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.

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Hogarth's Line of Beauty

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