Clifton Snider is the author of eight acclaimed books of poetry, including The Age of the Mother (1992) and The Alchemy of Opposites (2000). He has published three novels: Loud Whisper (2000), Bare Roots (2001), and Wresting with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers. A specialist in Jungian and Queer literary criticism, his book of criticism, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On, was published in 1991. He teaches writing and literature at California State University, Long Beach. His Home Page address is http://www.csulb.edu/~csnider/.
Review by Clifton Snider of The Line of Beauty, a novel
by Alan Hollinghurst (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004)
Having won England’s Man Booker Prize for his latest novel, The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst has received the recognition he deserves as one of the finest novelists writing in English today. Edmund White’s fictional achievements notwithstanding (I’ve long felt White is a better nonfiction writer than he is a novelist), Hollinghurst is certainly one of the finest living novelists, if not the best, writing about gay male experience.
The Line of Beauty has all the qualities that I’ve admired in Hollinghurst’s previous three novels, The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star, and The Spell. These qualities amount primarily to two things: an elegant, discerning style and brilliant characterization. However, all his novels suffer from the same defects: inconclusive conclusions and an inexplicable tendency to avoid emotional depth. Why this should be I have no clue. Perhaps he has a postmodern aversion to satisfactory endings. Perhaps he fears sentimentality.
Case in point: I happened to see the BBC mini-series of The Line of Beauty on Logo, the new GLBT cable channel. Its first episode ends with the protagonist, Nick Guest, unceremoniously dropped by his first lover, Leo Charles. Dan Stevens, who plays Nick, gives a convincing and moving portrayal of what for all sensitive people is a very troubling experience. Having seen the truncated series as broadcast on Logo (I purchased the unexpurgated DVD version: it is far better), I made a point of reading the novel, which I’d put off for lack of time (it’s fully 438 pages long), curious as to how it would depict this moving scene. It doesn’t. Indeed, that first section of the novel, “The Love-Chord (1983),” ends with Leo, who happens to be black, spending the night for the first time with Nick at what will be Nick’s home for over four years—the Kensington Park Gardens house of wealthy Tory MP, Gerald Fedden, and his family. Not until some 200 pages later do we learn that Leo “dumped” Nick. But there is no scene, no flashback providing insight as to why Leo dumped Nick.
Meanwhile, Nick has taken up with Wani (Antoine), the beautiful, closeted son of an extraordinarily wealthy and obnoxious Lebanese businessman. Wani is the only surviving son and heir, and he has a predilection for threesomes, porno, and cocaine, to which he is clearly addicted. (Wani is also engaged to a woman, who we eventually learn is being paid an allowance by Wani’s father, who is clueless as to his son’s true sexual orientation, and Wani insists above all else that Nick keep this secret). Hollinghurst’s earlier novels treat similar motifs, but this one is set not only in Britain during the Thatcher years but also in an outer circle of power that surrounds the PM, called with fey affection, the “Lady.” The people in this outer circle are very rich, unscrupulous, bigoted right-wingers, not unlike many of those in today’s Republican Party who adore George W. Bush. While some of them, like the Feddens, silently tolerate Nick’s being gay, when their world falls apart, he makes a convenient scapegoat. (The bipolar Fedden daughter whom Nick befriends and is expected to look after is an exception, a lethal one as it turns out.) If Hollinghurst avoids the emotional depths of lost love, he is unsparing in his treatment of these Tory monsters, who, like most such monsters, are vile hypocrites.Nick is ultimately such a sympathetic character that one wonders why he has been taken in by the Fedden family’s vampiric glamour. The straight son, Toby, whom Nick was in love with at Oxford, eventually turns on Nick with an aristocratic cruelty that, if not as nasty as that of his parents, is just as final. Yet Nick is so fully characterized we do understand why he would fall for these people. A lover of fine art and literature, he is a bit like Willa Cather’s Paul (in “Paul’s Case”), only slightly older and with the advantages of an Oxford education, the ability to write well, and the good—or as it turns out bad—fortune to have fallen in with the Feddens. Then there is his relationship with Wani, but I don’t want to spoil that story by revealing it any further.
The novel also chronicles the coming of AIDS in Britain and the end of gay life as it had been. Hollinghurst has never been strong on plot. This is not a fault. Often as I read him I have the proverbial “shock of recognition”: I too have been the queer outsider at dull heterosexual gatherings relieved only by a sexy man to flirt with or the memory of a recent tryst. In Nick’s case there is also a line of coke to help him cope with the boredom, one of several “lines of beauty” in the novel.
Though I regret Hollinghurst’s lack of emotional impact and powerful endings, I continue to find him immensely readable and evocative, rich in physical and psychological detail and nuance conveyed by a style Nick’s—and I suspect Hollinghurst’s—hero, Henry James, would find pleasurable as well.
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