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The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

May 24, 2013

30th September 2011 18th May 2013 That’s how long it took me to read this Booker Prize winning, “beautifully written”, “Jamesian” novel.


There’s no denying its excellence, so I had better start by explaining myself.


The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, you might say. My love of books and reading has been severely taxed by the unliterary concerns that play such a major part in our lives, the arts media, always urgently informing us of the latest sensation, and the simple exhaustion of having read so many books already, not all of them so demanding, but all adding to a frame of reference that, as it piles up and accrues, can bring an overwhelming sense of irrelevance and defeat.


The subject matter was a bit off-putting in places too. It’s set in London between 1983 and 1987, a place from which I’ve felt increasingly exiled – though there have been moments, which every Londoner must be familiar with, when it seemed entrance into a charmed circle of culture and refinement of one kind or another was within my grasp – and a time, sadly not unlike this one, crowed over by smug and comfortably misplaced triumphalism.


Then there’s the reference to homosexual feelings, which Hollinghurst, never tastelessly camp, deals with with admirable frankness and some rigour.


It’s easy to cooperate with the crassest accounts of heterosexual doings, but when an author invites me to join his protagonist’s frank admiration and lust for a male object of desire I’m out of my comfort zone indeed, anxious to be honest about it but unwilling to get fully engaged.


There is love in the book, of course, which its hero, the aptly named Nick Guest, does pursue and act out but usually from the disadvantaged position of one of life’s hangers on, the friend of the really wealthy and chiefly Tory family of one of his Oxford contemporaries – Toby Fedden, a sturdy young man but somewhat oblivious to Nick’s attraction to him.


Unable to resist, Nick endeavours to make himself “useful” and echo the prevailing tone of entitlement and righteousness, performing menial and meaningless tasks, offering a sympathetic ear to the family’s concerns – the political career of Sir Gerald, the mental health of Toby’s sister Catherine, the beautiful house which Nick is of course the most equipped to consciously appreciate – sometimes feeling he himself has possession of it and the life that goes with it by right of his superior aesthetic sense.


So Nick pursues the “line” of beauty. Perhaps he treads it so carefully because, unlike the better placed in his set, he doesn’t feel so entitled. Too imaginative, perhaps (or insecure, or greedy) to stay within the strictest confines; will that prove his undoing in the end, and will he take any of his “superior” friends with him? Or will they all simply fall victim to changing times and their own consequences?


This novel does work as a “time capsule” but having had to live through this period the once seems more than sufficient. And time spent amidst Hollinghurst’s exquisitely architectural prose can make you feel, if not challenged to reach for some higher sensibility, then shoddy or just plain alienated, doomed to be kept on the outside of any inner circle or stately mansion.


I have to say it’s a good novel, and not just because of my two year commitment to it. It may have a profound effect on some less jaded reader, while I just put it back on the shelf (or in the closet!), add its 500 pages to those I’ve already wired my brain with and keep on hoping to find, and even create new sensations in prose and, perhaps one day, in life itself.



[Now I’ve just spent some time reading reviews of this book on “Good Reads” and they do give me hope – there are some passionate readers out there still – dread – what would they make of my efforts? – and a new determination to concentrate on renewing my own magnificent literary pile, without bothering people with too many superfluous details of my efforts at mental interior redecoration.]



From → Critic

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