Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Not that beautiful

The only thing beautiful about The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst is its writing and narrative, which are rich and sublime. That is not a double-edged compliment, just truth: the content is ugly, insidious and shallow but it is intended to be, in a discomfiting satire of 1980s London. Nick is a homosexual aesthete writing a PhD on the style of Henry James whilst living in the Kensington Gardens family home of his friend from Oxford, Toby, who he has always been secretly attracted to/in love. The family are upper middle class, father Gerald is a pompous Conservative MP, in love with The Lady (Margaret Thatcher), married to Rachel -who comes from money- and their other child, Catherine, is manic-depressive. The narrative of the novel runs through three separate sections: 1983, 1986 and 1987 and the development of Nick into an inexperienced and naive gay man who meets his first lover to the corrupt and corrupted Nick who has seen it and participated in it all with his secret lover; Nick enters the world of subterfuge in a class in which he never belongs through the satirised Eighties of Thatcherism, economic crisis, Conservatorism and the outbreak of AIDS within the gay community.

The title refers to the model of beauty, coined by William Hogarth in his The Analysis of Beauty, the double 'S' of the ogee shape, Ogee the name given to Nick and Wani's business venture. The cover pictured above shows the line of beauty; I have the BBC adaptation tie-in edition and I prefer to attach images of the books I own but it is a beautiful design. Conversely, tainting the beauty (as the novel sets out to do in so many areas), line of beauty also refers to the lines of Coke snorted by Nick and his lover. The brutality and uncompromising nature of the novel's events, the ugliness of it all, is rather unnerving and left a bad taste in my mouth; the homophobia and the superficial nature of people are, in particular, shockingly loathsome in their matter-of-fact depiction. I enjoyed the book (I found it dragged some in the middle section), I greatly admired the writing, I have respect for Hollinghurst depicting this shallow time but the written line of beauty does starkly contrast against the ugliness of the content, which is the point, I guess. The book is challenging, without you realising it until its explosive end, and particularly unsettling.


Katie said...

I really enjoyed the Line of Beauty, although unlike other novels I've liked I wouldn't rush to re-read it, probably because, as you say, the story is so grim. I essentially disliked all the characters; wnother reason not to re-read. I do think it's an evocative portrait of Thatcher's (privileged) England which gave me an insight into things that happened before my time there.

Paperback Reader said...

I disliked the characters too and agree: it is too grim to reread. I am glad I read it though; I've had it for a couple of years and can now cross it off the ever-growing list.
It is definitely evocative of the era. I also enjoyed reading something set in London, now living in London.