(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

With its title drawn from William Hogarth's famous treatise The Analysis of Beauty (1753), Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Line of Beauty is a meditative set of variations on style: literary, personal, political, sexual, cultural, artistic, architectural. Although it may or may not be the author's best novel, The Line of Beauty is certainly his most ambitious and something of a capstone. It completes the loosely connected quartet of novels—with The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994), and The Spell (1998)—that examine gay identity in the “ghastly” decade of the 1980's. It is easy now to forget the impact that The Swimming-Pool Library had and how influential its handling of gay life has been. As Hollinghurst has explained,

From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position. To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position. When I started writing, that seemed a rather urgent and interesting thing to do. It hadn’t really been done.

Now it has, and yet, the more some things change, the more they remain the same. No sooner did Hollinghurst win the Booker Prize than the British tabloids began describing The Line of Beauty as a gay novel, even a gay sex novel (perhaps even part of a gay conspiracy, as the chairperson of the judges, Chris Smith, former minister of media, culture, and sport, was also Britain's first openly gay cabinet member). Hollinghurst does not object to being thought of as a gay novelist:

I only chafe at the “gay writer” tag if it's thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I’m writing. I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well—history, class, culture. There's all sorts of stuff going on. It's not just, as you would think if you read the headlines in the newspapers, about gay sex.

Divided into three parts and framed by two British elections (1983 and 1987), The Line of Beautytells a more or less straightforward story of its protagonist's rise and fall against the backdrop of the middle years of Margaret Thatcher's government. It is a telling that artfully combinesBildungsroman, love story, comedy of manners, satire, lyricism, and elegy and that manages to be at once accessible and finely written, scathingly funny and emotionally affecting, at times almost unbearably so. It follows the sinuous double curve, “the line of beauty,” the ogee, that Hogarth saw in a chair leg (among other places) and the novel's central character finds more sensuously in a lover's hip.

The novel also follows the author's own life to a degree: “I was a gay, middle-class only child from the provinces, fairly innocent of real life, with a precocious knowledge of music, literature and architecture,” like his aptly, allegorically named protagonist, Nick Guest, fresh from Oxford, a bit snobbish, arriving in London in the early 1980's, in awe of “the romance of London, the sense of expectation and possibility.” The novel's epigraph, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), suggests Hollinghurst's playfully skeptical as well as self-critical approach to Nick's adventures in the wonderland of Thatcher's London. The novel is loaded with literary (and other cultural) allusions, as befits its well-read (and at times culturally snobbish) protagonist. Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton (1897) looms large, as does the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908); Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945); Oscar Wilde's plays, Lady Windemere's Fan (1892) in particular, with more than a touch of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress (1732) and A Rake's Progress (1735); and, least directly but most evocatively, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), about another Nick, Nick Carraway.

“What would Henry James have made of us?” a minor character asks. James would have made something similar to what Hollinghurst has, but not quite the same thing, and not just because it is impossible to imagine James being so direct in his treatment of sex (not that The Line of Beauty is nearly as sexually graphic as some reviewers have claimed) or of using juxtaposition quite the way Hollinghurst does: “[Nick] was reading Henry James's memoir of his childhood, A Small Boy and Others, and feeling crazily horny, after three days without as much as a peck from Wani. It was a hopeless combination.”

By making Nick the novel's focal character but not its narrator, Hollinghurst allows the reader to know Nick...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)