Bookclub: The Line of Beauty
Ed's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm this Sunday 4 March and is repeated on Thursday 8 March at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the podcast - CM
Alan Hollinghurst, author of The Line of Beauty
Should we speak about The Line of Beauty as a gay novel? It is one, in the sense that we'd describe a story of spies as a thriller, because the story turns on the sexual adventures and dreams of the central character, Nick. The book is also an expedition into a world that Alan Hollinghurst knows will be new to many of his readers, and maybe unsettling. Set soon after the arrival of AIDS in the eighties, it's a picture of a sub-culture that's in the process of becoming a branch of the mainstream, and therefore you can say that the novel has a kind of revelatory purpose. The story is not told for those who already know the world it describes, but in large measure for those who don't: therefore it's quite fair to call it a gay novel. Alan told us in the programme that he was perfectly content with that description, so long as it wasn't used as a way of suggesting that the book was restrictive in its reach. It isn't, which is why it won the Booker prize in 2004 and became a bestseller.
It became clear in the course of our conversation that his intent was to look back at a time of (relative) repression in the 80s from the vantage point of the new century when attitudes had shifted dramatically, in one of the most striking changes in public morality in modern times. Alan would be the first to argue that the difficulties/prejudices/misunderstandings he explores in the novel were still there in 2004, to a greater degree than some would like to admit, but the times had certainly changed. Nick's arrival in London in the mid-eighties (which Alan told us had an autobiographical tone) was a much more nervous and intimidating one for someone trying to establish his sexual identity than it would have been a couple of decades later.
The "line of beauty" of the title comes from Hogarth, a serpentine line with two contrary movements that he found particularly attractive and compelling, and one of our readers - who said he reckoned he had been a touch homophobic when he started the book - said that he found the intertwining of straight and gay worlds implied in that image a satisfying one. He was given the authorial nod of approval.
The story follows Nick through his London adventures (they are rather different in character from those of his Dickensian namesake) and tries to capture the atmosphere of the Thatcher years at their zenith, before her last victory in 1987. It's a time of excess - in Nick's case, with large quantities of sex and cocaine - and also of collisions. He lodges with the family of a friend whose father is a Conservative MP and we're taken through a story of secrecy, suppressed lust, wild experimentation, scandal (though not Nick's) and, eventually, fear. There is even a cameo appearance by The Lady herself, and Nick manages to pluck up the courage to take her on to the dance floor at a party in Notting Hill only with the help of cocaine.
Around him is a family that catches some of the social attitudes of the time, and his friends reflect a mix of generosity and greed, prejudice and affection that paint his life in rich colours. He is the innocent abroad - one of our readers felt an echo of Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby - and the novel has something of the picaresque about it, structured around a journey that takes him from the heady excitements of his first experience of London, through his patient research on the style of Henry James and the contrasting sexual adventures that he starts to enjoy, to the gentle melancholy of an acceptance that at least one lover has been taken by AIDS and it may be that he will follow.
In the course of our discussion, we talked a good deal about the style of the book, which is greatly admired. Alan's writing method is a highly individual one. He begins a story only after a long period of research, in which he assembles the world of the novel, and then he writes steadily and slowly from beginning to end, perhaps only completing 300 words or so each day. The joy of it is - he says - than when it is over, there is no serious revision to be done. The book is there. An exception to his patient pace was the opening of The Line of Beauty: he says he sped through the first couple of pages in a kind of trance. They were just right.
After his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1989, readers familiar with his work will not have been surprised by the uninhibited sexual scenes, in which only the characters display any hang-ups, never the author. And it's a measure of the changing attitudes that are explored in this story, that although they no doubt still take some readers by surprise (and shock others) they seem now much less of a talking point than once they were. They are simply there.
It is a gay novel, and why not?
I hope you enjoy our discussion, on Sunday March 4th at 4pm and again on Thursday March 8th at 3.30pm.
Our next recording is with Philippa Gregory, talking about The Other Boleyn Girl. If you'd like to come to that edition, on Monday 23rd April in Central London, tickets are free and available from our website.
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub