The Line of Beauty joins an illustrious line of novels I’ve read that I admire but am unable to like. It makes me feel better about saying this that I’ve recently been reminded of Henry James’s admission, in “The Art of Fiction,” that “nothing … will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” Like him, I accept that ‘liking’ is a primitive form of criticism (hence the need for appreciation, which at least begins to substitute rigor and objectivity for impressions and idiosyncrasy) but believe we can’t and shouldn’t expect to do without it. A lot of the best literary conversations, in my experience at least, begin there — though they never end there.
It is useful that I can lean a little on James here. For one thing, James’s The Golden Bowl is at the top of the list of novels I’ve read with admiration but no pleasure (along with Madame Bovary and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels — oh, and I mustn’t forget The Good Soldier — I told you it was an illustrious group!). It’s nice to know that James accepts, in principle at least, that some readers will not like his novels. Further, The Line of Beauty is a kind of explicit homage to James — or, perhaps more accurately, an invocation. Its protagonist, Nick Guest, who is repeatedly identified as an “aesthete,” is himself an admirer of the Master, a post-graduate student at work on a thesis about style in the English novel (for which James, of course, is a central case study), and eventually a collaborator in a mostly-pretend project to produce a film adaptation of James’s The Spoils of Poynton. You can hardly turn a page of the novel, or turn around in the world of the novel, without bumping up against James somewhere.
I understand that for some readers that would be a cause for celebration, not complaint. The annoyed claustrophobia I experienced while reading The Line of Beauty vividly reminded me of the intense months I spent with The Golden Bowl as I worked on my essay critiquing Martha Nussbaum’s fixation on it in Love’s Knowledge. In particular, I recalled an essay by Robert Reilla on “Henry James and the Morality of Fiction” which sums up the adulatory smugness evident in the nickname ‘the Master’:
For the Jamesian, the work of James is really above and beyond most other fiction; it is a high palace of art which he enters with genuine reverence, by virtue of those qualities which James himself required of the ideal critic—perception at the pitch of passion, insight that is only once removed from the original creative act. In James’s work the Jamesian perceives the quintessence of conscious art; he learns to delight in the process of total artistic consciousness presenting, or projecting, vessels of consciousness nearly as full as its own. . . For the Jamesian, only James is really satisfactory—other fiction seems fumbling and accidental, or easy and obvious, or simply gross. The Jamesian nearly always speaks from heights; it is impossible for him not to judge by Jamesian standards, because in order to become a Jamesian he has had to ascend to these standards.
For people who like this kind of thing, The Line of Beauty is unquestionably the kind of thing they like: there’s nothing fumbling or accidental here! The Line of Beauty is as elegantly designed and impeccably stylish as a novel about selfish, greedy, superficial people could possibly be. But as Nick thinks about the gorgeous luxury magazine he has edited (named, with perfect self-referentiality, Ogee), “its splendour had a glint to it, a glassy malignity. No,” he goes on, “it was very good. It was lustrous. The lustre was perfected and intense — it was the shine of marble and polish.” It is, in other words, beautiful, but dubiously worthwhile — the magazine, that is. I am not so sure about the novel. Is it possible to lavish such well-crafted sentences on a morally compromised world without glamorizing it? The novel is a satire on the moral and emotional hollowness brought on by the thoughtless pursuit of wealth, power, and gratification, but does its self-consciousness mean that it offers or embodies any kind of alternative? Does it achieve what the magazine — with its full-page ads from Bulgari and BMW — does not? Asked about The Spoils of Poynton, Nick explains,
It’s about someone who loves things more than people. And who ends up with nothing, of course. I know it’s bleak, but then I think it’s probably a very bleak book, even though it’s essentially a comedy.
That is also a pretty good description of The Line of Beauty, but does its presence turn the novel into metafiction? I didn’t think that Nick was sufficiently detached from the life he lives with his wealthy friends (for all that they see him as the outsider, the aesthete) to stand as a critique or to add the missing dimension — call it love, or perhaps humanity. Its absence is felt, and sometimes poignantly conveyed, by the characters, but nothing in the novel fills that space. A vacuum remains where another novelist would have put the contrasting elements, the story that looks beyond the way we live now to the way we could, or should, live tomorrow.
A novel in that spirit, however, or with that form, might not be Jamesian enough for Hollinghurst. It might, for instance, be called Our Mutual Friend. I would like it better — but as James also reminds us, ““the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”