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.
on 16 February 2006
The book begins in 1983 when Nick Guest, freshly graduated from Oxford, is given lodgings at his friend's parents house in London while he finds his feet. The house is owned by Gerald Fedden, a wealthy and ambitious Tory M.P. used to a life of luxury and privelege. Though lacking title, money or ambition, Nick is captivated by this glamourous scene and inveigles himself into the Fedden's life. As the hubris of the 80s gathers momentum, Nick finds himself circulating in the highest echelons of a society riddled with snobbery and greed to which he never really belongs. Aware that his precarious social position is dependent on his being charming, clever and inoffensive at all times, Nick is acutely observant of the people and places he visits. The novel concentrates on both Nick's experiences as the eternal hanger-on in the Fedden's world and his homosexual relationships during this time and the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
The characters are well-drawn and often amusing as they carefully maintain their social position or strive for ever more. The author wisely makes the Fedden's (even the buffoon Gerald) and their 'eternal guest' likeable. This is the first Alan Hollinghurst book I've read and, although I initially thought: "Oh no, not another English author completely obsessed about class", I soon found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The writing style is exquisite: elegant and understated; and the observations succinct and telling. It's one of the best novels I've read in quite a while.
on 21 May 2006
This book is about love, rejection, and the obsession with beauty. Although a little slow to begin with, the reader is soon lost in the story of a poor graduate trying to find love and keep up with his rich university friends as the 1980s enfold about him. The narrative is sublime and I was impressed by how well the author managed issues such as homosexuality, pursuit of power, adultery, friendship, AIDS, rejection and love with both realism and a frequent sprinkling of comedy. This was an immensely enjoyable book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-written, original prose that makes you think.
on 26 July 2004
This truly is as fine a novel as the other reviews suggest, and without doubt also the author's best yet. The writing is of exquisite quality, in its sense of the weight and implications of words, its impeccable ear for dialogue, and its sensitivity to every social nuance, whether at a cruising ground or a Tory party fundraising event. And it's superbly funny too, without ever seeming to cast about for a laugh.
What gives it a special depth is the play with a point of view. Every scene is told from the viewpoint of the central character, Nick, but related in the third person. And it's such a natural-seeming narrative form that its subtleties are easily overlooked.
We understand from the start that the hero is essentially selfish, though this selfishness is inflected by an eagerness to please, a fine and informed aesthetic sense, and a genuine curiosity about other people. So the ruthlessness and parasitism which this self-seeking lead him too - sexually, financially, pharmaceutically - is always countered, as we read, by the pleasure of sharing in his aesthete's point of view. When the public and private secrets emerge in the final chapters, the impact is devastating: suddenly we see in full the implications of Nick's selfishness, as he too comes to understand something of them; and simultaneously we learn how others have come to see him, as they turn on him and speak their minds, and he has no words in answer.
So we have at once an exposure of the truth, and an acknowledgement that there are as many individual truths as there are individuals in the plot. All this is fully in the tradition of Henry James, whose works Nick is studying in a desultory postgraduate way, and whose 'The Spoils of Poynton' features as the subject of a half-hearted and foredoomed film treatment. And so some familiarity with James's works and style adds to the pleasure of the novel, without being at all essential to understanding it.
Hollinghurst shares with James an interest in the relationship of morality and art, nicely illustrated here by the contrast between Nick's impeccable understanding of classical music and the hearty enthusiasm of his host, the Tory MP Gerald Fedden, for the works of Richard Strauss, a composer Nick despises as tawdry and false. That Gerald and Nick are both revealed as corrupt points to the lack of a moral dimension in their understanding of music, and by extension of art in general (Gerald's visual sense is non-existent).
