Review: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst book cover
The Line of Beauty (2004) provides a perspective on 1980s Britain through the eyes of a young Oxford graduate who is coming to terms with his latent homosexuality. The aptly named Nick Guest, son of a modest antiques dealer, is thrust into the world of power, luxury, and money when he is invited to stay at the Notting Hill home of university pal, Toby Fedden. Nick is originally called upon to provide company for Toby’s manic depressive sister, Catherine, while the rest of the family holiday abroad but this, almost unconsciously, becomes a long term arrangement. Through head of the house, Gerald Fedden, a newly-elected Tory MP, Nick is exposed to a class of powerful, greedy and very wealthy people, with whom he mixes selectively and schmoozes indiscriminately. Throughout the novel Nick keeps his two lives separate - his coke-snorting, vibrant and experimental sex life, a far cry from his more restrained role as the foppish, Henry James obsessed, aesthete meandering his way through life. It’s not until the novel’s denouement that the two worlds collide and Nick is forced to deal with the grim reality of his young life.

The Line of Beauty is concerned with aestheticism and the relationship between the artistic and political cultures. Although the Feddens’ lives are surrounded by beauty and culture, they are fundamentally philistines, viewing art as a trapping of wealth, and it is Nick, from his less privileged background, who truly appreciates the beauty that surrounds him. There are examples of art's servitude to money throughout, and this becomes a central theme of the novel. The titular Line of Beauty, a further indicator of the novel's sensibilities, refers to the snaking double curve cited by Hogarth, and is used consistently throughout the novel; from describing the gentle curve of a man's lower back, to providing a metaphor for the lines of cocaine snorted by Nick and his indulgent friends.

Whilst there is criticism of the ruling classes throughout, it is subtle, exemplified by the treatment of 'the Lady', who hovers in the novel's periphery, a constant force within it, despite not being introduced in person until late on. The period of her premiership is implicitly criticised throughout the novel, but within it there is nothing but praise for Thatcher herself, a perfect example of Hollinghurst's Jamesian sensibilities for showing by concealing. The novel has much to say on the loss of innocence and one's passage into the adult world too, tracing a beautiful arc from Nick's excited induction into both the luxurious life of the ruling classes and London's gay scene, through to the crushing reality he faces at the end of the novel.

The Line of Beauty is a novel of subtlety, not propelled by moments of overwhelming conflict, but rather eased gently towards its conclusion by a string of wonderfully orchestrated set pieces; Hollinghurst a master at observing and portraying social gatherings. These are contrasted with episodes of illicit sex and the consumption of hard drugs; it is perhaps in these scenes that the writing is basest and where Hollinghurst's prose dips below its sweeping best. The characters too are roundly believable, but at times there is a hint of stereotype about the way the moneyed characters are drawn: those of a certain age and class all portrayed as owning similar prejudices.

The novel is carried on the back of Nick's vulnerability, and his denial of both the AIDs epidemic and the corruption and greed that surrounds him, in both cases choosing to acknowledge and engage with only the elements he derives pleasure from, is painful and one feels a keen sense of pity and empathy towards him. In many ways though, Nick is a guarded and unreliable protagonist. Paralysed by the fear of social faux pas or of being genuinely disliked, he allows the world to flow over him, acting the chameleon in all situations. Indeed, one questions the depth of his deceit and is left with the suspicion that Nick's inconsistency of character extends to one's own perception of him. The Line of Beauty's great strength is the ability to draw together the larger societal issues of the decade, and combine them with the very personal story of Nick's awakening.

I really did enjoy this. Part of me knows that I am always seduced by works about decadence and the upper classes, but on the whole I think this is one of the finest critiques of 1980s Britain written to date and a beautiful, subtle depiction of a young man's loss of innocence.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Line of Beauty on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Line of Beauty on Amazon (US) 
Hogarth's Line of Beauty

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Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks to my library pal, Kim, who helped edit this down to readable length.

If you want to read the thoughts of someone who actually knows about literature, rather than someone who pretends to (me), stop by her blog, Post-grad Panoptican. It's 1 year old today.

Petra said...

Sounds like a powerful and quite complex read.
The beginning slightly reminds me of Brideshead Revisited.
And I'm reading Henry James right now :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It's is Petra! - I'd definitely recommend it. Like James it's very subtle, so it won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're enjoying the James your reading at the moment, I'd give Hollinghurst a go.

I've heard people reference Brideshead Revisited with reference to Hollinghurst too, the upper classes are certainly drawn very well.

aethelreadtheunread said...

It's interesting to read such a thoughtful and insightful review from someone who seems to have liked the book more than than I did.

