31 July 2006

Beautiful Lines of Prose

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty is a contemporary attempt at a story in the vein of Henry James – but don’t let that description scare you off. The book is (mostly) modern, as is the story, set in the London of Margaret Thatcher and an unbeatable Tory government machine.

Henry James is actually one of the story’s recurring themes; James is the academic interest of the protagonist Nick Guest, and Hollinghurst uses him as Nick’s built-in mentor and foil, as well as taking James’ view of the world and periodically casting Nick’s own life and experiences through those lenses. Nick comes from a modest upbringing in a small town outside London, but finds himself living with – and suddenly living in – the rarefied world of wealthy Londoners. As the house guest of an up-and-striving Conservative member of Parliament, a college friend of the family’s son, Nick is pulled into and shown an implicit and explicit series of connections to levels of English wealth and aristocracy, all graded and degraded by various bits of history (and many cast in a Jamesian light): the formerly-wealthy, old-line English, the still-comfortable Jewish family from the turn of the previous century, the nouveau riche businessman (simultaneously admired and hated, of course) or the wealthy foreign (Arab, no less) interlopers buying their way in.

If this sounds like the traditional make-up of a grand English novel, well, it is. But Hollinghurst’s London sparkles, and this backdrop feels fresh and innovative, even with the archetypes, because of the overlaying of Nick’s character on top of this framework: Nick is not just young and intellectually-worldly but personally impoverished; he is also gay, which provides a wholly different point-of-view for his experiences of family, politics, and degrees of social stigma and acceptance, as well as for the England of the mid-1980s. This isn’t a coming-out novel – Nick is out, and it’s known – though the story plays with this idea for Nick and his friends, and the simultaneous levels of social acceptance and rejection, permissiveness and dismissiveness, that they must face.

Another theme is drawn from the title, and the story makes reference to a wide variety of such lines; to mention some of them here would be to give away too many of the small, sweet surprises that the book offers, but one oft-mentioned element is an ogee, a beautiful architectural curve that Nick calls “the line of beauty” for its symmetry and sweep. The ogee also seems to represent an ideal for Nick, a kind of natural beauty – and functional integration; what we might call “belonging” – that he always seeks to feel but ultimately fails to achieve. It is an effective bit of storytelling on Hollinghurst’s part that Nick’s envies in life are many and varied, and that they often shift in the light as different challenges or negative consequences are revealed, and as he works to discover what it means to be true to himself and his own desires.

To an American reader (this one, anyway), the language may sometimes feel forced in that particularly English way; Hollinghurst has a tendency to drop certain conjunctions, particularly the word “that.” I could not decide if this was for literary style – trying to match some notion of what “classic” English literature should be – or if it’s his natural way of writing. But that is a small complaint. Overall, The Line of Beauty is a wonderful read, a terrific and engaging piece of literature, intelligent and entertaining.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home