The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst


It can be no coincidence that Nick, the Oxford graduate who comes to stay, has the surname Guest. The Feddes invite him into their London home, Kensington Park Gardens, no less, because he has been a pal of their son, Toby, at university. Head of household, Gerald, is a Tory MP, elected by the good people of Barwick in Northamptonshire to represent their interests. It’s a county that always elects Tories, even when they close down the local steelworks, even when they candidates might appear unelectable. Gerald, like everyone else in The Line Of Beauty, however, seems to be interested only in representing himself, a pursuit he achieves, again like everyone else, with partial competence. And then there’s Catherine, the Feddens’ unstable daughter who is on lithium, consistently referred to as librium within the family.

Wani Ouradi, Antoine to officialdom, is the son of a Lord of Lebanese origin. The family owns a chain of supermarkets. Wani eventually has sufficient resources to buy up a piece of central London so that it can be redeveloped into premises to house a magazine venture destined from the start to sell no more than a copy or two. But then it will be something for Nick Guest to do with his spare time. The characters in Nick Hollinghust’s book never really seem to be required to worry about the consequences of their actions.

Leo is something different. He’s a council worker, and black, and not rich. An odd man out? He plays a significant role in the early part of the book, and later reappears when his family report he has dies of AIDS.

The core of the book, it seems, is its sexuality. Nick Guest, along with several other characters, is gay. These people are not just homosexuals, however. They project an air of public display, men who wear their sexuality like a school tie. Perhaps they are not alone in that.

So Nick has his fling with Leo. He has clearly flung with Toby and flings far and wide with Wani. The image of these rich young men having it off in smelly, locked lavs will live on after the book, but not for long.

Nick regularly refers to Henry James, the quotations appearing like commentaries to the action. Personally, the setting and characters reminded me more of Anthony Powell, who often inhabited similar social echelons. Powell’s characters can be every bit as devious, selfish, self-obsessed, fickle and ignorant as anyone in The Line Of Beauty. The difference, however, is that Powell’s upper crust speaks of misdemeanours in hushed tones. His is still an era of closets and his characters at least try to lock their skeletons therein.

Alan Hollinghurst’s desirables, however, apparently want their skeletons in the shop window, mobile and, apparently, bent double before them. And it’s not just the gay sex that’s traded, since cocaine and dope figure large as well, for the book inhabits the 1980s, the era when, we were told, wealth and riches flowed in the direction of merit, thus auto-confirming its sense of superiority and right.

Eventually each of the intellectually muscled, self-seeking morons that populate The Line Of Beauty comes up against limitations. Some of these are personal, others beyond control. Scandal emerges and AIDS takes its toll of gay abandon. Nick’s guest status is questioned. He seems to take the blame for everyone else’s shortcomings. He seems to walk away saying, “Good while it lasted”, a motto that might have applied to the book, but it didn’t.

The characters and their rarefied lives were eventually interesting, finally engaging. Those things that Anthony Powell’s characters would have hidden are not only in the open but are flouted. And then, when comeuppance comes up, it seems that nothing will stick, nothing will damage any of them. And so this particular reader felt that their contribution to humanity might not reach the positive. Thus the story leaves a question. Is it voyeuristic, satirical, or merely horribly descriptive?

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