness that destroys his own beauty will tell his story.

Manners are a result of consciousness, courtesy, and social relationships and are often misunderstood in an ignorant and vulgar age: stories in which the wealthy and old appear may be the only stories in which manners can be treated now with any depth. When Nick’s mature parents object to his flashy new car, a gift from his rich closeted Lebanese lover Wani, they have unspoken doubts about Nick’s lifestyle. (Decent people, they fearfully suspect that he has become what he has become.) Hollinghurst’s, and Nick’s, emphasis on Wani’s being surprised about people who cannot be bought throws a light on Nick: Nick is a kept man (his lover will refer to him as a slut); and Nick has been, in many ways, a kept man since the beginning of the novel. Nick’s lover is a philistine but this does not bother Nick very much; and Nick has longings that are not satisfied but that lack of satisfaction does not become a conscious criticism of his life or his friends’ lives. Hollinghurst is remarkably astute in his rendering of ordinary prejudices—twisted manners—regarding ethnicity and nationality—and those small references sometimes seem more important than what he does more fully explore.

The second part of the novel is choppier, with mysteries that are insisted on: situations are created and significant information regarding relationships is withheld until the end of a scene or section. (Such withholding is more than calculating: it is obviously and overtly manipulative.) Yet, the view of life offered is persuasive and the book is alive. Toward the center of the book the change—the crisis—involved becomes explicit, but there is no deep suggestion of cause.

One of the most believable characters is Toby’s sister and the British official’s daughter Catherine, who at first seems marginal: she is the mad girl that English novels have long loved, the one who defies manners and tells the truth. And Hollinghurst’s description of the straight girl-gay male relationship Catherine has with Nick is rich with intimacy, shared secrets, rivalry, teasing, skepticism—it’s very convincing.

However, Nick’s (and Hollinghurst’s) too emphatic attention to beauty as the book nears its end, finding it in everything from lovers to party drinks—seems artificially literary. The little surprises that begin to occur in the book’s last sections make the book more like literature and less like life (that is, the book artificially, self-consciously, repeats well-known literary devices)—and too much seems to revolve around people’s sexual lives, with many characters being either gay or sexually transgressive; and even a political scandal doesn’t seem to reverberate beyond what it means for a particular family. Aren’t the politician’s constituents to be affected at all? It’s significant that a media scandal involving business and private life would play such an important part in the book’s conclusion—that seems true to our times, though what would be more important is to see how private mistakes affect morality and spirit, not just reputation.

Alan Hollinghurst has talent, and talent for which he has won awards, but his expression of that talent seems limited by the assumptions he has inherited and accepted about the subjects he handles—and also by his consciousness of the effects he wants too desperately to stir in readers.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in American Book Review, Anything That Moves, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.