Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

There’s a scene halfway through Alan Hollinghursts’s The Line of Beauty, where a young, talented pianist is giving a concert in the a private home, and keeps coming back for encore after encore, long after the people in the audience have got bored and are only applauding to be polite. That’s pretty much how I felt reading Hollinghurst’s novels – a vague sense of appreciation coupled with a strong anxiety for it to get over so I could move on to more interesting things.

It’s not that The Line of Beauty is a bad novel, exactly. It’s just whimsical and rambling – pleasant enough to skim through, but ultimately unengaging. Hollinghurst tries to channel James (the main protagonist, Nick Guest, is doing his doctoral thesis on the Master) but manages neither the great man’s psychological acuity, nor his facility with language, nor his deeply engrossing plot development. The end result is a novel that reads more like one of D. H. Lawrence’s lesser work (with sexual explicitness adjusted for our more permissive times) than like anything resembling the Golden Bowl.

The plot is classic James. A young man enters an alien world as a guest, a long-term visitor. Gradually, through a series of social interactions played out in loving detail, he makes a place for himself in this new culture, accepting and being accepted. Yet despite his success in this world he remains, at heart, an outsider, and as the novel approaches its denouement the delicate balance of his existence in this world is brought dramatically and violently to a close. Decisions are taken, conclusions reached, the world moves on a different place. Hollinghurst manages this surface similarity well – and the idea of using a Jamesian lens to explore class and sexuality differences in 80’s England is a fascinating one.

Where Hollinghurst fails is in reproducing the depth of the James experience. Too many of the scenes here seem repetitive, too much of the action seems contrived, and, ultimately, pointless(some of this, is true of James as well, of course, but the point of James’ genius is that he never lets you feel this the way Hollinghurst does; you’re never driven to question why you should even care what happens to the main characters in a J ames novel in the way I found myself doing here). Hollinghurst completely fails to explore any point of view except for his main protagonists, with the result that the other characters in the novel remain caricatures, ideal types playing out a role. Nor is his Hollinghurst’s writing particulary exceptional. His prose is adequate, but far from impressive.

Of course, The Line of Beauty is also a novel about being forthrightly, gloriously gay. Here Hollinghurst is on surer footing, I feel – he writes about being gay in a marvellously un-selfconscious manner, and his love scenes join beauty to energy in a superb way. The first section of this book, with its glorious depiction of a young man falling madly yet shyly in love with his first real boyfriend remains my favourite part of the book. As the novel progresses, however, the weight of the rest of the plot causes the love scenes to drag. What began as a zestful exploration of homosexuality becomes a case of special pleading – as if the fact that he was writing about being gay meant that Hollinghurst was interesting by default and deserved special latitude. None of the writing in the long second section matches that in the first, and while the third section manages a more authentic tone of sadness, it still makes too much of the main protagonist being gay. This is disingenuous because it achieves precisely what the first part of the novel was working against – the alienation of the reader from the protagonist’s plight. It’s hard to come away from this novel with the feeling that Nick Guest’s sexual preferences are irrelevant to the story [1] – and that, to me, makes it a weaker and less interesting novel.

Bottomline: The Line of Beauty is a pleasant but unexceptional read, a novel that has some wonderful scenes, but that could have greatly benefited from tighter editing and a greater sense of drive. Overall, another addition to my list of surprising choices that the Booker committee has made over the years.

Notes:

[1] One could argue, of course, that this is almost certainly not Hollinghurst’s point in the first place. This is valid, but it leaves me wondering, what, if anything Hollinghurst’s point is. Certainly as an exploration of being gay in England in the 80’s, the novel falls woefully short, and I can’t think of anything else that really stands out here.

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