Leaving aside the ‘gay stuff’, which has attracted a certain amount of attention, the 2004 Man Booker Prize winner might be read primarily as a novel about the Eighties. Set between Thatcher’s election victories in 1983 and 1987, the novel captures something of the crass hedonism, political turmoil and transformation in social values generally thought to characterise the decade.
But Hollinghurst’s protagonist, Nick Guest, has a very partial view of what was happening in Britain at the time. Nick lodges with a Tory MP, moves in elite circles and even meets Margaret Thatcher, but my point isn’t simply that he fails to bond with the miners - in fact, he gets around more than most. It is rather that he fails even to understand the social class within which he is ensconced. And paradoxically, it is his flânerie that roots him in his situation and narrows his perspective.
As a gay man from a petit bourgeois background, Nick is an outsider in that situation, but not the objective, insightful kind of outsider. Instead, he revels in his outsider status, obsessing on his own experience. That experience tells him little about the society around him, and he seems to care even less. He is, intermittently, writing a thesis about literary style, and it is style, beauty, form, that excites him.
Which brings us to the gay stuff. A case can be made that gayness is the iconic disposition of the Eighties, representing hedonistic individualism and a challenge to tradition. Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America put the gay experience at the centre of a panorama of American society in that decade, with sexual freedom and AIDS symbolising the transformation of social mores and the concomitant sense of fear and moral uncertainty respectively. In this reading, gayness is unavoidably political, and one arch-Reaganite character’s refusal of the gay identity (‘Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys’) cannot save him from AIDS.
The Line of Beauty was crassly described by several newspapers as a ‘gay novel’ when it was announced as the Booker winner. Writing in the Guardian, however, former Gay Times editor Colin Richardson argued that there is such a thing as a gay sensibility, and that writers ought not to be prickly about it (Hollinghurst is apparently happy to be seen as a gay writer as long as it is understood that he is more besides). For Richardson, the gay sensibility has to do with growing up with a sense of being different. Undoubtedly, Nick Guest is different, but perhaps indeed différant in Derrida’s sense, so that to focus on his gayness, or anything else, would be to obscure the multiple and contradictory ways in which Nick is different from those around him.
This, in any case, seems to me a truer reading of Hollinghurst’s novel; it simply doesn’t share the political ambition of something like Angels in America. The author’s swipes at Thatcherism are largely, well, aesthetic. Indeed, Nick’s gayness itself is more aesthetic than political: for him the line of beauty (an idea taken from Hogarth) is found in the double curve of a man’s lower back and bottom. And it is Nick’s aesthetic sensibility that drives Hollinghurst’s prose. The descriptions of sex are generally too graphic to be pornographic, and if at times they even seem banal, this is a reminder of the latent tendency in aestheticism to prefer the mundane to the meaningful. Meaning is vulgar.
Hollinghurst is frequently described as Jamesian, but at the risk of offending latterday aesthetes, to be Jamesian in today’s social and political climate is a very different thing from being Jamesian in Henry James’. What does it mean these days to have heightened psychological awareness and precision of expression, for example? Awareness of others comes to Nick as consciousness of himself, of what makes him different. He is acutely aware of his inability to talk like Leo, his first, black and working class, lover, but he is no more like Wani, the Lebanese heir with whom he collaborates on a comically self-indulgent arts project, or Catherine, the closest thing he has to a friend, and consequently, he can’t situate any of these people.
All Nick can express, then, is his own frustration. The result is claustrophobic, and the novel ultimately succeeds, as perhaps a Booker prizewinner ought to, as a portrait of our own less political times, rather than a study of the 1980s.