Alan Hollinghurst

The Line of Beauty

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The Line of Beauty Summary

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Alan Hollinghurst’s historical fiction The Line of Beauty (2004) was the first work classified in the genre of gay literature to receive the U.K.’s Booker Prize. Set in the London underground gay scene of the early 1980s, an era that was known for its vibrant urban club culture, gay civil rights protests, and the simultaneous panic about the AIDS crisis. It also takes place during Britain’s political uncertainty and turmoil, combining these large narrative threads into a novelistic outcome that is both ironic and tragic.

The Line of Beauty begins in the summer of 1983, as narrator Nick Guest lodges in the home of the Feddens in Notting Hill near London shortly after graduating from Oxford. Rachel and Gerald Fedden are the parents of Toby, one of Nick’s classmates at Oxford, and a daughter, Catherine. Nick is anticipating the beginning of classes in a PhD program in literature at University College London, where he will research the style of author Henry James. Though Toby and Nick were not close in college, Nick harbored a crush on him.

Around the time of Nick’s move to Notting Hill, Gerald is elected MP for Barwick, a town in Northamptonshire, where Nick spent his childhood. Nick observes that Gerald clearly gets off on acquiring political power, possessing a photo of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a silver frame next to one of Rachel. He reveals that his ultimate dream is to host her for dinner. The Tories, Britain’s predominant right-wing political party, lead Thatcher’s Parliament. Because of Peter’s party’s opposition to gay rights, Nick’s relationship with Peter becomes the main tension. [TT1]

It is revealed that Nick came out at Oxford, but has yet to have sex. To fill the void at the intolerant Feddens’ house, he tells Catherine, their rebellious daughter, elaborate stories about fictional romantic escapades. During his stay in Notting Hill, Nick accumulates many sharp observations about the Feddens’ life. Their social life consists of privately hosting many recitals in their drawing room, though they seem rather ignorant about the arts. They have a work by the Venetian school artist Francesco Guardi above their mantel, yet it is clear that art functions for them solely as a means of social advancement. Nick, watching them in their ordinary life, develops an ironic detachment from their trivial existence.

One day, Nick loses his virginity to Leo after answering an ad in the newspaper’s personal section. Leo is black, in his late twenties, works in the local government, and owns a racing bike. Nick and Leo have sex in the communal neighborhood gardens behind the Feddens’ house, using Nick’s resident key. Exhilarated and terrified, Nick believes it is the best thing he has ever done. They continue to have secretive sex in secluded public places. The section ends with Nick inviting Leo to stay the night, having the house to himself for once.

The novel abruptly shifts forward to 1986. Still in Notting Hill, the aesthetic-minded and consciously pretentious scholar Nick tries new ways of searching for his own identity. He makes only slight progress on his thesis about Henry James, not hugely interested anymore in his PhD track. In a sudden turn of events, he meets Wani Ouradi, a glamorous gay Lebanese millionaire, heir to a fortune made in the supermarket business. Wani and Nick make general plans to start a production company.

Nick names the company Ogee, taking the name from what the eighteenth-century English painter, writer, and artist William Hogarth called “the line of beauty.” Hogarth believed this shape was paramount to the aesthetic study of what makes things beautiful. Nick’s personal take on the line of beauty is that it describes the curve in a man’s back where it meets his bottom. Without surprise, the business idea does not inspire the approval of his parents, who not only reject his sexuality, but also believe that his role as “art advisor” of a barely formulated magazine is mainly fictitious. Similarly, Wani’s father is not impressed; a comedic and vulgar man, he immediately misunderstands the name “Ogee” as “orgy.”

Ogee soon confirms many of these suspicions, becoming merely a distraction funded by Wani’s inherited wealth. Purporting itself to be a production company and publishing house, it is rather an easy way to justify cocaine use. Ultimately, the line of cocaine comes to symbolically usurp the line of beauty Nick had taken as the aesthetic ideal for his future. Meanwhile, Gerald Fadden seems to have triumphed politically, symbolized by Thatcher’s arrival at his house for a dinner party at the section’s close.

Another year passes, and triumph is no longer evident in any of the characters’ narratives. Gerald is on the edge of political ruin, losing the 1987 election. Leo’s sister appears, telling Nick that Leo has died of AIDS. It is anecdotally revealed that Wani is also dying of a terminal illness assumed to be AIDS.

Hollinghurst’s book utilizes sharp breaks and ellipses in the narrative to mirror Nick’s damaging, idealistic suppression of his personal mistakes and difficulties. The book extends this trope until the very end; Nick is packing up to leave the Feddens. He has convinced himself that an impending AIDS test will return positive. Though occasionally humorous in content, the grim fates of the various characters reflect late 1980s Britain’s social malaise, in which no one really triumphed out of widespread national confusion. The ambiguity of its characters’ fates reflects the author’s ambivalence about whether living in the moment is a viable option in contemporary society.

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/22/line-of-beauty-alan-hollinghurst-book-club
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n09/thomas-jones/welly-whanging
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/apr/10/fiction.alanhollinghurst

 

 [TT1]I’m lost. Who is Peter?