Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Alan Hollinghurst won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for The Line of Beauty. The cover of the book has an evocative photo of a beautiful iron-work gate with a view through the gate into a park. The ironwork pattern of interlocking curves is beautiful and the out-of-focus glimpse of the park is tempting.
It’s taken me 11 years to get around to reading the book but when I saw it for sale, in an English language second hand book shop in Riga, I decided to finally read it.
Essentially it’s a coming-of-age story of sexual awakening. What I wasn’t prepared for is that the protagonist (Nick) is a young homosexual man and the book contains many explicit scenes of Nick’s sexual exploits and fantasies. In the beginning of the novel I found it a bit boring and distasteful reading about men’s private parts and lust and explicit sex scenes. I considered abandoning the book. I persevered however because the story of Nick boarding in the home of an upper class family is interesting.
Nick is quite a passive person, like the protagonist (also Nick) of A Dance to the Music of Time. Through the duration of the novel he slowly plods through an esoteric PhD project that he doesn’t seem likely to complete. He has no clear plan for how to make a living and he exploits the good nature of the Fedden family by living with them for a paltry fee with no plan to move into his own home. Nick studied with the Fedden’s son Toby at Oxford and was invited by Toby to board in their home on Kensington Gardens.
I understand that Hollinghurst needed Nick to be flexible in terms of time commitments, hence the research student life. I also understand that Nick is a vehicle to present an outsider’s perspective of an extremely affluent and privileged family with connections to Parliament and Margaret Thatcher. Also to present the external perspective of an ultra wealthy and ambitious Lebanese family. However, the result is a passive protagonist lacking agency and therefore boring and without prospects for a successful or financially independent future.
The 80s are going on for ever
The novel is set during the heady times of the 1980s with an active and promiscuous gay community experiencing an AIDS epidemic and learning safe sexual practices as their friends waste away and die. Nick is attractive and keeps himself in good shape so once he learns the ways of how to pick up strangers, he is successful. Cocaine is readily available and Nick successfully sponges off others and is able to support an unhealthy habit.
a self-serving civil servant declares “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”
The character Wani is like a caricature. He’s the son of wealthy, self-made Lebanese migrants and he squanders his inheritance. His is immoderate in all aspects of his life, over indulging in unsafe gay sex, cocaine and pornography. We don’t get to know him well but it seems that for him real life is a cardboard cut-out that fails to interest him. I felt very sad for his mother. I spend a lot of time with Arabs and I read widely about Arab culture and for a Lebanese couple to have a son like Wani is a horrible prospect.
Nick loved the etiquette of the thing, the chopping with a credit card, the passing of the rolled note, the procedure courteous and dry, ‘all done with money’, as Wani said.
The Fedden family, with their manic depressive daughter, aimless son, narcissistic, unfaithful, egotistical father and highly emotionally repressed mother, is interesting. One could wonder why they tolerate having a boarder live with them for 4 years and included him in their family gatherings, dinner parties, political events and family vacation. It’s not believable to me but I understand that Hollinghurst needed Nick to be there to bring the book to its dramatic finale. Obviously, they came to rely on Nick to help manage their daughter’s mental state but I wonder also if they enjoyed having a sycophant readily at hand at all times, never challenging them.
The book made me laugh several times, taught me how to better appreciate art and music and provided me with welcome entertainment on dark winter days in Norway!