The Line of Beauty
Alan Hollinghurst, 2004
Winner, 2004 Man Booker Prize
In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby—whom Nick had idolized at Oxford—and Catherine, highly critical of her family's assumptions and ambitions.
As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends. Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic, this is a major work by one of our finest writers. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 26, 1954
• Where—Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, UK
• Education—Oxford University
• Awards—Man Booker Prize; Newdigate Prize for Poetry.
• Currently—lives in London, England
Alan Hollinghurst is an English novelist and winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty. His 2011 novel, The Stranger's Child was longlisted for the Man Booker.
The only child of James Kenneth Holinghurst (a bank manager) and his wife Lilian, he attended Canford School in Dorset. He read English at Magdalen College, Oxford graduating in 1975; and subsequently took the further degree of Master of Literature (1979). While at Oxford he shared a house with Andrew Motion, and was awarded the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1974, the year before Motion.
In the late 1970s he became a lecturer at Magdalen, and then at Somerville College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1981 he moved on to lecture at University College London. In 1997, he went on an Asia book tour in Singapore.
In 1981 he joined The Times Literary Supplement and was the paper's deputy editor from 1982 to 1995. Hollinghurst is openly gay and lives in London. (From Wikipedia.)
It is highly characteristic of Hollinghurst to oscillate between the high and the low, often within the same paragraph: consider the moment of weird hilarity as Nick, ever the aesthete, absently recalls the details of a Gothic-style church seen through the windshield of his drug dealer's car. The pathos of old buildings is later reprised as Nick surveys the tearing down of a Victorian workshop, a melancholy intimation that beautifully dovetails with the sudden dramatic unraveling of his family idyll. It is also of a piece with the elegiac close, rendered with a grace and decorum entirely appropriate to this outstanding novel.
Anthony Quinn - New York Times
Edmund White has said that Alan Hollinghurst "writes the best prose we have today." I might not go that far—White himself is no slouch with a sentence—but if you value style, wit and social satire in your reading, don't miss this elegant and passionate novel.
Michael Dirda - Washington Post
Line for line, Hollinghurst's novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book I've read in years. Witty observations about politics, society, and family open like little revelations on every page.
Christian Science Monitor
She is either Muse or she is nothing," Robert Graves wrote. After the Renaissance, the Greek goddesses of artistic inspiration were replaced by real—if idealized—women (think Dante and Beatrice). In these well-researched essays, Prose examines the lives of nine women who inspired some of history's most prominent artists and writers, including Samuel Johnson, Man Ray, and John Lennon. Nearly all these muse-artist relationships were distinguished by tragedy, and only five were sexually consummated; as Prose notes, "The power of longing is more durable than the thrill of possession." What emerges by the end of the book, oddly, is a case for the singularity of artistic influence: the author shows that Lewis Carroll's attachment to Alice Liddell was not at all like Nietzsche's sense of intellectual kinship with Lou Andreas-Salomé, nor was Yoko Ono's involvement with John Lennon as fruitful as Suzanne Farrell's with George Balanchine. The strongest essays here, on Liddell, Farrell, Ono, and Lee Miller (a Vogue model and photographer who posed for and worked with Man Ray), pointedly refute the notion that the role of the muse is a passive one, and offer in its place a complicated vision of the necessary contradictions of artistic life—including the desire for both feverish devotion and artistic independence, and a sense of the truth of beauty and the transience of it. Prose's broader conclusions about culture can seem hasty, but the book's achievement is its quiet reëvaluation of the received notion that genius is solitary in nature.
The New Yorker
Mr. Hollinghurst's great gift as a novelist is for social satire as sharp and transparent as glass, catching his quarry from an angle just an inch to the left of the view they themselves would catch in the mantelpiece mirror. The Line of Beauty is unlikely to be surpassed.
New York Observer
Among its other wonders, this almost perfectly written novel, recently longlisted for the Man Booker, delineates what's arguably the most coruscating portrait of a plutocracy since Goya painted the Spanish Bourbons. To shade in the nuances of class, Hollingsworth uses plot the way it was meant to be used-not as a line of utility, but as a thematically connected sequence of events that creates its own mini-value system and symbols. The book is divided into three sections, dated 1983, 1986 and 1987. The protagonist, Nick Guest, is a James scholar in the making and a tripper in the fast gay culture of the time. The first section shows Nick moving into the Notting Hill mansion of Gerald Fedden, one of Thatcher's Tory MPs, at the request of the minister's son, Toby, Nick's all-too-straight Oxford crush. Nick becomes Toby's sister Catherine's confidante, securing his place in the house, and loses his virginity spectacularly to Leo, a black council worker. The next section jumps the reader ahead to a more sophisticated Nick. Leo has dropped out of the picture; cocaine, three-ways and another Oxford alum, the sinisterly alluring, wealthy Lebanese Wani Ouradi, have taken his place. Nick is dimly aware of running too many risks with Wani, and becomes accidentally aware that Gerald is running a few, too. Disaster comes in 1987, with a media scandal that engulfs Gerald and then entangles Nick. While Hollinghurst's story has the true feel of Jamesian drama, it is the authorial intelligence illuminating otherwise trivial pieces of story business so as to make them seem alive and mysteriously significant that gives the most pleasure. This is Nick coming home for the first and only time with the closeted Leo: "there were two front doors set side by side in the shallow recess of the porch. Leo applied himself to the right hand one, and it was one of those locks that require tender probings and tuggings, infinitesimal withdrawals, to get the key to turn." This novel has the air of a classic. Forecast: Widely praised for his three previous novels, Hollinghurst (The Swimming-Pool Library) is primed for even greater acclaim and sales with this masterful volume, the latest in a wave of Jamesian novels.
