By Peter Terzian. Originally published in Newsday, 17 October 2004.
Alan Hollinghurst’s novels—The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994) and The Spell (1998)—are dark, lyrical examinations of gay life, art and history, and the conflicting allures of free sex and commitment. But his new book, The Line of Beauty (Bloomsbury, $24.95), is his masterpiece, with a skillfully rendered social panorama, a Proustian alertness to social nuance and a stylistic precision that recalls . . . well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Framed by Britain’s general elections of 1983 and 1987, The Line of Beauty is the story of Nicholas Guest, a provincial young gay man who moves to London and into the family home of his wealthy Oxford friend Toby Fedden. The Feddens are politically conservative—Toby’s father is a Tory member of Parliament—but welcome Nick, with not always well-disguised hesitation, as a member of the family.
Hollinghurst hopscotches through Nick’s early 20s. As the book begins, Nick experiences his first romance, with Leo, a cheeky but endearing black government clerk. A few years later, Nick is coke-sozzled and deep into an unhappy affair with a closeted Lebanese millionaire. The tone of the novel becomes desperately farcical (in a climactic party scene, a hopped-up Nick boogies with Margaret Thatcher). Soon, a sex scandal and the first devastations of AIDS bring Nick’s world of ease, luxury and the pursuit of male beauty crashing down around him.
The years in which the book is set are almost exactly the ones in which Hollinghurst was writing his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library. "I had moved to London myself in ’81 and almost at once got a job on the Times Literary Supplement," Hollinghurst says over plates of tofu and brown rice at a West Village vegetarian restaurant. "I worked very hard in the office, and then when I got home in the evenings and the weekends, writing my book. So it was for me quite a busy, studious, industrious time, and almost immune to the excesses and deliriums which I describe in this book."
Hollinghurst, 50, firmly downplays parallels between Nick and himself. Nick travels among "worlds and people that I didn’t really know." But, he says, "I think the thing about arriving in London at last and feeling this was it, this was where I wanted to be from now on, which I think Nick clearly feels—the romance of London was very strong to me, and remains so. Those sort of feelings are very true to mine."
Readers whose copies of The Swimming-Pool Library have a number of overly thumbed scenes may be slightly disappointed with Hollinghurst’s new novel. Back in 1988, critics seemed somewhat perplexed that his debut, a work of high literary quality, could contain so many cheerfully graphic depictions of gay sex. It was, of course, reviled in some quarters. He recites from memory a "wonderful" review from The Times of London: "’If this is a lament for the Cities of the Plain, I for one shall not be tempted to look back.’ Which didn’t upset me, which I just laughed at."
Was this attention a career hindrance? "I think it helped enormously!" The Line of Beauty has one or two eyeglass-fogging moments, but in general, Hollinghurst shies away from the explicit. "I feel less excitement in writing about gay sex per se, because I’ve sort of done it."
In The Line of Beauty, Nick is pokily working on a dissertation on Henry James. Fittingly, since the novel’s release in the U.K. in April, critics have been tripping over themselves to compare Hollinghurst’s precise prose style to the 19th century author’s. (The Times: "astonishingly Jamesian." Scotland on Sunday: "the sort of book Henry James might have been proud of." The Sunday Telegraph: "Jamesian in the best sense . . . in some ways, Hollinghurst surpasses his master.")
I detect a little shyness when I ask Hollinghurst if James is the presiding spirit of the book. "I certainly don’t think of it as being deliberately Jamesian. I mean, occasionally I did find myself writing a very Jamesian sentence and kind of calmed it down, or took out a few subordinate clauses. . . . No one would seek to write like the late James, it would be suicidal."
But he admits that he finds James "intensely interesting and rewarding" and that his novel’s "narrative position is Jamesian—that thing of the outsider glamorized by a rich beautiful world which slowly reveals its imperfections."
Later, I ask him about his reading habits. Henry James is the first name he mentions. "Or Dickens or Tolstoy. The sort of literary culture in which my imagination is generally immersed is not that of the moment but rather about 100 years ago."
This Tuesday, Hollinghurst will find out if The Line of Beauty has won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. (Among the competition is Colm Toibin’s The Master, a re-creation of the life of James, which, along with David Lodge’s similarly plotted Author, Author, makes Henry the most ubiquitous dead writer of the year.) Hollinghurst was shortlisted once before, 10 years ago for The Folding Star, and remembers "an inexplicable sense of relief that I hadn’t won. … I did think it would be nice to win it one day, but I didn’t mind not winning it."
I ask him how he will feel this year if he wins, or if he doesn’t. He lists various reasons why he’s not getting too wrapped up in the Booker race: "It does drive some people mad … it’s taken much too seriously … essentially the prize is an amazingly arbitrary thing … the decision’s made by a very heterogeneous group of people." He pauses. "Ask me the next day."