The plot, all right, holds few surprises. It starts in 1983, as Nick Guest is staying in the London home of a college friend; his friend’s father Gerald is a Tory in Thatcher’s parliament, making Nick’s exploration of his own homosexuality a rather tricky affair. It’s not too much to guess that Gerald and the Conservatives will be unveiled as hypocrites before the end of the novel—or that AIDS will claim someone close to Nick when the party of early-eighties gay life comes to an end.
But the plot isn’t the point. This novel’s pleasures are thick and deep, growing out of the brilliant observational powers of the main character. Like Hollinghurst himself, Nick is a devoted student of the late style of Henry James—a “style that hides things and reveals things at the same time,” Nick explains—and as his political and sexual educations lead him through every caste of English society, he attempts to decipher his surroundings as if he were reading James, as if he were a character in James, as if he were James—meticulously working out the subtext packed into every word, silence, and gesture.
Fortunately for the casual reader, Hollinghurst’s actual prose style is much more forgiving than the Master’s. Thoroughly witty, yes, and elegant, but also happily intelligible. And while readers of Hollinghurst’s piercingly erotic The Folding Star may be disappointed by The Line of Beauty’s relative unwillingness to arouse emotions below the navel, he still offers more juice than James: not just “lines of beauty”observed in art and architecture and lines of revealing dialogue, but those beautiful lines observed through men’s clothes, and line after line after line of cocaine.
I hope I’m giving you some hint of just how tightly this book is woven together, how splendidly unified it is.The title comes from an 18th-century treatise on design by William Hogarth, in which Hogarth argues that a line with two opposing curves is more pleasing to the eye than simpler strokes “insomuch that the hand takes a lively movement in making it with pen or pencil.” As Nick analyzes the hieroglyphics of the high life, it is that lively hand that eludes his understanding—so while the author’s virtuosity is satisfying enough for its own sake, it also strikes an emotionally resonant chord each time this leitmotif is sounded.
The Times Literary Supplement review accused the novel of being “overwhelmingly snobbish,” of displaying a “wearisome” sort of “arch artistic knowingness”—but Hollinghurst pegs Nick’s aesthetic judgments with the assuredness of a petit Proust, and as for social snobbery, there’s something gratifying about seeing a well-trained literary mind document the phony grandeur of right wing culture. Whenever Gerald or a fellow Tory mentions “the Lady”—the PM is almost never referred to by name—it’s with that mixture of piety and eros that literature usually reserves for the Virgin Mother or (more to the point) the Virgin Queen. The bourgeois Tory courtiers, orbiting around their Ingloriana, are satisfyingly debased by the tacit comparison.
Hollinghurst’s previous novels have attempted to impose over the intimate lives of his characters the shadow of some greater history, but in The Line of Beauty he has finally integrated the private and public into one seamless narrative. I admit it: I still miss the brazen eroticism that, in his first novels, proved so artful and acute. But in terms of structural intelligence and literary craft, this latest achievement has surpassed its predecessors handsomely.