The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst
ISBN: 1582345082

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A Review of: The Line of Beauty
by Eric Miller

W.H. Auden concluded his 1941 poem "At the Grave of Henry James" with this stanza:

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.
Like Auden, Nick Guest, the protagonist of Allan Hollinghurst's Man Booker-winning novel The Line of Beauty, loves the work of Henry James. Hollinghurst's book-his fourth novel-often adopts a satirical inflection, and confirms by its allegiance to this critical mode Auden's conviction that all will be judged. Yet Hollinghurst's hero, Guest, also cites James in such a way that the entire project of satire is called into question: "to call something vulgar was to fail to give a proper account of it." In The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst portrays various kinds of vulgarity, not just the vulgarity of Margaret Thatcher's Tories-whose flaws he incidentally never depicts as uniform, inhuman or comprehensive. He supplements his occasionally facile satire with "a proper account," and reveals the simultaneous applicability and illegitimacy of satire on almost every page. True satire expresses a kind of love. The artistic longing to perpetuate what arouses tenacious feeling characteristically compromises the satirist's motive of reform. An aesthete such as Nick Guest (an antique dealer's son) cannot help loving the rich, whoever they may be, because in spite of their follies they are the ones who can afford to collect and preserve the radiant works of the past. A connoisseur knows that, without exception, the masterpieces that he or she cherishes emerged in societies inextricably glorious and corrupt. The satirist Hollinghurst, who delights in beauty and who celebrates, moreover, every function of the male body, inevitably descends more from Petronius Arbiter than from Jonathan Swift. Nick Guest-his name signals his impermanent position-attaches himself to the affluent Fedden family through its son Toby. Gerald Fedden, Toby's father, is a Tory MP.
The Line of Beauty recalls by title a phrase from a 1753 treatise by William Hogarth. What this reference to Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty may imply for Hollinghurst and his hero Nick Guest is the impossible but persistent coherence of the contemptible with the lovely. The serpentine line-the "line of beauty" that Hogarth extolled in his book-exists only by virtue of its contrast with other, less distinguished graphic phenomena. Despite his serious interest in conceptualizing beauty, Hogarth is remembered today as a satirist, celebrated for admonitory prints such as "The Rake's Progress." Nick Guest's eventual lover Antoine ("Wani") Ouradi, born to wealth, undergoes degradations that parallel the decline of Hogarth's Tom Rakewell, though Wani, heir to a grocery-outlet fortune, never forfeits his financial advantages. By the end of Hollinghurst's novel, dissoluteness has advanced so far that the line of beauty-Nick Guest's lodestar-becomes confused, and even continuous, with lines of addictive cocaine. Hogarth's eighteenth-century prints document extravagance and disease. At the same time, they remain testimonies of beauty, manifesting among other things the serpentine line that Hogarth and Nick Guest concur in identifying as the elemental, persuasive expression of the aesthetic. Another emblem for the world that Hollinghurst animates is the leather-bound copy of Joseph Addison's Poems and Plays in which Nick and Wani conceal their stash of coke. Thus the refined casing of neo-classical civilization masks expensive delinquencies. That was true in the 1980s; it was no less true in the eighteenth century.
Hollinghurst's novel opens in 1983. For those of approximately Hollinghurst's generation, the period evokes involuntary nostalgia-involuntary because the past as such compulsively awakens nostalgia, regardless of what comprised its repertoire of events. Nick Guest must listen, like the rest of his cohort, to Boy George and Sting. But in Hollinghurst's England (as in North America), 1983 also represents an epidemiological divide. W.H. Auden once composed a resounding line: "We must love one another or die." Out of subsequent scruple, Auden amended the line to read: "We must love one another and die." Defending his revision, Auden argued that love, however sincere or redemptive, does not exempt us from mortality. In the 1980s, Auden's apercu became literal when AIDS made its appearance. In this illness, the physical expression of love and ineluctable death coincide. Nick Guest comes of age as a gay man at just this moment.
Portraying the psyche, society and actions of a young man who prefers men, Hollinghurst touches on profundity. This is all the more remarkable given that Hollinghurst's protagonist light-heartedly imagines characterizing himself as "the sort of guy who likes Pope more than Wordsworth." Such a remark seems to align Nick Guest with Alexander Pope's Augustan artifice rather than with Wordsworthian reverie. Yet Hollinghurst renders the love of men for men quite natural. In fact, Hollinghurst's aetiology of eros takes Wordsworthian rather than Popean form: Nick Guest specializes in articulating significant "spots of time." For example, midway through The Line of Beauty, Nick goes swimming in an extensive outdoor pool: "He had the sense of something fleeting and harmonic, longed for and repeated-it was the circling trees, perhaps, and the silver water, the embrace of a solitary childhood, and the need to be pulled up into a waiting circle of men." The men in question, all of them lovers of men, are floating on a raft. This precarious image of endangered intimacy and solidarity captures the determinants and conditions of their love.
Hollinghurst depicts Nick Guest's first affair with finesse. Young Nick is self-centred, self-conscious, not deeply admirable. Nick's lover is Leo Charles. Leo isn't rich, isn't as well educated as Nick. Hollinghurst conveys a sense of the opportunity and limitation of Leo's life through the medium of his racing bicycle. This bicycle may stand for a number of things: the dream of cruising light-weight through the world; the slender, decisive essence of what divides Leo from his Christian mother; the propensity of people to dote on favourite objects more than on their fellow human beings; the repository of aesthetic feeling for a man who is not, in any conventional sense, an aesthete; the stylish image of gay love (or of love as such), solitary and dual at one and the same time; the shiny instrument of flight so frail that it is forever vulnerable to being baulked.
The bicycle becomes like a heroic epithet, inseparable from any evocation of Leo: "And there the bike was, refined, weightless, priceless, the bike of the future, shackled to the nearest lamp-post"; "He led Leo the bike bouncing beside them, controlled only by a hand on its saddle-it seemed to quiver and explore just ahead of them"; "Leo sat on the bike, one foot straight down like a dancer's to the pavement, the other in the raised stirrup. A kind of envy that Nick had felt all evening for the bike and its untouchable place in Leo's heart fused with a new resentment of it and of the ease with which it would take him away." The later love of Nick and Wani Ouradi adopts a more harrowing adjunct. As a surface for preparing lines of cocaine, the lovers use a Georgian desk that at last is indelibly "marked with drink stains and razor etchings." Leo has a bike, but Wani possesses an impressive car. Cars provoke Nick's sorrowful reflection: "at first they were possibilities made solid and fast, agents of dreams that kept a glint of dreams about them, a keen narcotic smell; then slowly they disclosed their unguessed quaintness and clumsiness, they seemed to fade into dim disgrace between one fashion and another."
The end of Hollinghurst's novel presents Nick expelled from the scandal-rocked Fedden household-imagery of gates and of keyholders has recurred throughout the story, and now the doors appear to have locked firmly behind him. Desolate, Nick harbours the unproven intuition that, like his lover Wani, he will test positive for HIV. "He felt," we are told, "that the self-pity belonged to a larger pity. It was a love of the world that was shockingly unconditional." For all of Hollinghurst's satire, love prevails-or satire itself enhances love. The reader cares about Nick, and hopes that the test comes back negative.

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