But this novel is a work of art too, and its message is finally a moral one: a rebuke to selfishness and deceit. And the writing is beautiful, as music is beautiful - it, too, is an addition to the works of art in the world. These are vast themes, and it takes a great and mature writer to handle them successfully and subtly. This is what Alan Hollinghurst has done in 'The Line of Beauty', and it deserves the widest readership and the highest acclaim.
on 10 January 2010
Alan Hollinghurst's novel, The Line of Beauty has the backdrop of 1980's London, when the political and social barometer was veering towards family values with the impending rise of Thatcherism and the spotlight shone firmly on politician's private lives. The novel explores the professional and private lives of the Fedden family and particularly focuses on their lodger, friend and the main protagonist Nick Guest.
The comedic skill of Alan Hollinghurst makes the reader laugh and cry at the same time. The hedonistic lifestyle of Nick Guest is revealed to the reader but may surprise some of his fellow characters. Oxford student Nick appears to be a sophisticated together guy, but his life is spiralling out of control with his relationships and cocaine use. Nick seems to be a character that it would be hard to like but through his willingness to please, he wins over the empathy of the reader, sadly for Nick things don't always go his way.
The novel deals with homosexuality, AIDS, the 1980's period and Thatcherism, as the predominant themes, these are also present in other novels by Hollinghurst such as The Fading Star which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1994.
Hollinghurst's writing is a joy to read in this well crafted and refreshingly honest story, in which the reader is given an open window into the hidden liberal lifestyle of Nick Guest. Sometimes explicit, but always written with sophisticated style, you may find the novel startlingly frank, laugh out loud funny and thought provoking. Acclaimed by critics and readers alike and with Hollinghurst's pedigree as a contemporary novelist, it is no surprise that The Line of Beauty was nominated and subsequently won the Man Booker Prize in 2004.
Definitely a must read!
I have to admit that I was prompted to buy this book because of the Booker prize it won. I read "The Swimming Pool Library" and was moved by some of the stylistic fireworks in that, so I was looking forward to some similar stylistic turns in "The Line of Beauty". Hollinghurst certainly delivers style, but little substance, and I felt little sympathy for any of his characters, let alone the principal protagonist, Nick Guest. While descriptions are minute and highly detailed, very little "happens", and in that way I guess the novel can be likened to those of Henry James. However, it has to be said that a great deal of gay sex happens, graphically unnecessary, provoking in this reader a heavy sense of tedium. There is an equally large helping of aesthetic pretention encompassing music, painting and furniture, mainly in the mouth of Mr Guest. Hollinghurst's subtle delineation of a particular stratum of English society at a particular point in time (the 1980s) is very well done, although one is left incredulous when he introduces real characters (Lady Thatcher) into his fictional landscape. Nevertheless, the book is often witty, sometimes savage, expressed in beautifully written prose. Ultimately, one feels little or nothing for the cast of characters, and by the end one is hugely tired of the simpering, vain and smug prat Nick Guest, so that his cum-uppance is something of a delight to be savoured, notwithstanding the highly ambiguous final page, which I read several times trying to work out just what it is that Hollinghurst is saying about Nick's fate. All in all, I'm glad I read it, but it is nowhere near as earth-shattering as some reviewers would have us believe.
on 10 June 2004
I waited impatiently for this to arrive, and my expectations could not have been higher as I greatly admire Hollinghurst's writing, the relevance of his plot and above all his stunning characterisation.
So I was setting myself up for a disappointment in some ways. I should not have worried - I just finished this and feel bereft having done so. This is a genuinely stunning novel. The plot is in some ways so simple and others so intricate. His characters are fascinating and genuine - as are his insights into the social predicaments they face in such a dreadfully superficial society. Nick as the outsider welcomed in is in a great position to observe and judge the old and new money clans of the 80s.
Holllinghurst has such a sure touch - just one example being the scene where Nick sees Leo across the bar towards the end of the third part broke my heart with its accurate portrayal of the longing, the pain, the wish to do the right thing and the lapse into doing the wrong thing. And all conveyed in such a small number of well-chosen words. The comedy and pain of situation such as the trip to France - with the monstrous guests - had be in stitches.