I have to say it doesn't seem at all subtle to me (my view is that Hollinghurst abandons multiple unsubtle ideas almost as soon as he's embarked on them, making it hard to appreciate quite how unsubtle they are). And I didn't personally find the characters, for the most part, to be rounded or believable - on the contrary, I had the very strong impression that the book is peopled with ciphers mouthing political or social 'positions', rather than actual characters with any genuine psychological complexity. (I actually think Hollinghurst may have signalled this was intentional, with his very literal style of naming characters - Nick Guest, etc.)

I also can't quite agree that there is criticism of the upper classes thoughout - it strikes me that Guest (and Hollinghurst) is fascinated by them, and the reader's supposed to be, at most, ambivalent. It seemed to me that the harshest criticism was reserved for the nouveaux riche characters like Bertrand Ouradi, Maurice Tipper, and Gerald Fedden himself (who only really needed a moustache to twirl in order to be the complete melodramatic villain). There is implied criticism of Margaret Thatcher, but it strikes me much of it comes from an upper-class perspective (the High Tory angle of disliking her for her populism and her allegiance to the 'new money' of stockbrokers and estate agents), not a lower-class one.

All that said, I do agree with you about Hollinghurst's skill in blending Guest's small world and wider social issues together, and using the former to comment on the latter. Like you, I was also impressed with the way he guides his story towards a rather bleak and tragic ending. I definitely thought the book - and the quality of Hollinghurst's prose - really came into its own in the last few chapters.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the book more than I did! As an aside, I'll be adding your blog to my blogroll, and I'm really looking forward to reading more of your reviews.

(Sorry for the long comment, by the way. I do have a tendency to ramble, I'm afraid.)

bibliolathas said...

Enjoyed your review - he really nails the 80s, doesn't he? Captures them perfectly.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Aethelreadtheunread, please don't apologise for such a full and intelligent comment. Thoughtful opinions like that are exactly why I love blogging and sharing with other, like-minded people.

For me, the subtlety sprung from the ambiguities. Even now, I couldn't say for certain whether Nick was naively carried along on a wave of euphoric discovery, or whether he, consciously or subconsciously, manipulated those around him, wilfully ignoring anything that suited him to ignore (personally I lean towards the latter). I think Hollinghurst's treatment of Thatcher too was very subtle too, criticising the period of her premiership without taking cheap shots at her personally proving a very effective way of criticising the atmosphere of the 1980s.

I quite agree that both Nick and Hollinghurst appear to be fascinated by the upper classes. There was an interesting contrast between 'old' and 'new' money, but it was the relationship between art and politics that drew me in. As for criticism of the upper classes, I read the it less as a personal attack on Thatcher, and more a critique of the political landscape that she created, which allowed the likes of Bertrand, Maurice, and Gerald to flourish. Again, criticism by proxy. Incidentally, I didn't see Gerald as a wholly bad character, more a slightly daft member of the moneyed classes, guilty of poor judgement and over-indulgence, but without the harsher prejudices of Bertrand and Maurice, steered by their like but not fully a part of their circle.

I do agree, Hollinghurst writes wonderfully. I think he has the odd lapse, but overall the quality of his writing is enviable.

Thanks again for stopping by, I shall certainly be an avid follower of your own blog, and look forward to sharing opinions in the future. :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

bibliolathas, thanks for the compliment. Hollinghurst definitely recreates the atmosphere amongst a particular class during the 1980s, probably the defining atmosphere of the decade.

Nikola said...

I really liked this novel when I read it (unfortunately, before I started my blog, so I don't have a review up)! I thought that it was a bit too long and unfocused at times, but I absolutely loved the character of Nick, flaws and all. And I totally agree with you - novels of decadence and hedonism are so enchanting!

Have you seen the BBC mini-series based on the novel? It is spectacular!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I thought Nick was an interesting too and, unlike some people, I really don't take a dislike to self-centred, pleasure-chasing characters - I hope that doesn't say something about my own character!

I hadn't planned to watch the mini-series, but after your ringing endorsement I might have to give it a try. I seem to remember reviews were pretty good at the time.

bobbydigital said...

Why is the setting of the line of beauty put in the 1980s ?

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

The Line of Beauty is a critique of 1980s Britain and looks at what it was to be a (privileged) gay man during that period.

I suppose it's a period that resonates for Hollinghurst particularly, as a time when he was maturing and probably remembers quite vividly. I think it's also a period that was discussed quite a lot during the 2000s, partly due to generational reasons, and partly because the distance from the time allowed for a more objective discussion of the decade.

Was that what you were wanting to know?

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