This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. I can’t say that I was enthralled all the way through, and I’m sorry to admit there were moments when the fact that The Line of Beauty had won the Man Booker was the only thing that kept me reading. But I can happily say it turned out alright. It’s so nice to be surprised occasionally. I won’t pretend that this is an exhaustive account; I have had some trouble cutting this down, because it seems there is a lot to say about this novel, and that, I suppose, is a recommendation in itself.
The narrator is a young man named Nick Guest. Aptly so, because he is the house-guest of the Fedden family, the head of which is Gerald Fedden, a prominent MP in Margret Thatcher’s Conservative government. In fact, Nick is more than a guest, he is somewhere between a member of the family and a member of permanent household staff. He is a confidante, a housekeeper, a resident expert on music, literature and art; a friend of the children from their time at Oxford. He is, he would have us believe, the perfect guest; tactful, gracious, chameleon, comfortable. He is also homosexual, and for much of the novel involved in a heady illicit cocaine-fuelled affair with a beautiful, sex-addicted, closeted Arab millionaire. Can you feel the walls closing in yet?
It’s undeniably a beautifully executed novel. The prose is at times extraordinary: incisive, prescient, and lots of other words that don’t do justice to Hollinghurst’s style. The characterisations of the Notting Hill household are absolutely perfect, unabashed and microscopic. Hollinghurst is a master of social observation and the niceties and nastiness of people.
I’m going to skip right to the end: where it all comes crashing down. The perfect family is no longer perfect, the perfect guest is no longer welcome, and the wealthy and beautiful lover is dying of AIDS in his mid-twenties. Nick’s fawning complacence is exposed – our narrator has been leading us down the winding path of his own obsessions and faulty judgements, without engaging with power structures that he deems to be irrelevant. For him, everything is framed in terms of beauty; his is a myopic, self-saturated view of a complicated and ugly world.
There have been hints of this along the way – most notably in Nick’s aesthetic reactions to other people. Nick is obsessed with Wani (the young millionaire), but the reader has no counterpoint to balance Nick’s powerful infatuation against. Similarly, but more crucially, Nick is unable to see why people find Gerald attractive, but his sexual dominance and power is revealed as a hidden but potent force at the dramatic close of the novel, and one that Nick has neglected to acknowledge at his peril.
What does this mean? We are witnessing, in the denouement of this novel, the moment of a shift in awareness, and the myriad problems of subjectivity. That’s the bare bones of it. Nick stops hiding at the Fedden’s, forfeiting the reassurance and status that the family has afforded him for so long. His problems are not theirs, and their problems are not his, but each has their own cross to bear. On the one hand there is AIDS and isolation, on the other is infidelity, betrayal and madness. There is a significance in the difference between the generations here; the young and the old; the old and the new. Both he and Gerald have been forced out of their respective closets by the manic truth-telling of Catherine, Gerald’s troubled neurotic daughter. One gets the sense that beauty is somehow always predicated on a certain amount of suspended disbelief; something that might be cruelly called untruth: pretending Nick is part of the family, for instance.
There are many other elements of this novel I would like to examine but don’t have time here. The role of visual art, and physical objects; the symbolism of cars, the involvement of Henry James, the clarity and murkiness of Catherine’s madness and politics. Unfortunately I’ve run out of time. Read it, plough through the 1980s excess; in the end it’s worth it.