Monday, July 29, 2013

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

This was quite an amazing book and quite enjoyable for me, even if most of the time I was lost as hell. The writing is so dense, almost impenetrable (for me at least) but really quite beautiful.  It was slightly disconcerting to be reading about a time period in which I grew up, but could barely remember; Nick Guest, the protagonist, is probably around 50 years old now, seven years older than me.  The first Alan Hollinghurst book I read, I felt the same way - lost lost lost, but loved it.  I think reading Hollinghurst requires much more attention to detail than I'm able to usually muster in a book (which made me a terrificly awful English major in college - I don't know how to "deep read").

Once again, I was reminded much of E.M. Forster.  But I'm also going to hazard a guess that I'm supposed to be reminded of Henry James as well (Nick Guest is a James scholar, or at least scholarling).   I don't know enough about Henry James to catch any Jamesian allusions though.  Except maybe that like James, Nick was a guest in rich people's houses and observed them, and like James, Nick was gay.  Penny asks Nick early in the novel what Henry James would have thought of these 80s ladies and men and Nick answers:  ''He'd have been very kind to us, he'd have said how wonderful and how beautiful we were, he'd have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn't have realized until just before the end that he'd seen right through us.''  

So Nick Guest, a character I disliked more and more as I fell deeper and deeper into the book.  For starters, he's definitely a courtier to these people; his bowing and scraping to them really made him quite ugly in my mind, particularly as it became clear that he was taking advantage of their hospitality by having sex and doing drugs in their home.  He's such a parasite.  I've read some reviews that compared him to a character I don't know from a series of books by Anthony Powell, and to Nick Carraway, of Gatsby fame.  I haven't read Gatsby since high school, and I hate to make allusions based on seeing the recent movie.  But at least superficially, the two Nicks have quite a bit in common.  

So is Nick the villain of the piece?  He has lots of unprotected sex in these people's several homes, does cocaine (one of the "lines of beauty" ) in their house, finally exposes them to ruin.  And yet, the most devastating scene in the book, he's being thrown out of the Fedden's house for causing scandal, and you also start to realize he's a scapegoat for other sinister things going on in the house, and he's still being his oily self, all suck-up, and his last hope is the (long suffering, I'm sure) Italian housekeeper, talking with her about his first day with the Feddens, and she's cuts him dead and tells him she thought he was no good from the very start.  Ohhhh snap.  So, so awful.  So crushing.  Suddenly, you feel sorry for the villain.  And you are totally thrown for a loop.  It's a great book like that.

His name is cool too.  Even I caught that - Nick Guest.  He's always a guest.  Never quite belongs.  Of course, they finally ask him to leave too.  He's not really part of their family or their world.  They suck that way too - they are parasites as much as he is.  They use him too.  Everyone is villainous.

Wani, his multi-millionaire boyfriend, is one of those despicable rich boy gays who, to protect their precious money, keep their homosexuality a secret.  He reminded me of someone I went to high school with; also nouveau-riche and conservative.  He definitely villainous.

I'm still not exactly sure why the book is called The Line of Beauty which makes feel all the more stupid.  I think one would have to read everything, forever, to completely understand literary fiction.  Oh well.  I had to look it up in Wikipedia, and it's the double S of the ogee shape, a shape which swings both ways, described by Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty.  I also read that this could also refer to cocaine, and a man's back and ass.  Both are beautiful to Nick (one is quite beautiful to me).  That's still over my little old head though.

I have to admit, I kept waiting and waiting for Patsy and Edina of AbFab to pop out, but they never did.  Margaret Thatcher finally showed up.

AIDS is as much a character at Margaret Thatcher.  

So the sex that was missing from the last book I read, Gore Vidal's Empire, is alive and well in this book.  Some very hot literary sex.  

The setting seems to be a series of parties or get together, connected by what happens before and after.  A birthday party, a party for Margaret Thatcher, a fete, and finally ends with a wedding that Nick can't attend because of what happens.  For as rich as everyone is, no one ever actually does any work.  They just go to parties.  

The Line of BeautyThe Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dense, practically impenetrable, absolutely beautiful prose.  Hollingsworth adds layer after layer of character, plot, and setting; sometimes I was absolutely lost, had no idea what was going on, but continued to read, completely under the spell of this book.  I could not put it down.  It's Forsterish at times.  It's also probably quite Jamesian, although I don't know enough about Henry James to judge that.  Henry James floats over the book like a fairy godfather... The protagonist, the oily parasitical Nick Guest, is a James scholar-to-be, and I wondered more than once if Nick is what Henry James might have been if he'd lived in 1980s England rather than turn of the last century England.  Margaret Thatcher is the wicked stepmother of the piece; I suppose if I want to continue down that path of allusion, AIDs, is the fairy's curse, almost a character in the book.  Character-wise overall, be prepared to be thrown for a loop.  My feelings for various characters, Nick most of all, changed as I fell deeper and deeper into the stream of the book; a last devastating scene left me feeling pity for a villain, completely throwing me for a loop.  I still shudder a bit thinking about it.  It's a book like that.

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