Monday 20 June 2011

The Line of Beauty

The title of Allan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004) is a reference to William Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty (1801):

the wavering line, which is a line more productive of beauty [...], as in flowers, and other forms of ornamental kind: for which reason we shall call it the line of beauty.

Nick, the protagonist of Hollinghurt's book, uses the expression to describe the body of a lover at one point:

The double curve was Hogarth's 'line of beauty', the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani's back. He didn't think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell --- he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty. (p. 200)

In the article "Writing the Gay '80s with Henry James: David Leavitt's A Place I've Never Been and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty" (2005), published in Henry James Review, Julie Rivkin says some more about 'the line of beauty':

The title The Line of Beauty, which refers to William Hogarth’s theory that visual beauty inheres in a particular S-shaped curve, comprehends a narrative line that links aesthetic experience to all that enables it. The term has many referents, from the curves of the beautiful male bodies that arouse Nick’s desire to the architectural turns that fill the spaces he inhabits to the turns of phrase he rather portentously cites from James. (p. 289)

I picked up The Line of Beauty again because its main character, Nick Guest, is a gay PhD student writing a thesis on Henry James (James's own sexuality is a topic alluded to in Colm Tóibín's The Master (2004)). As some of you might know, I am interested in the representation of all things Victorian in contemporary fiction.

It turns out that in The Line of Beauty, references to James and his works are plenty, so are descriptions of penises. Different states of arousal. The angles of their jutting out illusively or decisively under the trousers: horizontal, diagonal. A passage I rather admired:

He [Nick] felt deliciously brainwashed by sex, when he closed his eyes phallus chased phallus like a wallpaper across the dark, and at any moment the imagery of anal intercourse, his new triumph and skill, could gallop in surreal montage across the street or classroom or dining table. (p. 155)

The novel is set in the 1980s (to be precise, 1983-1987) when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister ('The Lady herself ... Mrs T!') and homosexuality was not normally discussed openly. 

Nick Guest, who lives in his rich friend Toby Fedden's house in Kensington (Nicholas and Tobias went to Oxford together), reminded me of The Great Gatsby's famous 'unreliable' narrator Nick Carraway (they even share the same first name), The Secret History's Richard Papen and even Special Topics in Calamity Science's Blue van Meer. Far from a servant (but like a governess or perhaps, a butler) and not quite a family member, Nick never really belongs and he is conscious and insecure about that. Interestingly, Nick occupies the attic room - a meaningful space in literature. Nick's surname tellingly describes his status: he is only a 'guest'. Gerald Fedden, Toby's father and a Tory MP, sums up Nick's position at the end of the book:

[I]t's an old homo trick. You can't have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else's. And I suppose after a while you just couldn't bear it, you must have been very envious I think of everything we have, and coming from your background too perhaps ... and you've wreaked some pretty awful revenge on us as a result [...] I mean --- I ask you again, who are you? What the fuck are you doing here? (pp. 481, 482)

One clarification: Nick does have a 'real family' but his humble parents (Don and Dot Guest) are just not as glamorous as the Feddens and he seems to be constantly ashamed of them --- Don is an antique dealer in Barwick; one of his areas of expertise is winding clocks. And Gerald's reproach about 'awful revenge on us' is not an exaggeration --- Nick snorts coke and of course, engage in sexual activities, in the house.

Gerald's question is good. What is Nick doing in the house? He is there partly to provide an outsider's view of the life of the rich, surely. He is the reader's stand-in. He is us. This is a classic narrative device which I am slightly wary and bored of now. Think of the books I already mentioned, and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1860-61) and Evelyn Waugh's Bridehead Revisited (1945), among others. Some of the characters in these books manage to transform others and some are forcefully transformed. The peril of the social other. (Of course one can also argue that all books are about transformation.)

