What is the line of beauty? This was one of the first questions I asked when reading Alan Hollinghurst’s award-winning work. A brief explanation is given by the narrator as a theory by the 18th century artist William Hogarth about curved, serpentine lines, like the letter ‘S’, possessing natural qualities of life, activity and beauty, as opposed to straight lines which are harsh, direct and cold.
The line of beauty, or the concept of beauty, is what guides the novel’s protagonist Nick Guest. He is obsessed by it, driving him every waking moment of his life. He looks for beauty in the classical music he listens to; the society parties he attends; and the lovers he spends his time with. The irony is that underneath the beauty which Nick sees around him, there are ugly and dark things in the world of 1980s London.
The novel perfectly catches the zeitgeist of the time. It covers the boom time of the Thatcher years’, which were from the Iron Lady’s second election victory in 1983 to her third in 1987. At the beginning of the novel, Nick has just finished Oxford University and has moved in with his friend Toby Fedden and his family, which include his mentally-fragile sister Catherine; his aristocratic mother Rachel; and his Conservative MP father Gerald. Nick is thrust into the high society life, whilst trying to build a romantic relationship with a young black council worker called Leo.
The tragedy of the novel is that Nick’s ‘line of beauty’ is an illusion in 1980s London. Admittedly, there are beautifully written scenes in the novel, such as Nick and Leo’s first date; the numerous parties which are held at the Fedden household (one of which the Prime Minister herself attends) and the hot summer’s day in which Nick and his new boyfriend Wanni go swimming. But for all those scenes, Hollinghurst writes in a sense of uneasiness and menace. As the novel moves into its second act, Nick increasingly resorts to snorting cocaine to get through all those parties. In fact, Nick goes through so much coke and promiscuous sex that in almost becomes mechanical to him. Likewise, the AIDS epidemic takes away those whom Nick loves, but it doesn’t end there. Just when it doesn’t seem that the Fedden’s are bothered by Nick’s sexuality events occur in the third act which sees Nick built up as a scapegoat for the misdemeanors of others.
In the reviews I have read, most seem to view Nick’s motives as questionable. Hollinghurst chose ‘Guest’ as his surname because a guest can either be welcome or unwelcome. In other words; is Nick a genuine family friend or is he an interloper simply using the Fedden’s as a means to end in order to pursue his quest for the line of beauty? In my opinion, he is a bit of both. I believe Nick is genuine to begin with. He swept away by the opportunities provided for him in London as both a gay man and as someone with an opening into the world of the privileged elite. However, he then goes headfirst into the hedonism of the 1980s, the consequences of which finally catch up with him in the end.
The Line of Beauty seems like a 1980s equivalent of William Hogarth’s A Rakes’ Progress. Although it could be laborious at times, it is hugely vivid world in which beauty is everywhere, but is fragile and much like a good party, can’t go on forever.