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The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst —bored by decadence

Example of the Ogee shape, referenced in The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst

An example of the ogee shape

Cover of The Line Of Beauty, the 2004 Booker winning novel by Alun Hollinghurst.

What a disappointment The Line of Beauty turned out to be.

This winner of the 2004 Booker Prize was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon and go in search of more interesting reading material — a railway timetable, the instruction booklet for my cooker or th ingredients panel of a cereal packet. All were far more enticing than Alun Hollinghurst’s text.

The Line of Beauty is meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s. This was the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. But it was also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

We do get some of the sense of the period but it’s merely as background to the story of the sexual awakening of a young homosexual, his encounters with the great and the good and his relationships with a series of men. There’s a lot of sex, drugs and more sex.

Nick Guest is an Oxford graduate from a middle class background. During his time at university he got to mingle with people from wealth, power and titles. Through one of his friends, Toby Fedden, the son of  a rising star in the Tory party, he’s invited to take up residence in the Fedden’s upmarket house while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Transfixed By Beauty

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

Slow Progress

Overall I found The Line of Beauty to be a remarkably dull book. Reading it was a chore and if it hadn’t been part of my Booker Prize project I wouldn’t have bothered.

The narrative spans four years, divided into three sections.

Section one “The Love Chord” , takes place in 1983 shortly after Margaret Thatcher has won her second general election victory. Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. It’s a painfully slow narrative in which Nick takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Section two “To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong?” is an improvement. The time has shifted forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

The final section “The End of the Street” takes place just one year later when Wani has been diagnosed as HIV positive and is deteriorating rapidly. Across the city the world of Nick’s former benefactors, the Feddens, is about to disintegrate amid a political and financial catastrophe. The Feddens use Nick as a scapegoat.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider. His surname — Guest — is a clue to his real status. They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream.

Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

The Line Of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst: Footnotes

The book won the Booker Prize in 2004 against competition from Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The Master by Colm Toibin.  The Line of Beauty was dubbed by the media as ‘the first gay novel’ to win the prize. Describing his novel, Alan Hollinghurst said, ‘The first part is a romance, the second one is more farcical and grotesque and the third one is more tragic in nature. In 2019, the novel was ranked 38th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.

This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2018. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.

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