Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A glassy malignity

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: read Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Line Of Beauty’ in conjunction with its three part BBC2 adaptation.

But then it struck me that I would have to read a third of the novel each week to keep up and avoid seeing what I hadn’t yet read. So I decided instead to concentrate on the novel and record the programmes for later viewing.

Which would have been fine, had it not been for the video mysteriously running out halfway through the final installment.

Oh well. The book, then.

‘The Line Of Beauty’ tells the story of Nick Guest, recently graduated from Oxford and living in Kensington with the family of his friend and undergraduate crush Toby Fedden, whose father Gerald is a Conservative MP.

But to say even that much is deceptive. For, as finely sketched as the characters are, the novel is not really about individuals at all. Rather, it’s the portrait of a decade in which the events are set: the 1980s. A time when consumption was as conspicuous as possible. When politicians craved "the accolade of a 'Spitting Image' puppet in [their] likeness". When, later, people could ruefully sip on cocktails called Black Mondays.

If ‘The Line Of Beauty’ IS about an individual, then that individual is Margaret Thatcher. For most of the book she exists only in talk: a possible guest at Toby’s extravagant 21st birthday party, a semi-mythical object of adoration for Tory MPs and entrepreneurs alike. But then, at one of the Feddens’ parties (one of several long set-pieces), she makes an appearance, and Nick too is sucked in and enraptured: "He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister's face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque". Whisking the Iron Lady off for a drunken dance, Nick arouses Gerald’s schoolboyish jealousy.

The “line of beauty” of the title is Hogarth’s term for a double curve or ogee, but it comes to refer to little more than the lines of cocaine that Nick and his lover Wani Ouradi snort almost incessantly. It’s no coincidence that high art should be set in debased and bathetic connection to the senseless and careless pursuit of pleasure. At one point, to underline that connection, Wani selects Nick’s copy of Mildred R Pullman’s ‘Henry James And The Question Of Romance’ from which to hoover up his line.

In the world of the novel, art is something to be bought, owned, flaunted – a status symbol and marker of wealth rather than something of intrinsic aesthetic value. The Feddens’ home is resplendent with expensive artefacts, while the book’s most vulgar philistine Sir Maurice Tipper disinterestedly regards the publishing company he owns as a mere possession.

(An aside: I remember reading Mike’s comments about the seemingly obsessive descriptions of furniture - “escritoires”, "repro Louis Quinze tables and chairs" etc – but, in these terms, such descriptions are defensible as a reflection of the obsession with possessions. Plus Nick, who acts as narrator throughout, is the son of an antiques dealer, and so is naturally drawn to noting furniture.)

But it’s not all vacuous hedonism and carefree excess; there are consequences. The novel follows the classic tragic arc (itself a “line of beauty”) - from the glorious hazy summer of 1983 and Nick’s first love affair with another man to the teetering precipice of 1986 and, ultimately, 1987 and the unravelling of it all in the third and final section entitled “The End Of The Street”.

If Thatcher haunts the novel, then so too (increasingly) does the spectre of AIDS and the fear, confusion and outright panic it precipitated. Catherine Fedden’s godfather dies of the condition, and both Wani and Nick’s first lover Leo contract it. Nick is horrified by an image of Leo: "He was in bed, in a sky-blue hospital gown; his face was hard to read, since AIDS had taken it and written its message of terror and exhaustion on it; against which Leo seemed frailly to assert his own character in a doubtful half smile. His vanity had become a kind of fear, that he would frighten the people he smiled at. It was the loneliest thing Nick had ever seen". Set against this are the uncomprehending and crude prejudices about AIDS, put into the mouths of the odious Tippers: "'I mean, they're going to have to learn, aren't they, the... homosexuals'", "'I just don't see why anyone's remotely surprised. The whole thing had got completely out of hand. They had it coming to them'".

The appearance of respectability – as of wealth and culture – being all, Nick’s gay Oxford friend Paul ‘Polly’ Tompkins has to marry to make himself electable, and Wani’s mother pays a girl to act as his fiancée to conceal her son’s homosexuality. And that is the comment ‘The Line Of Beauty’ passes eloquently on the decade: that it was shallow, all surface and no substance. That’s something Nick comes to acknowledge when presented with the first (and last) issue of the pretentious magazine he and Wani have been working on: “He took a copy upstairs to the flat, and opened it at random several times – to find that its splendour had a glint to it, a glassy malignity. No, it was very good. It was lustrous. The lustre was perfected and intense – it was the shine of marble and varnish. It was the gleam of something that was over”. As the portrait of a decade (albeit one side of that decade), ‘The Line Of Beauty’ is little short of a masterpiece.

So much for the subject matter. What about Hollinghurst’s style? Well, it initially provoked Mike into much mischievous mockery, and it is certainly sufficiently mannered and self-consciously literary to get up the noses of plenty of readers as often as cocaine does up the noses of Nick and Wani.

But many (if not all) of his sentences unfold gracefully with near-perfect weighting, and some of them stick in the memory for their fine blend of aesthetic charm and truth rather than their faint ridiculousness. Perhaps it says more about me than Hollinghurst to say that his descriptions of states of intoxication and their aftermath are particularly affecting. Here, for instance, we find Nick stoned at Toby’s birthday party: "[He] thought his way towards moving his left leg forward, he could coax his thought down through the knee to the foot, but it died there with no chance of becoming an action". And, later, following a night of excess: "Nick gazed at them with the patient surmise of the hung-over, a sense of mysterious displacement and slow revelation". That captures the feeling perfectly, I think.

One final very personal point of interest. Before being sidetracked by Wani and his vanity publishing / film company Ogee, Nick sets out doing a PhD in Henry James. It’s unsurprising, given what I’ve been up to over the last few years, that some of the comments struck a chord. Take, for instance: "It all sounded perfectly pointless, or at least a way of wasting two years, and Nick blushed because he really was interested in it and didn't yet know - not having done the research - what he was going to prove". Hmm. And, on the subject of Nick’s thesis: "He'd developed a reluctance that was Jamesian in itself to say exactly what its subject was". I know that feeling all too well…

So, can anyone tell me what the TV adaptation was like and how it compared?

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