Review by Nuzha Nuseibeh
Editing by Cristina Dodson Castillon and Rianna Walcott
Art: ‘Italian Model’ by John Singer Sargeant
On the face of it, a novel about a young, gay man living in 1980s London has little to do with me. For one thing, I am not a man, nor was I alive in the eighties. Nevertheless, when I first read Alan Hollinghurst’s seminal novel, The Line of Beauty, it struck a surprisingly resonant chord.
The book, winner of the 2004 Man Booker prize, tells the story of Nick Guest, a lower-middle class Oxford graduate who moves into a fellow alumnus’ family mansion in Notting Hill in the summer of 1983. This family, the Feddens—the head of which is Tory MP Gerald Fedden—offers Nick an intoxicating view into a world of upper-class privilege and political power in Thatcherite England. Indeed, intoxication is a central theme throughout the book: over the course of the novel, Nick goes from naïve aestheticist to cocaine-snorting hedonist, becoming (extremely) sexually active along the way. Looming over this transformation, and becoming ever-more present, is the threat of AIDS and the terror that comes with it.
Nick’s loss of innocence is tied with his gradual increase in contentment with his sexuality. Though he is out of the closet when the novel begins, he harbours an internalized homophobia, seen for example in: “he wasn’t quite ready to accept the fact that if he was going to have a lover it wouldn’t be Toby or any other drunk straight boy hopping the fence, it would be a gay lover—that compromised thing that he would then be” (Hollinghurst, 26). The novel, which is full of graphic, detailed sex scenes between men, charts Nick’s acceptance of his sexual identity. Nick enthusiastically partakes in 80s gay subculture: casual threesomes, going to clubs, and picking up men in public pools.
This is in spite of the fact that many around him (including his parents) are less than comfortable with homosexuality. In the Feddens’ world, Nick’s sexuality remains a delicate subject, implied rather than explicitly stated. Outside, the situation is even worse: when a family friend dies of AIDS, wealthy visitors tell Nick that “well, they’re going to have to learn, aren’t they, the… homosexuals” (Hollinghurst, 339), to which Nick carefully responds: “Yes, we are learning to be safe”, outing himself to their quiet horror. When an extramarital affair threatens the Feddens’ political standing, it is the unrelated fact of Nick’s homosexuality that bears the brunt of the scandal. The novel elucidates the way in which homosexuality is seen as the bigger sin in Western, upper middle class culture. To this effect, even when confronted with a truly unethical and immoral situation, homosexuality is the scapegoat.
It is not only his sexuality that marginalises him, but also his class—Nick comes from a modest family in a small village, far from the pomp and glamour of West Kensington. Throughout the novel the reader is aware that Nick is a guest in the Feddens’ world: welcome to a degree, allowed only because essential parts of his identity are swept under the carpet. The novel is the story of an outsider, looking in at white, wealthy, heterosexual privilege. This is perhaps what resonated with me in particular. When you are in a minority—whether you are queer, trans, or Palestinian (as I am)—there is often a sense of being an interloper. There is the knowledge that, no matter how warm the welcome, there is a precariousness to your status, because this is not your world. You don’t need to be gay, or a man, or in 1980s London to identify with Nick. Due to his class and sexuality, he is a man forever on the outside of a power structure, and many of us can relate to that.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Line of Beauty was not on the reading lists for my English Literature courses at university, in spite of the fact that it has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece and a classic (Adams, 2004). This could be because the novel is contemporary, and courses tend to focus on historical canonical works. Still, as a prize-winning work, it could find a place alongside other novels exploring politics, urban spaces, public life and class.
The reasons to study this novel go beyond this, however: first and foremost is that the novel is an important example of queer fiction, a genre that is often ignored in mainstream literature courses. Hollinghurst has been credited with “redefining the borders of gay fiction” particularly in the British context, by portraying male characters that do not shy away from gay sex (Bearn, 2004). Indeed, some critics have even referred to his writing as “relentlessly gay” (Updike, 1994)—a critique that makes it clear that gay sex scenes are still far from common, and making it all the more important that Hollinghurst includes these scenes. In so doing, he both highlights and normalizes gay sexual experiences.
However, to reduce The Line of Beauty to a “gay novel” is like calling Mrs Dalloway a kitchensink drama: it misses the point. As gay writer Garth Greenwell said, “what has long been considered universal has been straight, white and male written for straight white people” (Thrasher, 2016). This is queer fiction, but The Line of Beauty could also be described as a coming-of-age novel, as well as a literary exploration of class and politics at a specific period in British history. It could likewise be seen as a book about being ‘othered’. Ultimately, it is all of these things: an exquisitely written piece of fiction about many universal themes—power, wealth, class, love, British society—that just so happens to forefront a perspective and an experience that is usually erased. And it is for this reason above all others that the novel deserves to be studied.
Adams, Tim. “A Classic of Our Times” The Guardian 11 Apr. 2004. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/apr/11/fiction.alanhollinghurst Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
Bearn, Emily. “Most of All, I like Bad Behaviour”. The Telegraph 25 Oct. 2004. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3626163/Most-of-all-I-like-bad-behaviour.html Web. 5 Jan. 2017.
Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. London: Pan Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Thrasher, Steven W. “Garth Greenwell on His Debut Novel: ‘I’ve Been Cruising since I Was 14’. The Guardian 25 Jan. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/25/garth-greenwell-new-book-what-belongs-to-you-interview Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
Updike, John. “A Same-Sex Idyll”. The New Yorker 31 May 1999. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1999/05/31/a-same-sex-idyll Web. 6 Jan. 2017.
About the author:
Nuzha Nuseibeh is a graduate student in Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge. She has previously written for Bustle, The Journal, and The Atlantic magazine. When she’s not totally engrossed in a Maggie Nelson book, she can usually be found desperately waiting in line for an overpriced coffee.