(Starred review.) Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming Pool (1988), won major acclaim and many awards. His latest novel engages similar themes—a young man new to both his sexuality and the manners of high society.... The material and social excesses of the 1980s are deftly portrayed in Hollinghurst's latest success. —Michael Spinella
Britisher Hollinghurst (The Spell, 1998, etc.) isn't shy: At 400-plus pages sprinkled with references to Henry James, his fourth outing aspires to the status of an epic about sex, politics, money, and high society. Though he's best known for his elegant descriptions of gay male life and pitch-perfect prose, Hollinghurst is most striking here for his successful, often damning, observations about the vast divides between the ruling class and everyone else. It's 1983, and narrator Nick Guest, age 20, is literally a guest in the household of Conservative MP Gerald Fedden, whose son, Toby, Nick befriended at Oxford. Given an attic room and loosely assigned the task of looking after the Feddens' unstable manic-depressive daughter Catherine, Nick is given entree into a world of drunken, drug-laced parties at ancestral manors, high-stakes financial transactions, and politicians all obsessed with catching a glimpse of "The Lady"-Thatcher herself (who finally does make a cameo-hilariously-toward the end). Nick pursues his studies in James (though they may seem overkill in a novel already so saturated in the Jamesian) and his search for love-with a young Jamaican office worker, then with a closeted and cokehead Lebanese millionaire-though, as becomes clear, both his scholarship and sexuality are painfully peripheral in the world he's chosen to inhabit. Oddly, Nick is less interesting as a character than as an observer: His youthful affairs do gain gravitas as the '80s progress under the specter of AIDS, but over the story's course he goes from a virginal 20-year-old to a wizened 24-year-old. More fascinating are Hollinghurst's incisive depictions of the brilliance and ease that insulate and animatethe Feddens—especially the witty and difficult Gerald and the spectacular mess that is Catherine—and the crushing realization that Nick, unlike those around him, does not have the casual luxury to crash up his own life and survive. A beautifully realized portrait of a decade and a social class, but without a well-developed emotional core.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
• Generic Discussion Questions
• Read-Think-Talk About a Book
Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Line of Beauty:
1. Very early on in the novel, Nick meets his landlady's neurotic, self-destructive daughter and disarms her, removing knives from her possession. Is there a symbolic or thematic significance to this episode? Is it somehow a foreshadowing of future events in the book?
2. In what way could Catherine be seen as the moral conscience of this novel?
3. Describe Nick: what kind of character is he? In what way can The Line of Beauty be seen as a coming-of-age story for Nick? Does he change during the course of the novel? If so, in what way? What, if anything, does he come to learn by the end?
4. Consider the significance of Nick's last name. How is it a reference to his larger societal status?
5. The book is set in the 1980's, the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In what way is this wider political context important to the novel? Put another way: why might the author have chosen to set his novel in this time period?
6. The Line of Beauty is described as social comedy, a sly commentary on the world of politics, affluence, Thatcherism and homosexuality—with the attendant pride, hypocrisy, corruption and hedonism those things entail. The Fedden family stands in for much of what this novel critiques. For starters, what kind of people are the Feddens, what is important to them, what drives the various family members? What function, for instance, does art play in their home—is their appreciation genuine...or something else? Talk about Gerald's obsession with Maggie Thatcher—and the visit which she pays them.
7. Discuss the book's title and where it comes from. What is an "ogee," and what are the ways in which Nick applies the word? How does Wani's father misunderstand the word? Do you see an ironic significance in that misinterpretation?
8. What role do drugs play in this novel? Does the book celebrate or disparage drug use? Consider this passage: "Nick loved the etiquette of the thing, the chopping with a credit card, the passing of the rolled note, the procedure courteous and dry, 'all done with money,' as Wani said." How does this quotation reflect the book's portrayal of London's societal values?
9. What are the attitudes of the various characters, and London society (as portrayed in the novel), toward gay people? What about the book's sexual episodes—do you feel they are overly explicit or gratuitous? Or do they form an integral part of the novel's plot and thematic meaning?
10. How does the widening shadow of AIDS affect this story—both its tone and plot?
11. Class distinctions are also on display in this book. Consider Leo's introduction to the Fedden household and, moments later, the arrival of Lady Partridge and her greeting to Leo. Also consider "the shock of class difference" when Nick visits Leo's family.
12. While reading, could you sense the impending calamities toward which the novel builds? What were the signs, if any, that dire things were going to happen?
13. Is this novel a cautionary tale? If so, what are we being warned against?
14. Hollinghurst's novel is hugely literary, with explicit allusions and implicit references to other famous works, each of which may (or may not) carry some symbolic meaning for this story.
• Consider, for instance, the name Nick, which seems to reference both Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Nicholas Jenkins in A Dance to the Music of Time. If you are familiar with either of those works, how does Hollinghurst's character relate to the other Nicks?
• Comparisons have also been made of this work to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. If you know that work, what similarities do you see?
• The works of Henry James are also mentioned by critics as forebears of this novel. And James is outwardly alluded to at a dinner party when Nick is asked what James would have made of the guests. He replies, ''He'd have been very kind to us, he'd have said how wonderful we were and how beautiful we were, he'd have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn't have realized until just before the end that he'd seen right through us." How does this observation about Henry James relate to Hollinghurst's own work?
• What other literary references or allusions can you find?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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