There is one moment in the book which I quite liked. Towards the end, we are told that Nick's first lover, Leo, dies (of Aids; quite a few characters die of it in the book and it is strongly hinted at that Nick himself is HIV positive), and when Leo's sister breaks the news to Nick (the lovers have split at this point), she shows him the first letter he wrote to Leo:

He only glanced at what he'd written, on the Feddens' embossed letter-head --- the small size, meant for social thank-yous, because he hadn't much to say. The writing itself looked quaint and studied, though he remembered Leo had praised it: 'Hello!' he'd begun, since of course he hadn't yet known Leo's name. The cross-stroke of the H curled back under the uprights like a dog's tail. He saw he'd mentioned Bruckner, Henry James, all his Interests --- very artlessly, but it hadn't mattered, and indeed they had never been mentioned again, when the two of them were together. At the top there was Leo's annotations in pencil: Pretty. Rich? Too young? This had been struck through later by a firm red tick. (p. 400)

How romantic. Who write letters these days? Wouldn't it be nice to have some sort of physical mementos to remember one's association with another person with? We send emails, facebook messages, text messages today. And tomorrow there's nothing substantial, tangible that you can touch and hold. And... what an imposter Nick is, using the Feddens's letterhead.

The drug, the alcohol, the sex and the money of high society reminded me of Katie Rophie's article "The Allure of Messiness", which is about a recent season of Mad Men.

The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts: "The love chord", "To whom do you beautifully belong" and "The end of the street". The structure made it easy for Andrew Davies to adapt it for a three-part TV series: 'Andrew found the novel lent itself well to adaptation. Nick's story fitted neatly into three parts, and the detail with which Alan had drawn his characters meant that there was loads of brilliant dramatic material that Andrew could distil and shape.' (via.)

"To whom do you beautifully belong" is from a line in James's play The High Bid (1907). To whom do you beautifully belong? To the highest bidder, of course. But is one still beautiful, if one can be bought?

Leo and Nick from the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, 2006
  • Nick, in his secret innocence, felt a certain respect for her [Catherine Fedden, Toby's sister] experience with men: to have so many failures required a high rate of preliminary success. p. 8
  • A shared passion for a subject, large or small, could quickly put two strangers into a special state of subdued rapture and rivalry, distantly resembling love; but you had to hit on the subject. p. 27
  • Nick loved the upper-class economy of her talk, her way of saying nothing except by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement; he longed to master it himself. p. 47
  • Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. p. 53
  • He wondered if he could have a crush on this waiter too --- it only needed a couple of sightings, the current mood of frustration, and a single half-conscious decision, and then the boy's shape would be stamped on his mind and make his pulse race whenever he appeared. p. 77
  • He wanted pure compliments, just as he wanted unconditional love. p. 102
  • Don't say, "Jesus fucking bullocks." p. 152
  • [Nick:] 'I'm just doing something on style in the --- oh, in the English novel!' 'Aaah yes,' said Mrs Charles [Leo's mother], with a nod, as if to say that this was something infinitely superior but also of course fairly foolish. pp. 158-159
  • The thing about the cinema was that they seemed to share in the long common history of happy snoggers and gropers, and Nick liked that. p. 167
  • To apologize for what you most wanted to do, to concede that it was obnoxious, boring, 'vulgar and unsafe' --- that was the worst thing. p. 174
  • [Talking about Harrods] the mother of all bloody food halls in the whole world!
  • And then, god, how would a pretty little poof with an Oxford accent survive in prison? They'd all after his arse. p. 233
  • The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. p. 240
  • Perhaps being old friends didn't mean very much, they shared assumptions rather than lives. p. 292
  • I know people take it very personally when they find they've been kept out of a secret. But really secrets are sort of impersonal. They've simply things that can't be told, irrespective of who they can't be told to. p. 469
  • [Last sentence in the book] It wasn't just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful. p. 501
Postscript: Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the Booker Prize 2010, says: 'I thought I'm two or three years away from my 40th birthday and it [writing a novel] hasn't happened. And the reason was I was trying to write like Henry James. Novels were about country houses, for fuck's sake. The only pity was I'd never been in one. It took me a long time to realise my material could be the world that I'd grown up in.' (via.) (Also see "The Country House and the English Novel".)


  1. Thanks for a really good analysis of The Line of Beauty. I've just finished reading it and your walk-through throws about some fascinating points. It's certainly a book that is deceptively complex enough to keep critics, readers, and academics talking for some while.

    If interested, my own humble review is here: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

  2. Why is the setting of the line of beauty put in the 1980s


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