- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (October 17, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1582346100
- ISBN-13: 978-1582346106
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 174 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #177,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Line of Beauty: A Novel Reprint Edition
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Interview with Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst's extraordinarily rich novel The Line of Beauty. has garnered a new level of acclaim for the author after winning the 2004 Man Booker Prize. Hollinghurst speaks about his work in our interview.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Among its other wonders, this almost perfectly written novel, recently longlisted for the Man Booker, delineates what's arguably the most coruscating portrait of a plutocracy since Goya painted the Spanish Bourbons. To shade in the nuances of class, Hollingsworth uses plot the way it was meant to be used—not as a line of utility, but as a thematically connected sequence of events that creates its own mini-value system and symbols.The book is divided into three sections, dated 1983, 1986 and 1987. The protagonist, Nick Guest, is a James scholar in the making and a tripper in the fast gay culture of the time. The first section shows Nick moving into the Notting Hill mansion of Gerald Fedden, one of Thatcher's Tory MPs, at the request of the minister's son, Toby, Nick's all-too-straight Oxford crush. Nick becomes Toby's sister Catherine's confidante, securing his place in the house, and loses his virginity spectacularly to Leo, a black council worker. The next section jumps the reader ahead to a more sophisticated Nick. Leo has dropped out of the picture; cocaine, three-ways and another Oxford alum, the sinisterly alluring, wealthy Lebanese Wani Ouradi, have taken his place. Nick is dimly aware of running too many risks with Wani, and becomes accidentally aware that Gerald is running a few, too. Disaster comes in 1987, with a media scandal that engulfs Gerald and then entangles Nick. While Hollinghurst's story has the true feel of Jamesian drama, it is the authorial intelligence illuminating otherwise trivial pieces of story business so as to make them seem alive and mysteriously significant that gives the most pleasure. This is Nick coming home for the first and only time with the closeted Leo: "there were two front doors set side by side in the shallow recess of the porch. Leo applied himself to the right hand one, and it was one of those locks that require tender probings and tuggings, infinitesimal withdrawals, to get the key to turn." This novel has the air of a classic.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Middle-class but upwardly hopeful Nick Guest comes to Tory MP Gerald Fedden's house first as a vacation houseminder, and ostensible watcher of the unstable daughter Catherine (Cat). Nick is in pursuit of beauty of a certain type. Beauty is in many things, but Nick is enthralled by beauty as manifested in privileged lives and its beautiful things.
Invited to stay after the vacation as a useful dogsbody, he gets to be the hanger on of wealth, and dabbler in their society. Always obsequious, he becomes a foil for family head and MP Gerald's boasting, a constant reassurance and dutiful quasi-son to the mother Rachel (he's much more sympathetic to her than to his own mother, who he is vaguely ashamed of) and a companion and minder to the manic-depressive Cat.
Nick's biggest problem, as a character, is that he is such a sycophantic bluenose. With his labor friends, he reviles Thatcher, and comments negatively on Gerald. To Gerald and his friends and relations, he acts the supportive, respectful Tory. This chameleon-like character makes him hard to respect.
Supposedly working on getting an advance degree on Henry James at UCL in London, he seems more in pursuit of love. But after dabbling in a relationship with middle class clerk - who it is foreshadowed will dump him because he has no money -- he becomes a kept boy for a rich Lebanese millionaire, and former Oxford classmate Wani Ouradi. Nick's finances are tied to his tentative relationship with Ouradi; his living and personal situation tied to his relationship with the Feddens. While other rich companions from his graduate class are starting lives, making names and fortunes, middle-class Nick's can't leave the mein of his college companions but can't afford it himself, (he was a scholarship student at Oxford) so remains stuck in sycophantic roles to stay in that social set.
Nick was enthralled with Henry James, but the real line of beauty is more enthralling than its fictional dissection. Instead Nick helps start up Wani's magazine/film company OGEE (named after the line of beauty arch). But Wani is something of a dilettante, more interested in cocaine, porn and sex. Nick's job is something of a pose. Wani goes through a lot of cocaine, a lot of rent boys, a lot of sex with Nick. He gives Nick a salary and car, while they do tacit work on the magazine and a film script. But Wani openly reviles Nick as just another one of the many paid sluts who takes his money. Nick basically is a respectable looking, safe, but hidden sexual companion, no more acknowledged than the anonymous rent boys.
Nick constantly professes love to his lovers and adopted family. But none take Him seriously as if sensing his shallowness. Indeed, often the sentence after Nick professes love to someone, he wonders at himself for doing so. Whatever these relationships are, they aren't love. His first "lover", it is hinted at, trades Nick up for someone with more funds, before Nick snags Wani, wanting to love him for his physical beauty, even knowing Wani's faults. There's convenience, and a bit of regard, but no real tie.
Similarly, Nick tells Catherine that he loves her family, but he's there for a job as well as a minder to Catherine, a general dogsbody, and an impressionable and appreciative mirror reflecting their wealth. Because Nick loves the Fedden's privileged life, he gives it more brilliance, a reflective glow. Therein lies his real usefulness. Oxford educated and a quasi Don, he offers a tacit legitimacy in his otherwise middle class admiration that someone else wouldn't be able to offer (even perhaps get in the door). Gerald shows off to him, and uses him as a verification of their own wealth and privilege. Nick's basically just a different kind of slut for the Feddens.
Meant to be a sort of touchstone, Catherine reviles pretense, babbles of speaking truths. She's angry that Nick doesn't leave Wani because their relationship must be kept hidden. When he tells her he stays with Wani because he finds him so physically beautiful -- she tells him that people shouldn't be loved because they are beautiful. That people are beautiful because we love them.
