pages into Alan Hollinghurst's novel, something remarkable
happens. The gay hero, Nick Guest, is on his way to a blind
date but is waylaid by his landlady's daughter, a highly strung
neurotic with a history of self-harm. Smartly assuming control
of the situation, Nick relieves her of the contents of the
cutlery drawer, and chivalrously holds her hand until she
calms down. This touching scene is unlikely to have occurred
in one of Hollinghurst's previous books: first because there
were few women in them; and second because nothing would be
allowed to get in the way of a passage of graphic gay sex.
Hollinghurst's debut novel, Swimming Pool Library
was the party novel, The Line of Beauty deals with the inevitable
hangover. Aids was never even alluded to in the earlier novel;
here it ominously clouds the narrative. And those readers
who admire Holling-hurst's style but weary of his sex drive
(even the Gay Times condemned the erotic passages of his previous
book as "selfish" and "dull") will be
pleased to discover it is a work of social nuance rather than
sexual urgency. And for once, the wider political context
is embraced rather than ignored - not only is Mrs Thatcher
a pervasive influence throughout, she even puts in a personal
the book takes time to explore Hollinghurst's principal obsessions
with Eros and aesthetics, its main theme is the climate of
giddy success among well-to-do Tories between the electoral
victories of 1983 and 1987. "The 80s are going on for
ever," declares one character blithely, while a typically
self-serving civil servant sums up the mood in Whitehall:
"The economy's in ruins, no one's got a job, and we just
don't care, it's bliss."
Line of Beauty is a novel of eventful gatherings rather
than propulsive action, and in these situations Hollinghurst
proves to be one of the sharpest observers of privileged social
groupings since Anthony Powell. Perhaps it is in homage to
A Dance to the Music of Time that he calls his ambient narrator
Nick, while the surname Guest alludes to his ambiguous status
as a tolerated interloper - an Oxford friend of the Feddens'
son, who rents a room in the family's Notting Hill home.
the fact that the Feddens host private recitals in the drawing
room and keep a Guardi above the mantelpiece, they are fundamentally
philistines, for whom art is a means of social advancement.
Nick, meanwhile, is an unattached aesthete searching for an
outlet for his sensibility. At first he makes half-hearted
pro-gress on a thesis about Henry James, but later he floats
into the orbit, and bedroom, of Wani Our-adi, a glamorous
Lebanese heir to a supermarket fortune, with whom he formulates
vague plans to found a production company.
pretension, Nick takes the company name, Ogee, from the sinuous
double curve cited by Hogarth as the "line of beauty",
though Nick's favoured example of the form in nature is the
point at which a man's lower back cleaves to his bottom. Not
surprisingly, the venture fails to inspire much confidence
in his parents, for whom "being sort-of the art adviser
on a non-existent magazine was as obscure and unsatisfactory
as being gay". Nor does it impress the principal underwriter,
Wani's father, a spectacularly vulgar Lebanese grocer who
tellingly mishears the word as "orgy".
Ogee organisation is in fact no more than a rich boy's distraction
- part production company, part publishing house, but really
no more than a nebulous excuse for its directors to Hoover
up vast quantities of cocaine. If Hollinghurst's previous
novel, The Spell (1998), was the slightly embarrassing story
of a last-ditch, middle-aged dalliance with ecstasy, The
Line of Beauty is a sour celebration of the drug that
kept the economy booming: "Nick loved the etiquette of
the thing, the chopping with a credit card, the passing of
the rolled note, the procedure courteous and dry, 'all done
with money', as Wani said."
the illicit glamour of these scenes wears off as quickly as
the drug itself, to the point where the incessant snorting
takes over from the sex as the most mechanically repetitive
element of Hollinghurst's writing. And when he chances to
write about drugs and sex together, the outcome is dire: "Tristao
bent to snort his line, and Wani felt his cock and Nick felt
his arse" is as impoverished a sentence as you will find
in any novel, literary or otherwise.
The Line of Beauty is a long book, and even if you
skip the sex and the snorting there's plenty left to enjoy.
For the first time, there is a clear sense that Hollinghurst
has extended his powers to create a universe rather than a
clique; and though it adopts a highly privileged perspective,
the novel has sufficient breadth to evoke the full social
spectrum of 1980s Britain - gay and straight, rich and poor.
Ogee ogee ogee, oi oi oi.