Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This book won the Booker Prize in 2004 but it has taken me quite some time to sit down and read it. It actually came with me on my recent trip to New York: the many hours there and back on the plane gave me the space needed to savour it, because it is a book to savour rather than devour. At one stage, there's a bit of a discussion between a couple of the characters as to the relative merits of Henry James and Anthony Trollope. The latter is dismissed by one as writing too fast but applauded by the other for being very good on money. I don't think we'd accuse Hollinghurst of writing too fast, but he might well have followed Trollope's lead and titled this The Way We Live Now, so long as "now" was understood to be the 1980's, in Thatcher's Britain. Critics have noted that the book "is infected by the rhythms of [James's] prose" - maybe so, but it is a much more straightforward writing style than the Master ever employed!

Nick Guest is a student, albeit not the most diligent one, of Henry James: he is interested in style, in the way that it can hide and reveal things at the same time. I'm no big James scholar, but I know he was an author who developed his own particular style of writing, and was also very much one for observing. So, when Nick is asked what Henry James would have made of us, Nick's answer is that James would have been very kind,, said how wonderful we are, how beautiful, given us incredibly subtle things to say "and we wouldn't have realised until just before the end that he'd seen right through us". This provides for an extended and subtle joke at Nick's expense, because he also sees himself as plugged in and yet by the end of the novel, we become very aware that his observations of what is going on around him are probably more than a little defective.

When we first meet Nick, he's a virgin. Margaret Thatcher has just won the election in a landslide, and he is on his way to a blind date, his first ever with a man. His day is "a shimmer of nerves, with little breezy interludes of lustful dreaming". Things go well; a large part of the first third of the book is taken up with the developing relationship between Nick and Leo. The
normal confusions and resolutions arising in any new relationship are compunded by a number of factors: it is Nick's first; Leo is considerably older; Leo is black; his mother is extremely religious so he has concealed the fact he is gay from her and the two of them are very different social backgrounds. Nonetheless, the section ends with Leo taking Nick to meet his family (as a "friend"). An ominous note is struck, however, by reference to Leo's former boyfriend, Old Pete, as being "a bit low" with some mystery illness taking all the life out of him. AIDS was first diagnosed at the very end of 1981, so in 1983 it would be very unlikely for them to know that Old Pete had it.

We see very little of Nick's family in this section, save to learn that his father was someone who would wind the clocks in the homes of the gentry, which is credited with giving Nick the social skills he has to live as a guest in the home of Gerald Felden, a newly elected Tory MP with an old money family behind him. Nick had met his son, Toby, at Oxford and thinks of himself as the "lost middle child" of the Feldens, someone they all trust because of his gravity and a certain shy polish. Their other child, Catherine, is a troubled child - as the novel opens, Nick has been left with her while the rest of the family holidays; he is "minding the Cat" according to the family joke. Not very well, as it happens: she tries suicide and he makes an executive decision not to tell anyone. Bad move.

Two parties, a season apart, occupy the rest of this section of the novel. One is Toby's 21st, just after Nick has met Leo. Nick is feeling out of sorts, hopelessly lusting (as he always has) after Toby and rejecting the partygoers as "an efficiently reproductive species", thinking the "great heterosexual express [was] pulling out from the platform precisely on time, and all his friends were on it...". This is one of a number of his recognitions of his status as an outsider: although he certainly likes to think of himself as an insider, and generally gets away with thinking he is, he really knows he is not. I like the suggestion made by one critic that he is a lot like Nick Carraway.

Hollinghurst uses these parties as an opportunity to bring lots of characters together, the very sort of people who were profiting from the 80's and mixing with the "right" peiople, such as the Feddens - a lot of fun is poked at their pretentions. There's one great comic scene where a possibly awful little pianist is brought in for a musical performance Gerald puts on in order to impress - the real target is the audience:
Beside Nick a thin-lipped man from the Cabinet office groped for his programme sheet as if the music had come as a slightly unpleasant surprise - he made a little scuffle with his chair and the paper. One or two people snapped their glasses cases as they tried well-meaningly to catch up with the leaping flood of sound. It was all so sudden and serious, the piano was quivering, the sound throbbed through the floorboards, and there were hints on some faces that it could be thought rather bad form to make so much noise indoors...

