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on 4 April 2005
"It's about someone who loves things more than people. And who ends up with nothing, of course. I know it's bleak, but then I think it's probably a very bleak book, even though it's essentially a comedy." This is Nick Guest, the central character in Alan Hollinghurst's marvellous fourth novel, actually speaking about Henry James' book "The Spoils of Poynton", which he has been turning into a (doomed, of course) film script. However, in a typical instance of Hollinghurst's scalpel-sharp irony, both the reader and Nick himself realise just as he speaks these words that he might as well be discussing his own narrative.
Like a lot of people, I was mildly surprised (not having read the book) when it won the Booker prize, and at first I wasn't convinced: social satire has arguably been done to death, and many of us would probably rather forget the whole yuppie, Thatcherite era. However, there is far more to this book - which is indeed surprisingly bleak despite often being laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes in the same paragraph - than mere social satire. The appropriately named Nick Guest is a rather impressionable young gay man who finds himself attached to the family of his university pal Toby Fedden, who is terribly nice but frightfully posh and unequivocally straight. The Fedden family - including father Gerald, an upwardly-mobile Tory MP and mother Rachel who comes from Old Money - find it quite handy to have Nick around as official Gay Buddy and unofficial minder for their mentally unstable daughter Catherine. However, Nick's affairs are more complicated than they seem, and while on the surface he is all polished charm, he is becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a damaging clandestine relationship with millionaire playboy Wani Ouradi, including random threesomes and heavy cocaine use. It doesn't exactly require rocket science to see that Nick is headed for disaster.
The title is another lovely example of Hollinghurst's irony. On one level it is a cheap pun: a lot of the "beautiful lines" here consist of white powder, snorted through a rolled-up banknote (indeed, Wani Ouradi explicitly describes a cocaine fix as "a Line of Beauty" which is clearly something of an In Joke between Nick and himself). However, on a deeper level, it describes Nick's whole approach to life. The original "Line of Beauty" is the S-shaped double curve, which was thought by William Hogarth to be the model of aesthetic perfection in painting and architecture, and which is also seen by Nick in the writings of Henry James. Nick is working in a half-hearted way on a Ph.D. thesis concerning James, and Hollinghurst's novel contains many conscious tributes to the Master and his work. Nick's life is filled with up-curves and down-curves: the most striking example of this is perhaps a revealing dream in which he sees himself climbing a double staircase, half of which is a grand ceremonial space in some great house, the other half a squalid back-stairway in the servants' quarters. "Small doors, flush with the panelling ... gave access, at every turn, to the back stairs, and their treacherous gloom." This is clearly a metaphor for Nick's double life: the charm and polish of his public life concealing the utter mess of his private life.
But why should the reader care? Well, because for all his apparent selfishness and his parasitic existence, Nick is a strangely likeable character. Despite his constant pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and aesthetic beauty, it isn't entirely true to say that he "loves things more than people". He actually loves a number of people: his first boyfriend, a black council worker; the troubled and manipulative Wani; manic-depressive Catherine Fedden; indeed, the Fedden family as a whole. The tragedy is that his basic dishonesty about his life (he is always pretending to be something he isn't) induces a sort of moral paralysis, so that he is somehow never able to actualise his love for these various people, and ends up letting almost everyone down in a variety of painfully complex ways.
In addition to this, Hollinghurst sets Nick's small personal tragedy against the backdrop of a much bigger tragedy. As well as being the era of Margaret Thatcher, the Eighties were of course the era of AIDS, and the Plague casts a long and sinister shadow over the whole book. In some ways, the final few chapters become a sort of Anthem for Doomed Youth, and powerfully bring home the sheer human cost of the epidemic.
So, in a year with a particularly strong Booker shortlist, did this one really deserve the Big Prize? Yes, I would say, by a whisker.