I agree that the hype is deserved. This is a novel which will stand the test of time. Highly recommended.
on 13 September 2005
If you like Henry James - and congratulations on persisting with the old Master - you will like this pastiche of the James style. This means the reader must expect and tolerate a great amount of vagueness, approximation and refined emotions dissected - but for no clear reason other than it is a clever thing to do. The main character is Nick Guest who is indeed a guest in the London house of an ambitious Tory MP during the Thatcher years of the Eighties. Guest manages to sponge off the family for the best part of this decade while conducting some intense sexual adventures, first with low life Leo and then with the painfully beautiful, rich and effete son of a self-made millionaire Lebanese supermarket owner.
You have to like reading about the vacuous rich, with nothing to do other than pursue their own egoistic ambitions and no great intelligence with which to do it, to appreciate this novel. The homage to James though is mainly stylistic and in comparison to James himself somewhat James Lite. What reader today has the stamina and concentration to follow the typical James juggling act over two pages before he agrees to release the point. Yes, Hollinghurst can and consistently does display a remarkable talent for teasing out of situations such as a superficially dull and boring musical soiree the point and counter-point of people's feelings. His inventiveness with words, his elegant and intelligent use of language is an accomplishment rare in contemporary British novels. On the other hand you have to tolerate a great deal of the word 'seem' and the phrase 'as if': these clang ad nauseam through the novel like a monotonous church bell. Then there is the repeated use of 'odd' or 'oddly' and 'vague' and 'a sense of'. So what we have here is a novel that seems to be about beauty but leaves you with the oddly persistent feeling that there is some vague motive strangely never explained: as if fulfilment will always elude us.
on 12 April 2005
Not a book I would have otherwise picked up given its apparent subject matter (gay London in the Tory 80's) had it not won the Booker Prize, but that would have been very much my loss. Awesomely written, I'd recommend it to anyone who loves the English language.
For its beautiful writing I would forgive it its occasional longeurs, particularly in the middle section which sometimes dragged in its descriptions of gay sex and drug taking, but by the marvellously elegiac close of the novel, you realised that the extensive decadence of the central part of the book was essential to setting the mood of the closing chapters, particularly as the author is very brave in not making his central character particularly likeable - a less skillful author would have left readers not caring very much about what happened to the protagonist by the end.
Also praiseworthy is that although Hollinghurst plays out the personal decadence of Nick against the theme of the moral decadence of those Tory years, the tone is not stridently anti-Tory - it is rather more subtle than a party political broadcast! Hollinghurst's disdain seemed to be more directed towards 'new money' (the dreadful MPs at the dinner parties and the awful supermarket dynasty with their wastrel son) compared to 'old' - the MP's wife and her family are the most sympathetic characters in the book.
My only real criticism is that at the denouement I found myself suspecting the likelihood of a millionaire Tory MP and his family hosting a character like Nick for all those years, whose only link with them was a tenuous college friendship with the MP's son. While this sounds like a minor point, if one starts doubting the realism of the story, then it does detract from a novel such as this.
But, in conclusion, a wonderful piece of literature that I look forward to re-reading at some point for the sheer quality of the writing.
on 11 November 2013
Hollinghurst's PhD was about homosexuality in Forster, Firbank and Hartley, and he's used a series of novels to point up the gay's dilemmas at various stages of c20. In Lo B we're in 1980s, where Greed is Good and corruption at the heart of public life, But when the affluent Feddens need, first a babysitter (for their bi-polar daughter) and then a scapegoat for the disgrace which comes to them (partly through her) they turn to, or on, the gay person whom until now they have been content to admit and even cultivate, seeing him not so much as a gay but as a eunuch. The situation is complicated by the use of cocaine (one meaning of 'The line of beauty') in which Nick (central character) is complicit - but AH's essential point is, despite the 'permissiveness' not available to earlier gays like Firbank, secrecy and pretence is still the order of the day, with the threat of Aids ever-present. An excellent piece, with a strong plot-line and facing a tough issue.