Nick wondered what he thought of Nina ... too assailed by the sound, by the astounding phenomenon of it, to know if she was really any good... She had clearly been ferociously schooled, she was like those implacable little gymnasts who sprang out from behind the Iron Curtain, curling and vaulting along the keyboard. [She] put ona fearless turn of speed...
Now this music was Chopin, who Nick in his programme notes had described as "overflowing with tenderness! When he hears her actually play it, he says her beginning was a "motorbike summons"! When the performance is finally finished, there is "firm applause, given a new edge of enthusiasm by the fact of its being the end - the whole experience was suddenly seen in a brighter light..."

Three years on, only one thing seems to have changed. Nick is still with the Feddens, Gerald is campaigning madly for re-election (there is one very scene where Gerald's competitive streak is unleashed, when he's at a village fete and invited to enter a "welly-whanging" (i.e. gumboot throwing) competition for a pig) but now Leo is off the scene and barely gets a mention. Nick is having a very secret affair with another classmate, Wani. It has to be kept secret - Wani is engaged and his father, who has become a multi-millionaire under Thatcher with a chain of convenience stores, wouldn't stand for Wani being gay, is really quite an awful man when it comes down to it. So, Nick hasn't even told Toby or Catherine - a huge thing to conceal. When they can, they have sex, inclding random strangers whenever possible, and snort lots of coke - very 80's. They are running a film and art magazine company (Nick is its aestehtic consultant, which sounds like a pretty cool job) called Ogee:
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 ogee is a line of beauty - something William Hogarth had written about in The Analysis of Beauty. Nick thinks about this:
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 exaple of it, the dip and swell...
But the phrase has other dimensions as well: at one point, there is mention of cocaine being a line of beauty. Later on, Nick is having a very personal, reflective moment, and he can trace a line of beauty back to his first encounter with Toby - it has provided a shape or trajectory for his life. With the several references by one or two of the characters besotted with the Prime Minister to her beauty, there seems to be another line of beauty running fowards - from their first imagining of her to their actual meeting with her - the second section of the novel finishes with another Feddon party graced with the presence of the great Lady herself. Good old Nick, he spots her sitting alone, and gets her to dance with him, completely stealong Gerald's thunder.

The third section is called "the end of the street"; without wanting to say too much about it, pretty much everything comes unstuck, for everyone.

I was left with only two minor quibbles when I finished this book. I'm not actually convinced much is added by the whole "line of beauty" motif - although there is certainly a lot of irony, as these people manage to suround themselves with a lot of beautiful things which they simply have no ability to appreciate. As Nick says (somewhere) "
The worse they are the more they see beauty in each other." I guess the idea is that beauty is something pure and to value, but in the midst of the excesses of the 1980's, the whole idea of beauty is degraded - and if Wani is the source of beauty, then we can see this degradation in his tastes for porn and coke and the shape in which he ends up in the novel.

Second, while the majority of the characters were obviously put up as targets for satire, I was troubled by both Toby and Catherine. He was too conventional and almost completely uninteresting - the only suggestion of any sort of dark side or complexity of any sort was when Nick is assured that if he were to get Toby drunk, Toby would be his. Why did he want him, apart, of course, from the physical? Catherine was his counterpart - the troubled manic depressive, who you were never quite sure wasn't just a very spoilt child, a product of an over-privileged background. She was certainly given sharper lines than her brother and I did like her, but there was just an edge of cliche about her. I guess I wanted someone real here.


Anonymous Victoria said...

Great post! I haven't read this yet but have it on my Summer Reading Challenge list (which, at this rate, I won't finish before December...long summer). Still, was very excited to hear that the "line of beauty" is actually the Ogee head...I wrote a short paper on the ogee heads in the west end of York Minster not so long since and got strangely passionate about them. :-)

(And thank you for your kind comment on Eve's Alexandria)

5:43 AM  
Anonymous Victoria said...

Oh and by the way, I notice on your profile that your other favourite book (aside from "A Suitable Boy") is "Cryptonomicon". I see you have very good taste. :-) Have your read the Baroque Cycle?

5:47 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Hi Victoria

When you do get to read Line of Beauty, I'd love to see what you make of the ogee image. Having looked back over the archives at your place, its a fairly safe bet that I'll still be reading - I think I've read at least half of your summer reading challenge.

But no, I haven't read the Baroque Trilogy: I started, but it involves quite a commitment as I think I'd want to read it as one. It is likely to feature in my summer reading.

7:43 PM  

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