Nick only usefulness requires being a convenient reflective foil for beauty, but that means keeping ugliness hidden -- Gerald's indiscretions, Wani destructive lifestyle, etc. When Catherine, in a manic phase, blurts out some of these truths to the press, Nick's only usefulness then is as a sort of scapegoat. Wani, now dying of AIDS, pays Nick off in his will, but never speaks of love. And Nick discovers there was never any love in these relationships, nor any beauty. But has he learned his shallow quest was in vain?
The story ends in ambiguity. Both Nick's lovers succumb to AIDS. We don't know if Nick is HIV positive. In the film, the impression is left that he has been lucky in that, even as he still searches, clueless, for beauty. In the book, which goes a bit more darkly into Nick's insincerities and obsequiousness, Nick believes he will become positive as well. Both end with Nick, and the rest of the characters not having learned much. Adversity hasn't made them better. Rather their own flaws have brought them all down. So it is hardly a positive story. Even Catherine, who reveals others truths and secrets, does it from a manic sense of mischievousness, and not from any sense of moral certainty. (One telling scene is of her sitting in her Uncle's French manoir telling a multi-millionaire, who didn't contribute more than fifty pence to a church restoration that he has too much money. When he asks her (and she has a significant inheritance) what she gave, she claims she had no money on her.)
Some reviewers, and I think the author, make a thing of that Nick's troubles may have to do with homophobia. I didn't see that. The gap between Nick and the Feddens, even between Nick as a potential "mate" for Wani was more financial and cultural than gender oriented. Nick was a hanger on, a sycophant, a leech, because he thirsted after what he saw as a beautiful lifestyle. Gerald was brought down by a financial scandal, then by a petty affair with his secretary. When the news of Nick's sexuality came out in the papers, it wasn't as if everyone in Gerald's circle didn't know Nick was gay. Nick never made a secret of it, except to Wani's father. Gerald flies in a fury at Nick because he thinks that Nick told his daughter about Gerald's affair with his secretary, that Nick had secret knowledge of. And that Cat blabbed to the papers. Without that, Gerald might have survived the financial scandal. But Cat discerned that herself.
In his rage Gerald includes a lot of slurs against gays, as well as against middle class opportunists, etc, when he reviles Nick. Certainly Nick's being gay was a central part of his life, but I don't think it was all that central to the plot's denouement. To me, that had to do more with character, not gender orientation. Nick's problems were because he didn't build a life of his own, but instead based his life on being a hanger on for others, attracted by a lifestyle he had no legitimate ownership of. His father was a buyer and seller of antiquities, a caretaker of ancient clocks in mansions. Nick didn't want to come to the mansions merely as a winder of clocks, or to even buy and sell the clocks. He wanted to live in the mansions.
In the end, he might have learned that beautiful things don't necessarily make for beautiful people. And even with beautiful people, that beauty is only skin deep. But that too is left ambiguous. These characters end the book no better, in most cases much worse, and with no more insight, than when they entered. It's a hard book to like, for that reason. But the characters are so clearly drawn, (even if they are rather shallow, unworthy characters) that you want something more to have happened. I think the author has a dislike for the period and these characters, and doesn't believe anything good should come out of it. One of the most striking scenes is when the housekeeper tells Nick she always suspected he was no good. Nick is stunned, but as reader we have to be in tacit agreement, having seen the false part Nick has often played in all his relationships. Still, the lack of any positive resolution means that the characters stay in your head because you wish it ended otherwise.
This novel obviously is a tribute to Henry James. Nick is doing graduate studies on the style of James. There are referenes, some quite funny, all through the novel to the writer and to many of his novels. There is a clever scene, for example, when Nick and Wani do a line of coke (beauty?) on a book of James criticism. In a passage reminiscent of James' indirectness on the death of Poe, ("The extremity of personal absence had just overtaken him") Nick wonders how James would have described a certain character's healthy member: "If he [James] had fingered so archly at beards and baldness, the fine paired saliences of his own appearance. . . Nick said, 'Oh, it was. . . of a dimension.'" Just as in James' novels-- Ezra Pound is quoted as saying THE SPOILS OF POYNTON was a novel about furniture-- style and class are important to these characters. The sitting arrangements at fancy dinners mean everything. This novel, however, is more more than a brittle look at money and manners among the wealthy. It is ultimately about betrayal, sickness and death, the cynicism associated with political ambition and the tragedy of wrong choices. Nick is ultimately brought low; his tragic flaw is that he chooses the wrong people for his extended family.
A master of language, Hollinghurst can describe a character or create a mood with one or two words: A piano tuner is a cardiganed sadist. Wani is simply a "closeted cokehead". A woman has blonde hair in expensive confusion. Nick's calves and thighs ache with "guilty vigour". Rachel's dark hair has "candid streaks of grey". The author also writes paragraph after paragraph of beautiful, insightful prose. Take the example of Nick as a gay man not being honest with his parents, whom he isn't very kind to: "And Nick thought, really the poor old things, they do as well as they can; but for a minute he almost blamed them for not knowing he was going to Europe with Wani, and for making him tell them a plan so heavy with hidden meaning. It wasn't their fault that they didn't know-- Nick couldn't tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never wholly benign, since they were aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit." Finally, even though there have been dozens of novels written about AIDS and we who are living have long since gotten past the hopelessness of the early years of the epidemic, Hollinghurst is able to recreate the utter horror we experienced on hearing of the first deaths of our friends and loved ones.
This is a fine novel indeed. It's a shame that in many bookstores, at least in the United States, it will be stocked in the "gay" section or "alternative lifestyles", whatever that means. Of course Ian McEwan's novels are never found in the "straight novel" section; neither is THE SON ALSO RISES to be found on the "Caucasian male novel" shelf. Maybe Shakespeare's Puck was right for saying what fools we mortals be.