Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty

I just finished Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which is a beautiful, very satisfying read. It won the Booker prize in 2004. The story is about a young man, Nick, who moves in with the Feddens, the family of a university friend. This family is wealthy, the father a recently-successful Tory politician. Nick is in love with the son, Toby, and fascinated by the parents and daughter, and he lives with them observing them and loving them as well as passing judgment on them.

Nick gets labeled an “aesthete”; he is writing a dissertation on style in Henry James, and he has a wealth of cultural knowledge and opinions, and now he has the chance to leave his middle-class background behind and live in relative luxury. He is an outsider in many ways – an outsider to the Fedden’s world of money and influence and an outsider because of his sexuality. The book is a coming-of-age story: Nick explores his identity, his sexuality, and his relationship to the larger world of politics and money as he moves through his early 20s.

The story takes place in England in the 80s, and the rise of the Tories and Margaret Thatcher is in the novel’s background, with their severe economic policies and mistrust of social misfits. Nick finds himself more and more of an outsider to this world as the book goes on; as Gerald Fedden gets more and more successful, rich, and powerful, Nick’s deceptions and rebellions grow.

What moved me most about the novel is the close and careful observations of the narrator, a third person narrator centered on Nick’s consciousness. We get many, many descriptions of the intricacies of conversation, shifting moods, and facial expressions, in a very Jamesian manner. Much of the novel is taken up with party scenes, parties where much political lobbying and social competing goes on, and we see Nick carefully winding his way through conversation after conversation, sensitive to every nuance of what is said and implied. I love this kind of observation and analysis – what can be more interesting than thinking about the way people act and talk, their motivations and desires? The plot moves slowly, but I never found it boring; the heart of the novel is in the human interaction, not in exciting plot twists, although they are here too.

Beauty haunts the novel – the line of beauty is from William Hogarth’s 18th-century work The Analysis of Beauty, and it is an “S”-shaped curved which he thought is a part of every successful work of art. Nick chases after beauty, in books and art, in men, in life, and he sometimes finds it. His pursuit of beauty is at odds with the political culture around him, which values efficiency, industry, and economic growth over matters of aesthetics. It seems to me that a number of contemporary writers are interested in aesthetics and what role beauty might have in our culture – Zadie Smith’s book On Beauty comes to mind as does Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I’ve read neither book, but I wonder if this is a trend.

I enjoyed getting lost in the world of the book. It’s a much wealthier, more sophisticated and cultured world than I’ll ever be a part of, and so as a reader, I was curious about it all and also aware that these characters wouldn’t think much of me, most likely. But in reading, that’s okay.

I’m planning on reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black next.