A Jamesian life of ambiguity

Benjamin Lytal writes a column on fiction for the New York Sun.

It is painful to try to be good in two ways at once. Young Nick Guest is a virginal gay youth lodging with the family of Gerald Fedden, a Thatcherite member of Parliament. Nick, from humble origins, can’t help but be charmed by Gerald, whose house he comes to via Gerald’s son, Toby, a pal and secret crush from recent Oxford days. Nick will remember “the life of instinct opening in front of him” in these first days in London, but Nick’s sweet instincts are soon up against the more self-serving instincts of his classmates, who reveal themselves, upon graduation, to be not perpetual students but heiresses, bankers and aspirant politicians.

Gerald’s sense of the good life is even more worldly: He regards rent boys as “vulgar and unsafe,” while claiming, in reference to the music of Richard Strauss, that “I don’t see what’s vulgar about being glorious.” Throughout “The Line of Beauty,” Alan Hollinghurst’s career-consolidating fourth novel, Nick, “to whom life was a series of shocks, more or less well mastered,” is too perceptive not to recognize that the avaricious Londoners who surround him indict, and undermine, his innocent desire to enjoy the Feddens’ hospitality and live as a gay man at the same time.

He inaugurates his sexual career with a Jamaican boyfriend he has found through the personals; later he dates an old classmate, Wani Ouradi, a Lebanese playboy. Nick names Wani’s production company Ogee, homophonically alluding to orgies but more directly referring to Hogarth’s line of beauty -- the double curve seen, for example, on harps. “The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome.”


In other words, the line of beauty is decadence. The novel begins in 1983, with the Tory landslide that consolidated Margaret Thatcher’s rule, the explosion of AIDS and the financial boom, facilitated by Thatcherism, that Gerald Fedden and his milieu term “the Big Bang.” Nick is at first wary of Gerald, but warms to him, relishing “the lingering pompous thrill” his society affords if you are complicit “in Gerald’s habit of showing off to himself.” Nick’s provincial parents are, wonderfully, “more sensitive than they admitted,” but with the Feddens, who are a sophisticated dream to the young scholar, Nick feels easier about his sexuality, though he knows that his status “as family friend, as keyholder, [is] a very uncertain quantity.”

When he joins the Fedden household, Nick entertains “aesthetically radiant images of gay activity gathering in a golden future for him.” But after a few years the radiant images have noticeably darkened; he warily eyes “a man who thinks of nothing but sex ... his idling gaze, the huge dark pupils that seemed to fill his eyes, and the curving weight of him in his black trunks.” The pursuit of sex, in upstairs bedrooms at the Feddens’ soirees, is at once a triumph over the stuffy Tories downstairs and a heavy danger.

In the beginning, Nick conducts himself as if in love with the house’s propriety, but he grows out of that reverence, and only when Gerald excoriates him at the end of the novel, accusing him of using the family and bringing scandal on his house (“[I]t’s an old homo trick. You can’t have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else’s.”) does Nick’s initial shyness and later discretion take on tragic weight. It is the habit of sneaking that prevents Nick from standing up to Gerald’s harrowing dismissal. He has had to live in Gerald’s house as in any community that, nominally tolerant of homosexuals, has not unconditionally accepted them.

“The Line of Beauty” has been advertised as about AIDS, a conceptual sequel to Hollinghurst’s brilliant debut, “The Swimming-Pool Library” (1988), set in pre-AIDS London. Indeed, the books are structurally similar: A highly articulate young man makes sexual license a habit, takes a black lover, is chastened by their class differences and encounters an older and old-fashioned mentor, who finally turns on him as a representation of the larger society’s disapproval of homosexuality. In “The Swimming-Pool Library,” it was police crackdowns, as remembered from the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s.

Hollinghurst centers his plots not on the practical hampering of gay life in the face of AIDS or by the police but on the undoing of his protagonists’ initiative and savoir-faire in the teeth of these problems. It is not AIDS but Nick’s failure to deal with power, or truly befriend those in power, that makes “The Line of Beauty.” Nick’s ogee serves as an expression of sickness and death but cannot withstand Gerald, whom he needed as a kind of father for his new, cosmopolitan life.

Nick is writing his dissertation on Henry James, on “style that hides things and reveals things at the same time.” He wonders if this is not a description of his own modus vivendi. He prizes James’ “clinching vagueness,” ambiguity that does not beg for clarification. Hollinghurst (and by association, Nick) does share James’ way of defining and redefining a character, crowding the reader’s mind with impressions. But Nick seems to use Jamesian subtlety as a crutch. Hollinghurst’s finest phrases (which are very fine, the jewels of the novel) consistently describe ironic alienation. A tryst takes on “the mood of a pointless dare”; a moment comes for Nick “all wrapped up in its own description, so that he was already recounting it to some impressionable other person.” Nick “liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity.” He looks into Margaret Thatcher’s face and sees “a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque.” And when Gerald’s career is threatened, Nick realizes his truly perfunctory place in the household: “A structure of command, long laid away in velvet, had been rapidly reassembled.”


For Nick, Henry James is less an influence than a talisman. Nick has not mastered his milieu as James did; he has tragically overestimated it. He would like to have the opportunity to be ambiguous, but his situation is glaringly clear.

Hollinghurst may be Jamesian, but he is more pitched into the world; his novels are classically enveloping experiences. It is only worrisome that “The Line of Beauty,” one of the most mentally nurturing reads this year, is so similar to “The Swimming-Pool Library”; one hopes that Hollinghurst, who should be beloved, will take us farther afield in the future. *